Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Sound before Time

            It was misty; it may have been early afternoon, or early morning, or even dusk. Lake Annecy looked like a massive sapphire inset in a necklace of platinum hills, and even at age 7 I was moved.

I remember we walked into a monastery. There was some sort of sacred chant coming from somewhere.  Odd, because we were seemingly the only people. In fact, maybe I imagined it. But I think I cried a little bit. Sometimes I think my sensitivity to certain sounds borders on a disability; and that was one of many moments in my life when music became God, and I couldn’t speak. Mom asked me something, and I just shook my head. Everything but the sound dissipated.

Heavy stuff for a little kid. I’ve always been weird like that.


So maybe that little event is the root of my developing life passion – early music. Sound before time, I say – that is, essentially, the sounds before Bach. The past two weeks, ending last Saturday, I was in an early opera workshop at the Seattle Academy of Opera, directed by Stephen Stubbs. From August 13-22 we rehearsed, coached, and staged a program of opera scenes from the 17th century, most from Italy, but one (massive) French work and one (hilarious) British work.

“Early opera?” You say. “What?”

Essentially, opera before functional harmony and counterpoint became codified in the early 18th century.

“Of course!” You say.


Let’s just say that, when you think of classical music, you probably think of stuffy, structured, heavily intellectual music from which entertainment is not a goal but a by-product reserved for those “in the know”. While I don’t think this has to be the case at all with music written post-Bach, it doesn’t help that the work of the latter, Mozart, and everyone up until Debussy (who threw a bitch-fit about it at the Paris Conservatoire) was created with hoards of texts and rules and treatises in mind – most of which were written after the composition of the opera scenes we worked on this month. Not that there weren't any guidelines to writing this early music - but the obsession with form, harmony and counterpoint that characterizes the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods was not at it's viral peak.

So I’ve been thinking, as a highly intellectual composer myself and major adherent to organized sound – is it really necessary to set these compositional rules in stone? Aren’t these rules just vocalized versions of what is inherent? So why bother making a big deal out of them, and take cues from Monteverdi and, more or less, let it happen? I’m not sure. I don’t, by any means, believe that beauty, entertainment, and intellect are mutually exclusive – after all,  Bach and Mozart are two of my Gods - but there is something about this 17th century music that is raw, real, and relevant. Honestly, I think music of 1600 has more in common with music of 2000 than it does with anything written between 1700 and 1899.  Whether this is “better”, I don’t know, but based on the thoughts of non-musicians that responded to my performance on Saturday, there is something so natural, expressive, and accessible about early music.

So all of us involved in this sound-before-time world are set on bringing it to the masses – and helping everyone discover that there really isn’t much difference between Bob Dylan rocking out on his guitar and Barbara Strozzi strumming the hell out of her lute.

I should point out that I am not a musicologist - I am a theorist. My place is not to explain the "why" - the historical and social background of musical advancements -  but the "how" - the cut-and-dry mathematics of why things sound the way they do. I sit down with a score and do an analysis of the elements that are present, not necessarily the factors that made them be (although, of course, there is much overlap). In such a way, I am fascinated with the inherent similarities and differences of pre-rule and post-rule harmony. Amazing that the harmonies can be so similar, but the ways of expressing them, so different.

Someday, maybe as a doctoral thesis, I want to explore why it is that post-Wagner, composers wanted to explore pre-Rameau. And consequently, why compositions of these respective periods are theoretically so similar. What is natural to our ears? Did the rules help or hinder? Because they broke for a reason, right?

Maybe people aren’t meant to follow rules. They never seem to last.

Just some food for thought.


Here’s a piece by Charpentier that I’ve completely fallen for. Harmonically very simple, and certainly it wouldn't sound outlandish to Bach or Mozart, but there is something about the leisurely approach that is very intriguing. The ground bass doesn't really change; its like a beautiful flower pot out of which the voices are required to do nothing but express. 

Let it take you to that misty French lake and that dark monastery.

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