Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Academy for Music and Theory 2011

The Orpheus Institute’s yearly Academy intends to build bridges between theory and music, the latter meaning the artistic practice. For this year, three scholars were invited to discuss Aspects of Artistic Experimentation in Early Music. Mark Lindley (US), Martin Kirnbauer (CH) and Edward Wickham (UK) worked with a selective international audience of pre- and post-doc theorists, performers and composers. Lindley handled tunings and temperaments in music by Bach and French harpsichordists, Kirnbauer revealed the ins and outs of enharmonic music on the cembalo cromatico, and Wickham brought in expertise on performing musica ficta from manuscript parts. For each perspective, performers were involved to artistically demonstrate specific arguments and points.

Orpheus Instituut, Academy for Music and Theory 2011, artistic research, artistic experimentation 
Academy 2011 - lecturers and participants (© Joyce)

More information on the details of this year’s incarnation can be found on the relevant Orpheus Institute webpage. Particularly worth highlighting here is the way Lindley’s case was the more perfect demonstration of the difference between music theory and ‘music & theory’, ultimately including how music theory can impact artistic research. His first lecture delved into the interpretative nuances that different meantone temperaments can offer the performer in scores by French harpsichord composers such as Couperin and Rameau, building strong cases for how the composers had played with this potential when composing. A pregnant example I found to be Louis Couperin’s passacaglia in g minor. Depending on the tuning, the Eb-G third in the third bar resonates by the greatest number of beats per seconds compared to the other, more ‘dead’ thirds. The potential for the harmony in the third bar to ‘open up’ has obvious implications for the way the performer builds the sequence in this opening phrase.

Louis Couperin, Passacaglia in g minor, artistic research, Mark Lindley

Extending the modus operandi to Bach, Lindley devoted his second lecture to the implementation of a tuning of his own devising on the first book of Bach’s Wohltemperirte Clavier. A regular theory conference would have had to take note of the unsettled dispute between Lindley and Brad Lehman. The latter also devised a particular temperament for Bach’s masterpiece, based on a perceived indication that Bach himself would have integrated cryptically into an ornament of the manuscript’s frontispiece. Both scholars vehemently defend their ground (read about it in minute detail here), but in the framework of the Orpheus Academy, this debate is besides the point. Lindley had asked for two contemporary pianos, one tuned to his system, the other in equal temperament. Performing preludes and fugues (Lindley, with the help of pianist Cecilia Oinas), Lindley convincingly demonstrated how mean-tone temperament (his or someone else’s) has a compelling influence on the performer when making decisions about phrasing, articulation, even about the general aesthetics of the interpretative approach. Beyond the insight that equal temperament has almost destroyed our ears (eminently warned against by Ross W. Duffin, and experienced by every participant of the Academy who needed to strain the ear to adjust to the nuances that sometimes only Lindley seemed trained to hear), the ultimate point Lindley impressed his audience with was how a present-day pianist need not become a harpsichordist who tunes his own instrument: awareness of these fine nuances and how they relate to tonal character is enough to inspire the interpretation of a pianist, even when s/he plays on a well-tempered instrument.

The papers will be issued as part of the ongoing series Collected Writings of the Orpheus Institute (see here for previous volumes). Next year’s Academy will treat experimentation in the 19th century.

Orpheus Instituut, Academuy for Music and Theory 2011, Johan Sebastian Bach, artistic research, Mark Lindley
Lindley on Bach (© Joyce)

Saturday, April 02, 2011

AR at the Master level

Answering to an invitation by a conservatory to be part of the jury assessing the artistic research projects of its Master students, I found myself taking a sample of the youngest generation of potential artistic researchers in an institution that wants to answer to the challenge of preparing them for an AR future.

In total 48 students presented their research, of which I saw 8. The range of projects and creative ideas was inspiring: an aspiring ballet accompanist collected professional experiences, insights and habits that are normally left inaccessible to anyone outside of the little circle made by this type of pianists; a cimbalom player who was a musically illiterate virtuoso when entering the conservatory made some stunningly effective transcriptions of Debussy piano works; another pianist came up with evidence to refute the attention that is normally given to Bellini when considering bel canto influences in music by Chopin; etc. It was heartwarming to see the efforts made to enter the new field of AR.

Although it could seem that some students didn't always grasp all the basic characteristic of a research attitude, it was in fact the lack of clarity and focus of the conservatory AR policy that best explained the uneven quality of what was offered. While some of the teachers (who were part of the jury) showed precise affinity with the essentials of AR, others had no clue. Nobody seemed to know whether a written report was actually required, some confused the lesser distance between subject and object (as compared to purely scientific research) with a complete lack of neutrality towards the research topic. The result was an often poor supervision of students that had greater potential than they ended up being taught to take advantage of.

Besides the lack of a fully worked out vision for implementing AR on a Masters level, the short supply of Doctors in the Arts must be taken into account. It is very much to be hoped that many doctorandi graduate in the shortest term possible, and that they find their way to the Higher Education institutions. Provided that those create post-doc positions for this expertise.

Something else struck me: one student delivered a splendid presentation, accompanied by a top-notch written-out report of a research project that left nothing to be wished for. While studying at the conservatory, she was also preparing for a PhD in Informatics. There is no doubt that her academic master had prepared her for applying - all by herself - the necessary standards to her AR project. Considering that academic masters do not really include courses specifically engineered to gain sufficiency in scholarly standards, it is curious to see that immersion in the academic biotope is enough to make up for the shortcomings of a traditional conservatory education aiming to integrate AR in the curriculum.