Sunday, March 12, 2006

Early Music

I came of musical age in the 1970s, near the beginning of the "original instruments" movement, before the term "historically-informed performance" was used to describe the kind of playing that came from applying information found in historical music treatises to modern-day playing of music written before the era of recorded music.

My first early music experience happened on New Year's Eve in 1971 or so when I heard Franz Bruggen play the recorder on a television program. I believe he played some Van Eyck pieces (it was late—around midnight, and I was young—11 or 12, so I don't know for sure). What I do know for sure is that it was at that moment that I wanted to play some kind of flute. I thought that they were pretty much all alike, so I went for the modern one that was in my house when my mother could no longer play it because of her arthritis.

My next encounter with early music came when I discovered a New York Pro Musica recording of Monteverdi madrigals from the 1950s in my parents' record collection (actually it was part of the collection that they never played, so I just co-opted the recording). Then came a recording by the same ensemble made in the 1970s of the first printed collections of music printed by Petrucci. I discovered Josquin Des Pres. It was recommended to me by my violinist neighbor Jane Starkman, who told me that she was going to Holland to work with Franz Bruggen. Of course I bought the recording immediately.

When I got to Juilliard in 1976 the basic attitude of the students there was that people who devoted their time to learning to play "period instruments" were people who were otherwise hopeless on modern instruments. Not wanting to be hopeless, I stayed away from touching anything resembling a baroque instrument, but did spend a lot of time playing my modern flute with harpsichordists and thinking about Monteverdi and Josquin.

My last year at Juilliard I finally got the chance to hear Franz Bruggen play a concert. After hearing him play I was convinced that I needed to learn to play the recorder. I believed that instrument was the key to what I wanted to do musically as a flutist. I got to talk with Bruggen back stage for a few minutes about the possibility of studying with him. Later I was told that the "early music" scene in Holland, where Bruggen lived and taught, was a rather sexually open "scene." This intimidated and scared me, so I set my musical future compass on the possibility of learning to play baroque music in one of the other European countries. I was interested in learning about the music, not the "lifestyle."

When I got to Europe I found myself in the lucky position of getting a teaching job, and the main part of the job was to teach recorder. I had to teach myself the instrument in a hurry, which was a total pleasure. I still wanted to find out the "secret" of the baroque style, so I moved to Vienna and studied with a very fine recorder teacher named Hans Maria Kneihs. To my surprise what I learned from Hans was basic musicianship. I learned how to use the various attributes of the recorder and the tongue to accomplish certain musical objectives, but Hans's main concerns had to do with the basic musical concepts of playing in tune, in rhythm, and making musical sense out of the phrases in front of him. I'm sure that there was scholarship involved, but there were no stylistic "gimmicks."

It was at a master class with Hans and his students that I discovered the baroque flute. Somebody had one. I tried to play it, and it sounded horrible. When I returned to Boston I was able to buy one that was easy to play, and I set out to teach myself to play by using exercises by Frederick the Great (I know now that they were written for Frederick by Quantz) and the baroque music in the flute repertoire. Then I heard that there was an excellent baroque flutist in Boston named Chris Krueger, so I went to him for lessons. I learned the same stuff from Chris that I learned from Hans: Basic musicianship.

Now I know that the style of a piece of music is something imbedded in that piece. I also know that outside "rules" applied to music in the wrong way (like using French ornamentation in a piece of German music) is pretty distasteful. I have learned to read treatises with a sense of the motivation of the writer, and my sense is that Quantz (who wrote the mother of all flute methods) was trying his best to get Frederick to play tastefully. Likewise with Leopold Mozart when he wrote about vibrato. He didn't want string players to imitate singers who used a tremolo type vibrato. People read this "lack of vibrato" clause as a stylistic affect that can be applied to make "early music" sound "authentic." A gimmick. A trick. I personally think that a natural vibrato is a lovely thing.

Most of what I have learned about playing "early music" comes from playing baroque music on good copies of the instruments it was written for. Anyone who wants to learn to play in an appropriate baroque style would do well to buy or borrow an appropriate instrument and learn to play it from scratch and always apply the rules of good musicianship.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Music Competitions

I tend to think of music as the opposite of a competitive sport, but it seems that the major "measure" of musical accomplishment is how musicians fare in competition. Competitions are acceptable for things that you can measure, like how fast someone can run, swim, or bike, or how high someone can jump, but accomplishment in music goes so much deeper than the superficial. Unfortunately it is the superficial elements that get judged in a competition: how cleanly someone plays, how well in tune, how flawlessly. Flawlessness seems to be the measure of musical accomplishment for even the kindest and most musical of judges. It is my experience that when flawlessness is the goal, the chance for true musical expression to enter a given performance is slim.

"Classical" musicians make up a very small percentage of the population. I think it is insane that we have to compete with one another in order to get some kind of recognition or have some kind of career as performers. I have a "no competition" clause in my personal approach to music making. I have no desire to be, or play, or write better than anyone else, but I have a deep desire to play well, to have contact with like-minded musicians, and to bring people together with music.

Young people need to have chances to perform without being judged. Young people need to have the opportunity to reach and enrich the people who are listening to them. They need to learn that music is something that unites us all. They need to learn that an honest and expressive performance of a piece accomplishes much more than winning a prize. That should be the "goal" of all musicians.

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