As I’ve written before, one of the general ideas that holds the greatest allure for me is the discovery of long-unheard music and musical practices, of hearing again what is generally agreed to have disappeared and been forgotten, and of realizing that what was assumed to be lost in fact is not. This impulse underlies much musicological research: discovering works long thought to have disappeared, preserving recordings of much earlier performance styles, and (particularly important in my case) the study of historical performance practices—the way historical musics were conceived and performed in their own time. Performance Practices not only encompasses historical instruments but also historical approaches to tuning them, the sorts of technique used to play them, ways of ornamenting, performance contexts (spoiler alert: the polite silence of the modern concert hall would have been more anomalous, historically, than one would think), and much more. All such considerations are highly relevant to situating music and musical performance in its time and culture, which is a central concern of contemporary musicology. Understanding the cultural effect of a famous soprano or piano soloist of a couple of centuries ago by imagining a modern classical performer rather than an ornamenting, improvising, highly individual musical sorceror is a mistake, because what was expected of a musician two centuries ago (for example) is very different from what is expected today.
In brief, the closer we get to the newness that compositions and musical effects had in their time, the closer we are to hearing the magic, and getting to understand and experience it, rather than pallid rehearsals of Received Standard Interpretation. I do exaggerate somewhat (perhaps less than the reader thinks), but it is worth remembering that in most cases music does not set out to be classical; it sets out to delight, persuade, challenge, entertain, and strike to the hearer’s emotional core. Hearing a musical work with the familiarity of one who has studied and performed it, as many musical aficionados do today, is only one very limited kind of listening.
What I want to do is highlight three (fairly) recent examples of what to me are mind-blowing you’d-never-believe-this musical discoveries that have a lot to add to our imagined historical soundscapes.
The first of these is a demonstration of historical reconstruction at its most creative. Nicola Vincentino (1511–76) was a musical visionary who divided the octave into thirty-one microtones (the most common western system today of course divides it into twelve half-steps of equal size), and who invented an enharmonic harpsichord, the “archicembalo,” to play music written for that system. Unsurprisingly, his compositions met with resistance; Vincenzo Galilei, Galileo’s father, wrote:
Don Nicola [i.e., Vicentino] had some students, who, while he played, especially in the enharmonic genus, sang this sort of music composed by him. He had this music performed in all the principal cities of Italy and I have heard it often, in various times and places. Let it be the sign of whether this music pleased or not that after his death it was practised neither by his students nor by anyone else. If by misfortune one of the singers lost his way while singing, it was impossible to put him back on the right track.
Thus this kind of music necessarily required an instrument that could guide the voices of the singers through unknown tracts (not to say through precipitate cliffs), not letting them proceed according to the nature of singing and through a straight path. These particular sounds of the enharmonic … could only be unpleasant to the senses. After Don Nicola’s death the music was not sung anymore; the instruments were no longer played in that manner and his students completely abandoned the enharmonic, not finding anyone who wished to listen to it.
Thus a classic dismissal of one Who Didn’t Get It—I’m sure such statements about the likes of Webern were common also. How in the world might one reconstruct such difficult music, competently enough that it speaks as it ought rather than just excite pity? Well (ahem), obviously—obviously, if you’re Prof. Jonathan Wild at McGill University—you use Auto-Tune Auto-Tune, in the service of Good, not Evil! Here is a blogpost with an interview with Prof. Wild, and here is a CBC feature with music and explanation thereof. It is a veritable banquet.
On the other end of the spectrum, we might consider party music for dancers, players, and drinkers… A rare 1954 Folkways album by one Prince Nazaroff (not, unsurprisingly, his real name)—a hysterical, out-of-tune, Yiddish free-for-all—has resurfaced because a three-continent all-star Klezmer group called the Brothers Nazaroff have recorded a tribute. This is street music, backroom music, music so raw, so pounded and stretched that it had no business being recorded. The commentator Michael Wex aptly described it this way:
“My initial reaction to it was, ‘How the hell did this get recorded?’” he says. “It sounds like the Yiddish-speaking janitor and a bunch of his friends at Folkways broke in one night, and just sort of seized the equipment and started playing songs.”
The NPR feature on the project is to be found here, but fortunately the entire original album is digitized and available from the link above (start with “Freylekh,” the fifth track down). No studied, correct “rejoicing” here; it sounds like several glezelekh bronfn (glasses of whiskey) were consumed before the recording even began. In a sense, this is not music that should ever have been recorded. Rather, this is music made by people stomping the hell out of their instruments, rejoicing like crazy without caring who is watching, and who might not have been able to make a living as a wedding band. So the comparison to garage band or punk band is a good one: these are people who have to slam this stuff out because they’ll plotz otherwise. I suspect there’s no surviving Yiddish culture where this kind of music-making survives without cultivation. This is purely secular Yiddish, I think, and by sixty years later I think the descendants of such people are largely assimilated, musically—certainly, there’s no wider Yiddish musical world in which they might have been nurtured. This is a recording of a culture that has largely vanished, and (fortunately, and fascinatingly) it’s almost entirely unmediated.
Yet another treasure: to my knowledge, there is not a tremendous amount of research on the art of the silent movie pianists. After 1940 it was a retrospective art, and so it didn’t flourish for much more than twenty years. There are some anthologies available, but the most famous has mostly excerpts of published works for pianists to flip through. What’s the point?
The 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians relegated improvisation, if I recall aright, to “such artistic limbos and the dance class and organ loft.” Of course, as a former professional ballet pianist I take offense, but I also take the point. The art of the silent movie accompanist, though, has the potential to be something far subtler, a smooth-as-silk, rapidly changing series of musical excerpts of different styles, moods, characters, etc. This practice lies in a direct line of descent from the sort of music Franz Joseph Haydn was called upon to produce for the theater, as a young man. His audition supposedly began with an impresario shouting, “I’m drowning! Accompany me!” and Haydn had to come up with appropriate music, on the spot, while the man flailed about. André Previn had earned a few bucks this way as a young person, and told an anecdote of when he absentmindedly played “Tiger Rag” during a cinematic version of the Crucifixion. His next activity, I think, was to look for a new job.
Silent movie accompaniment is a subtle art but a vernacular art, as quicksilver-clever as vaudevillians had to be, stemming from a deep well of musical culture, but irrevocably tied to B- and C-movies, with their cheap sentimentality and clichéd action sequences. The best pianists in this line had a real depth, but few pretensions, and they had to be keyed into popular culture in order to serve the public. Here is an interview with just such a pianist, at the end of a long life, with demonstrations. He says he never considered himself a real pianist, his hands were too small, etc.; I myself (with my doctorate in Piano Performance Practices) listen to something like this and wonder what the hell a “real” pianist is, anyway, given that kind of capability. It is a highly worthwhile interview; this sort of music was taken for granted as a more or less ever-present part of culture…and it then promptly disappeared with the advent of “talkies.” Listen, ye Prize-Winning Superpianists, and marvel.
And finally, a speculative reconstruction of the soundscape of historical Paris itself: the echoes, the birds, the whole sonic panorama. This can be explored at leisure. Enjoy!