30 October 2009

Perfect Halloween Music: The Aesthetic Realism of Josquin Desprez’s ‘Mille regretz’

Brueghel – Hunters in Snow – 1565
S ingers in brown or black, in an austere chamber, cold beyond the capacity of their clothing to keep them warm.

F aded Renaissance landscape with fields now harvested and frost well on the pumpkin...


    [50-sec clip, Paul Hillier & Hilliard Ensemble, Josquin Desprez, ‘Mille regretz’, 1.6MB MP3]

T he singers’ gestures are Brueghel-like—some threading their way in the foreground and others in the distance. Denuded woods; hunting; dogs; countertenor; pensive magpies.

V alley of ponds, river meandering through it abjectly. Steeply-roofed houses and steepled churches—unremitting sharpness, pointiness.

H ills upon hills, ruthlessly sharp mountain crags, desolate gray sky. Down below, there’s the mill with its wheel iced-in...

M any people skating, so many as to render us inconsequential, anonymous. We could die! We could vanish and they surely would not notice or miss us. They would forget us.

T he aesthetic ‘continuity’ of Brueghel (and of Josquin?) is, I think, not “reassuring” in the way that poet-aestheticist Eli Siegel once claimed. The continuity is instead terrifyingly indifferent to our existence and passing. Ghosts cannot bear dwindling...

Mille regretz de vous abandonnerA thousand regrets at deserting you    
Et d'eslonger votre fache amoureuse. and leaving behind your loving face.
J'ai si grand dueil et peine douloureuse I feel so much sadness and such painful distress
Qu'on me verra bref mes jours définer.that it seems to me my days must soon dwindle away.


T he singers continue, plying their musical craft... classical singers evoke a monkish existence, lives governed by the demands of Art.

O r is it instead a ghostly one, this singing existence? Mille regretz, singing their own future epitaphs?

T o me, ‘aesthetic realism’ and ‘documentary genre’ are inherently scary. In painting or in music or in film, they are able to conjure a special kind of existential horror, perfect for Halloween. Horror of being skeletonized, forgotten.

D on’t miss the wonderful new book on Josquin, by David Fallows, just released this month...

 David Fallows – Josquin book




29 October 2009

Anonymous 4: Aural Ambitions of Medieval Worship, Modal Fictionalism


T he performance by Anonymous 4 last Saturday evening in the Friends of Chamber Music’s Early Music series was beautiful, without doubt.

  • Marsha Genensky
  • Susan Hellauer
  • Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek
  • Ruth Cunningham
T he program ‘Secret Voices: Music from Las Huelgas, ca. 1300 CE’ of pieces from the Codex Las Huelgas embodies both traditional and emerging aspects of the musical and religious practice of its time. There are motets that manifest secular or para-liturgical aspirations, but the music is also inherently liturgical and devotional.

A s I listened, entranced by the singing, I began to imagine medieval religious thought—the pious thought and feeling that motivated the creation and preservation of the Codex—as a kind of improvisation and ‘modal fictionalism’ that aimed to make the tenets of belief that the text expresses come true or be true. More than an expression of belief or mere devotional act, the words and music seem intent on establishing the possible world in which what the words say really happens. In other words, the impression that struck me was that the Las Huelgas nuns’ practice was far more radical than any ordinary kind of piety.

S ome links to recent books on modal fictionalism are at the bottom of this blog post, for your interest.

Motet Claustrum pudicicie Virgo viget, Triplum
Claustrum pudicicie, virginis triclinium,Cloister of modesty, seat of virginity,
spes tocius leticie...hope of all happiness...
virgo filium fac nobis propicium...Virgin, make your Son merciful to us...

Discant
Fa fa mi fa mi re mi, Fa fa mi fa mi re mi,
Ut mi sol re mi ut fa fa, Ut mi sol re mi ut fa fa,
Fa re fa fa re ut re mi ut re mi. Fa re fa fa re ut re mi ut re mi.  
Est fatuum spernereIt is foolish to despise these
quia musicalia...because they are the elements of music...

Alleluya: Que est ista?
Alleluya!Alleluia!
Que est ista tam formosa,Who is she, so lovely,
pulcra ut luna,beautiful as the moon,
electa ut sol,noble as the sun,
terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata?  awesome as an army arrayed for battle?

B oth the Codex las Huelgas and the Codex Calixtinus (the subject of previous Anonymous 4 recordings and concerts) are noted for their importance in understanding the development of 12th and 13th Century polyphony. They are important on account of their scope, fine condition, and readability. There are oddities of alignment between the voices (see the reproduction manuscripts, links below). In the note-against-note style, it was fairly clear which notes went together, since they pair off nicely with few exceptions. On the other hand, when the upper voice is allowed to have more than one note for every note in the lower voice, it’s hard to determine on which notes the two voices coincide. Karp’s book is a good place to begin understanding the intervalic alignments and dissonances, especially the note-against-note portions.

R hythmic and metrical ambiguities in the notation also reveal how much improvisational latitude there is (was). These ambiguities and the performance decisions and interactions between the ensemble members last Saturday night were the cause of my meditations on modal fictionalism. The ambiguities are obliterated in modern transcriptions (like these), so you really need to look at [facsimiles of] the original Codices. Is the meter duple or triple?


P ossible-worlds semantics for modality says that an expression is possibly true if it is true in some possible world. In classical propositional logic, one can show that every logically-consistent set of propositions can be embedded in a ‘maximal consistent set’. A ‘maximal consistent set’ is an abstraction of a ‘possible world’—for the nuns of the Codex, a possible world where Mary is really Queen and all members of the Order really are virtuous. But the abstraction depends on the fact that modal logics are ‘finitary’, and it seems false that an infinite collection of sets of sentences—each finite subset of which is intuitively ‘possible’ in natural language—has the property that the whole set is possible.

S o questions about necessity (or what ‘has to be’, or what ‘must be true’, or what cannot be otherwise) and possibility (or what can be, or what could be otherwise) are questions about modality—and such questions are what the works that comprised the Anonymous 4’s ‘Secrets of las Huelgas’ program so strongly evoked.

F ictionalism is a philosophical approach which treats the claims or assertions as analogous to fictional claims: claims that are not asserted literally, but which are put forward to serve a specific useful function of deliberation. There is even a modal fictionalism in theoretical mathematics (link below).

B ut, despite the name ‘modal fictionalism’, it’s not primarily fictionalism about claims of necessity and possibility, but rather a fictionalist approach to claims about possible worlds. (For instance, modal fictionalism is not normally fictionalist about the claim that “it is possible that there be a species of tail-less kangaroo”, but rather about the claim that “there is a possible world in which there is a species of tail-less kangaroo”.)

T heories employing possible-worlds constructs have been found to be very useful in philosophy—‘thought experiments’, basically, to discover the implications and meanings of constellations of propositions. The ‘modal fictionalism’ approach has been extensively applied over the past 30 years in ethics and in areas other than philosophy, like linguistics, logic, and probability theory.

I sn’t it extravagant to believe that just because a situation or constellation of facts is possible, it must in some sense exist? ‘Weak modal fictionalists’ say ‘yes’ to this; they take commitments to the existence of possible worlds that are constructed in the mind—merely hypothetical situations, non-actual but possible situations—to be strictly or possibly false, and so they avoid the problems of believing in possible worlds. Nevertheless, they claim, they derive the epistemological benefits of using these seemingly problematic theories.

I  think that the the nuns of Las Huelgas ca. 1300 may have been what we would today call ‘strong’ modal fictionalists—who say it is not extravagant at all.

A  wonderful performance, with much food for thought...

S    ince the late 12th Century, the Cathedral of Santiago in Compostela has possessed a manuscript entitled ‘Jacobus’ (Codex Calixtinus). How it found its way to Compostela is unknown, but it is undoubtedly a French product, probably compiled or writtin in Cluny around 1150. Although they represent a mere 10% of the music in Jacobus, the polyphonic works have received attention from scholars because they are among the earliest such pieces to have been written down. But the notation in Jacobus is ambiguous as to rhythm and meter, as well as to alignment of the pitches between the voice parts in the polyphony...”
  —  Susan Hellauer, Anonymous4 CD liner notes.







03 October 2009

Akuma no ma: Nareh Arghamanyan, Romanticism and Nogaku-like Meter

 Nareh Arghamanyan, photo (c) Yori Daviyas
P ianist Nareh Arghamanyan delivered a romantic tour de force last night, in her performance in the Friends of Chamber Music’s Master Pianists series.

  • Mendelssohn: Variations Sérieuse, Op. 54
  • Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
  • Chopin: Polanise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61
  • Schumann: Humoreske in B-flat Major, Op. 20
T he Humoreske’s radical changes in mood are humorous? Not so much. There is a ‘laughing-while-crying’ perplexity in there, which Nareh honors and turns round and round. The “innere Stimme” inner voices... the narrative that is not a proper narrative, more a confession to oneself than a narrative directed to an audience as such. (Was the origin of this 1839 piece presaging the development of Schumann’s mental illness? Did it arise in acoustic hallucinations, possibly?)

S lavoj Žižek writes about ‘missing melodies’ in Schumann’s Humoreske in The Parallax View (pp. 365-6) and perceives some of the same peculiarities of this piece that Arghamanyan devotes extra attention to...

I  think more about her playing... It strikes me that Arghamanyan’s romanticism is like Japanese Nogaku music. The non-Euclidean, non-deterministic aspects: free-rhythm, but freedom that is studied, controlled... Metric inexactitude that is curiously exact in its inexactness; rubato, dilation of the meter—all of these are required, in service of the thing she wants to express. Nagauta, uki-ma: slightly lengthening early beats in a phrase; tsume-ma: slightly shortening early beats. Akuma no ma: “The Devil’s Meter”.

T he Humoreske’s capricious changes of mood, the loose concatenation of the disparate sections of the piece—not movements exactly; their beginnings and endings are not meant to be clear, and this decoupled, spontaneous, narrative feeling is something that Arghamanyan achieves beautifully. There’s nominally the opposition of the meditative character of Schumann/Eusebius with the extroverted moods of Florestan, inner voices in the score, the voice of Clara and her G minor Romance. The music moves impulsively forward with dramatic excitement, a short pause followed by emphatic chords that give way submissively to the final section and dramatic outbursts.

B ut Arghamanyan’s rhythmic choices made Schumann and Chopin seem especially—and very plausibly—‘interior’, ‘sensitive’. The romantic ‘decoupling’ (steady LH, free RH) is an effect that she never over-uses.

T he Mendelssohn and the Bach BWV 974 encore revealed Arghamanyan’s [shōmyō-like] rhythmic/metric style even more strikingly. Her shifts of tempo, tone color, and articulation are blended into a subtly modulated flow—modulated not only by the personality of the music, but also by the empathetic personality of this Hamburg Steinway and its lively double-crowned soundboard. Her performance style is so ‘about the music’ and so not about herself. (By the way, I hope this is an instrument that FCM decides to acquire. It is one of several that have been provided by Steinway & Sons on approval. I think last night’s performance was the first concert where this wonderful instrument has been heard in the Folly Theater.)

I n sum, gorgeous playing by Arghamanyan throughout... insightful interpretations that enabled us to see and appreciate new things, things we never noticed before, things we’d never have discovered without her help.

S    chumann’s ‘Humoreske’ was among the first to demonstrate that purely instrumental music can be humorous.”
  —  Enrique Arias, Comedy in Music.