The new continuo?

Ekmeles is currently preparing a performance of several of Gesualdo’s madrigals, applying a tuning that is a combination of historical fact and conjecture – Vicentino’s 31-note division of the octave. There is a surfeit of forgotten theories of the tuning of musical instruments and performances, including many that were likely never used in performance.┬áNicola Vicentino (1511-1575) went a step further than many theorists, actually building and designing instruments capable of producing the scalar divisions he proposed mathematically. He devised the archiorgano, and the archicembalo, respectively an organ and a harpsichord capable of playing 31 (roughly) equal divisions of the octave, allowing free modulation through the keys in a mean-tone tuning, and application of the ancient Greek enharmonic genus. Scipione Stella, a composer at Gesualdo’s court, made a copy of the archicembalo – thus our historical conjecture.

Vicentino himself was a madrigalist, though it is recorded that his enharmonic vocal works were never performed without the harmonic support of a player at the archicembalo. This idea of needing continuo in the context of difficult intonation reminded me of the place singers of contemporary music often find ourselves – ears attached to computer synthesized tracks of our pitches. As readers of the blog will know, I am an advocate for making use of all technological tools possible in the course of learning difficult music. What I am interested in exploring is performing with these computer crutches. Of course, in some cases (like Martin Iddon‘s commission for Ekmeles, Hamadryads, or Aaron Cassidy‘s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips) the in-ear pitch component of the piece is a considered and integral part of the piece.

But what about when the composer hasn’t asked that a pitch track be used, and precise intonation is just too difficult, whether because of short rehearsal time, vocal considerations, or extremely small divisions of the octave? Is performing with a pitch track in our ears just cheating or is it the new continuo? Is the vitality and authenticity of a performance threatened by adherence to a mechanical version of the work which, by literally blocking the ears, supersedes the natural interaction of the performers? Thanks are due to a 16th-century Italian composer for raising these very modern questions – but more importantly, what do you think?

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One comment

  1. I’m not familiar w/Martin Iddon’s Hamadryads, but I can’t help but imagine there being a point for many types of microtonal music where the ‘pitch track’ is no longer helpful, and in fact is a hindrance to the interaction among players.

    Maybe my imagination just falls short. Aaron Cassidy’s ‘I, purples..’ is solo, so it skirts this interpersonal issue, and then the pitches change each time too..

    All in all its a performers decision how to best spend their time, right? Good to have as many tools as possible, but not at the expense of internalizing and interacting. The end point may be still using them, but turning them down a lot so the listening aspect of performing isn’t marginalized.

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