Recorded in 2005
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This is music of the shadows; music of sublime subtlety. It is candlelit and wood-grained; intimate to its core.
It is music of solitude that has never encountered an electric light bulb let alone an amplifier. (No small irony in an exquisite, sharply etched digital recording such as this).
Its existence in the shadows has several dimensions. An obvious evocation can be suggested in the space between harmonic shifts, indeed the spaciousness of the harmonies themselves. A creative tension between the harmonic and polyphonic, the vertical and the horizontal is palpable in the instrumental music of Purcell. A less immediate umbrous connection can be suggested in speculating about the origins of the English viol repertoire. The repertoire for consorts of viols, created over several centuries by composers such as Tye, Dowland, Hume, Lawes, Locke, Jenkins as well as Purcell, is remarkable in many ways. It has been claimed that the extraordinary and often quite radical chamber music of these composers owes its origins in part to a surreptitious response bordering on defiance, of the imposition of new religious rites associated with the establishment of the Church of England in the first half of the 16th century.
One might ponder the apparent contradictions between the brutality of the Tudor Monarchs and the supremely poetic utterances of these composers. These were times in which one did not dare to protest too openly for fear of being hung, drawn and quartered. Yet within these lachrymaes and fantasias is a sense of suffering and anguish. Here is a bittersweet delicacy. Here is music written for the deepest recesses of the human spirit, by composers expressing an ineffable sadness about the world in which they lived.
While it is important not to make too much of the sociological context of these composers so as to detract from the absolute potency of their work, perhaps there is something slightly anarchic in this music.
A chance discussion with Jordi Savall some years ago continues to tantalise. He suggested that the origins of the string quartet should not be traced to Haydn and the Court at Esterhazy rather to these English composers and their music for all sorts of numbers and configurations of viols. He strongly asserted the uniqueness of this genre and argued that it represented something quite unprecedented in the development of instrumental music as compared with other parts of Europe at the time. He was even bold enough to speculate as to whether these composers rather than those of the Classical era such as Beethoven were in fact among the first to produce an absolute music; a music that exists for its own sake and does not immediately or directly relate to an extra-musical, corporeal or religious purpose.
By the time Purcell rose to prominence, music for viols was a well established genre, one that was even considered a little passe. In a sense, his career represents a late flowering of a fascinating tradition. The times in which he lived were less perilous than his predecessors like Tye or Dowland. Nevertheless, his contribution to the repertoire retains much of their spirit. Purcell's music for consorts of viols is highly refined and technically demanding. Each line of the intricately crafted counterpoint is sufficiently exposed to place enormous demands on individual players. Navigating between the harmonic ambiguity of Purcell's melodic lines and an unpredictable instrument was never going to be easy. Purcell's imagination seems to understand this equivocal relationship perfectly.
Purcell is in fact several composers rolled into one. A renowned composer of operas who according to the publisher Henry Playford had a genius for expressing "the energy of English words". The exuberance and vitality of his dramatic and court works is balanced by the intensity and starkness of his music for consorts of viols. Purcell's career coincided with the reopening of many of London's theatres following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Having fulfilled his public obligations to king, court and church, perhaps Purcell felt a greater freedom to express his most private thoughts through the music he wrote for small gatherings of like-minded, highly skilled colleagues.
In contrast to our own times, the sound world of Purcell was unamplified and entirely acoustic. Even the raucous chaos of the marketplace was straightforward by comparison to the schizophonia of electronic technology. What you heard is what you got. It also described quite directly, where you were. It was not possible to simulate being anywhere else; random samplings of other musics and confused contexts, postmodern or otherwise, were to be things of the future.
This last decade, let alone half-century, has seen a total technological transformation of music and music making. Opportunities seem to have expanded exponentially in every direction; from old to very new, from intimate machines to mass markets. Everything has changed; the way music is recorded and distributed, the way scores are produced and published, as well as the electronic and computer derived sonic processes available to contemporary composers. As a composer I am aware of the many exciting developments in instrumental techniques to be found throughout the contemporary repertoire. All manner of hybrid techniques such as vocalising into wind and brass instruments, or the quasi-Duchampian "preparation" of pianos through the insertion of an array of "found objects" such as erasers, bolts, wedges and nails between the stings, as well as more straightforward techniques of scordatura, multiphonics, and using conventional instruments for their percussive potential; all this has become standard to the point of ubiquity. An intriguing parallel process of discovery has been going on in ancient music too. (As an aside, for the purposes of this essay, when I refer to early or ancient music, period, original or authentic instruments, I intend to describe the now well-established practice of using actual instruments or authoritative reproductions of those instruments as the basis of performances which attempt to faithfully reproduce the circumstances of the original performance of a particular work).
Since the early 1960s all manner of musicological research and performing ensembles have begun to attempt to reconstruct the way in which early music was first performed. It is an imprecise process of trial and error, of scholarly sleuthing. From inauspicious beginnings, the results today are mostly exhilarating. So much so that it is now difficult for orchestras and large ensembles of modern instruments to perform baroque and increasingly, even early classical music, with the same degree of critical acclaim, as the plethora of specialist authentic instrument ensembles. This phenomenon has led to a vast expansion of the range of repertoire available for recording and performance. A visit to any CD shop today will yield riches unavailable two decades ago; recordings of 12th century plainchant and monody, medieval madrigals, passion plays, operas and oratorios by composers who were, until recently, curiosities only among rarefied musicological circles. So successful has this movement been that there are now whole festivals dedicated to this newly available treasure trove. As a composer myself, I consider the explorations of early music groups highly relevant to my own search for new forms of instruments and musical expression. In some ways composers like John Cage and Harry Partch would surely feel a strong affinity with Gustav Leonhardt or Marcel Peres. They are looking for similar things. Most importantly performances on period instruments has put in context the relatively recent history of performance practice on what are called for want of a better word "modern" instruments and their use of equal temperament and standardised pitch.
Technological refinements in instrument design and construction, especially pertaining to wind and brass instruments beginning in the early 19th century were a major influence on the vast expansion of orchestral resources. They enabled the harmonic, and specifically the modulatory ambitions of composers from the time of Haydn and other early symphonists, to become increasingly radical to the point where, by the time of Wagner and Bruckner, modulations to keys as distant, as for example the flattened supertonic, became commonplace. Indeed after the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, it could be argued that the whole notion of key structures and modulations themselves becomes ambiguous almost redundant. At the same time as the concept of harmony was being challenged and redefined, often in quite radical ways, the formation of groups of instruments into what is now a symphony orchestra was at the beginnings of being understood. The expansion of the orchestral palate was undoubtedly a heady, intoxicating moment in the progress of Western European music. And composers such as Berlioz provided some quite thrilling, if occasionally absurdly grandiose insights, into the compositional opportunities of their time. All this came at a price, or at the very least with a trade-off. The larger the ensemble, the more standardised is the need for each individual instrument.
The most fundamental shift was to be experienced in relation to the organisation of pitch itself. The basis upon which instruments are tuned was, by degrees altered. A system of simple ratios, of pure intervals, and to my mind extraordinary timbral richness, was modified. There were many compelling and mathematically complex reasons for replacing mean-tone temperament and just intonation with equal temperament. Yet for those who have experienced the purity of just intervals there is a real sense of compromise when one experiences equal temperament again. Nothing sounds quite right. One quickly realises that everything is very slightly out of tune, albeit all by the same very small degree. Whereas musical instruments had been quirky and temperamental (I use the word advisedly), they became more predictable and certainly easier to play. Indeed supreme virtuosity itself goes hand in hand with modifications and refinements to various musical instruments during the 19th century. Differences between instruments of the same type were reduced, making it possible to expand instrumental ensembles into performances with more elaborate structures.
Whenever I hear a natural horn, experience a vocal ensemble performing a motet in just intonation, and perhaps most especially when I listen to a consort of viols, I celebrate the irregularities and idiosyncrasies that are so characteristic of period instruments. Whereas one can marvel at the pure virtuosity of a violinist grappling with a Paganini caprice, the relationship between a violist and his fantasia is of a different dimension. At once infinitely more mysterious and subtle, there is revealed in the sonic contours of these instruments a sense of the struggle for existence; for the sound to emerge from the instrument with any sense of beauty, is itself a real challenge. In listening to this CD by the Ricercar Consort directed by Philippe Pierlot, I am reminded of a statement by another English composer, Trevor Wishart. Contemplating the advent of electro-acoustic composition, of digital computer synthesis and other recent technological advances, Wishart compares the process of composition to walking along a beach. Until quite recently, a composer on his metaphorical beach would spend hours searching for shells of exactly the same shape, size, colour and consistency. Since the proliferation of digital technology that stroll has taken on a completely different complexion. Now he searches for the most unusual, hybrid, multifaceted, multicoloured, distorted shells. The shells are no longer placed in separate piles. Each shell examined for its individuality and most especially for its imperfections. It is from these quirks and idiosyncrasies that a new poetry is possible. A place of symmetry has become a place for alchemy.
Understanding the implications of Wishart's ramble on a beach strikes at the core of a contemporary context for music. What is so exciting about listening to Purcell's music for consorts of viols, is being so constantly aware of the fragility of harmonic relationships, of the tenuousness of the timbral relationships between each of these viols; each the same species of instrument and yet each one a very different instrument. And what is so profoundly affecting about the fragility and tenuousness of this music is the way in which it echoes the frailty of life itself and the brittleness of our uncertain existence. Maybe we have come full-circle. This statement is not without irony. In an era which actively mitigates against moments of private contemplation and solitude, where every waking and some would say even subconscious minute is saturated with competing sensory stimuli, moments of stillness, of austere solitude, are almost alien experiences. The very technology that so ubiquitously crowds our lives provides a prism through which the special secrets of this haunting music yield themselves. The grain of the carefully varnished timber curves, the frets of the fingerboard and the friction of a bow are brought into new relief.
In listening to this CD I am inspired by a sense of reconnecting to whole facets of our musical heritage that are made available once more. The experience is an active and exciting journey of rediscovery; of the thrill of hearing again for the very first time, through timbres and temperaments long abandoned. I am on Trevor Wishart's beach, and by some miracle the past has been washed up by the tide.
- Jonathan Mills (Australian composer and Director of the Edinburgh International Festival from 2007)