This part of the exposition will focus on our development of improvisation within styles of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and show some of the results as presented in the concert Mouvance I. Mass. It contains several short audio excerpts from the concert, some musical notation, and a video documentation of the full concert available at the end of the page.
Improvisation within historical styles, often referred to as "historical improvisation", is an activity receiving more and more attention within the field of Historically Informed Performance (HIP). Some early music departments offer courses in historical improvisation (e.g. Hochschule für Musik und Theater "Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy" in Leipzig, the Royal Conservatoire The Hague and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis), and the number of ensembles and performers who in some way or other incorporate improvisation into their performances of early music is by now so high that a comprehensive survey would be futile. Concentrating on the improvisation of polyphony in the styles of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and more precisely the cantare super librum where the polyphony is improvised over a pre-existing melody, the picture becomes less profuse. I will nevertheless not attempt a comprehensive account here, but limit myself to the musicians and researchers who had a more direct influence on our work. (For a more thorough and relatively recent overview over improvised polyphony in artistic practice and musicology, as well as a discussion on different notions of the term improvisation, see Berentsen.)1
We have worked closely with prof. Barnabé Janin (Conservatoire National Supérieur Musique et Danse de Lyon), whose experience in improvisation of polyphony in a number of historical styles with the ensembles Le Chant sur le Livre, Obsidienne, and Ensemble Coclico was of very high value to us. In developing this leg of our project, we were also inspired by workshops on improvisation held by his colleagues in Le Chant sur le Livre, Jean-Yves Haymoz, Pierre Funck and Raphaël Picazos. Finally, I would like to mention and thank Dr Niels Berentsen, who kindly shared with me his PhD treatise "New Approaches to Vocal Polyphonic Improvisation 1300–1470" prior to its publication.2 His project is naturally highly relevant to our undertaking.
Goals and research questions
As I have argued in an essay available on Research Catalogue, historical probability does not function as an aesthetic goal.3 We see HIP as a methodological field, an artistic process where part of the decision-making is based on interpretations of a selection of historical sources. The study of historical material serves to question our practices and habits, helps us imagine and search for other solutions or other ways of thinking and creating music. With our project, we wanted to question our notions of music and our typical compartmentalisation of music-making into composers and compositions, performers and performances, and the juxtaposition of composition and improvisation. One of the reasons for choosing late medieval sources was that the terms "composer", "composition", and "improvisation" were not in common use in this period.4 We wanted to explore this kind of music-making, less dependent on performances of stable pieces and more dependent on the capacity of the participants to spontaneously create a common expression, in a flat ensemble structure and with common authorship.
The goal was not to uncover, restore, or re-enact with any kind of accuracy any historical practice – an impossible task for a number of obvious reasons. Leaving aside hermeneutical discussions on the shifting understandings of the past, what we currently believe to understand of medieval music culture cannot replace our culture in the course of a three-year project. Knowing that medieval musical culture involved concepts of visual, tactile, and auditive organisation and memorisation tremendously different from our own (from general theory of the modes, to the Guidonian hand, solmisation of hexachords, musica recta/ficta, and down to the number of lines and the types of clefs used in staff notation), does not replace or overwrite our basic musical training, culture, and instinct. What one can do, is to introduce a limited number of historical concepts, and see how these interact with the musicianship of the participants.
We wanted to find out what kind of music we would be able to make when we went beyond reading medieval scores to creating the polyphony together. We wanted to see what kind of medieval sounding polyphony we would we be able to improvise, how the process of developing the necessary skills could influenced our performance both as individuals and as an ensemble, and whether anything of this process would be of value to the other legs of the project.
As stylistic framework we chose polyphonic music of the Italian Ars Nova, also known as Trecento, lasting from about 1320 to 1420. We focussed on the later part of the period, excluding the style known as Ars Subtilior, but allowing some space for experimentation in an early Renaissance style. Our goal was to be able to make our own liturgical polyphony, which meant we would work on cantus super librum, a practice where one or more of the musicians sing a plainchant whilst others create counterparts. We studied in particular compositions by Antonio Zacara da Teramo (ca1365–1416), Paolo da Firenze (ca1355–1436), and Guillaume Dufay (1397–1474), as well as a number of anonymous pieces. For instrumental diminutions, our main source was the famous Codex Faenza,5 a manuscript with virtuoso diminutions to liturgical and secular music. (Diminution is a term used to describe the technique or practice of ornamenting or elaborating one or more of the parts in a counterpoint with faster-moving note values. It can be applied by vocalists as well as instrumentalists.) We also studied Paola da Firenze’s treatise on counterpoint, one of very few late medieval treatises that offers not only the general rules but also a rudimentary training method for improvising counterpoint.6 We were interested in the relation between the simple outline of these rules, or rather recommendations, and the richness and openness of the late medieval contrapuntal styles.
Since the goal was to find out what music could emerge when the musicians co-created the music, the most important component was obviously the participants: one recorder player, a male and a female singer, and two medieval fiddle players participated directly and continuously in the studies and performances of improvised medieval music. (Other project participants were present to varying degrees in workshops, some of them participating in one or two public performances.) The musicians were connected through their previous work with the ensemble Currentes. Nevertheless, their backgrounds were quite dissimilar, from the musician mainly based within the field of medieval music, to the ones who might have felt more like guests in the early music field. The experience with improvisation was highly varied as well, and very few had anything but a modest experience in improvisation in medieval styles. In the discussion, we will come back to how the varied experiences and areas of expertise became visible and influenced the directions of the project as a whole.