Lend an ear to real oldies atBy Burl Burlingame
'Romance of the Renaissance'
TODAY you can read musical notation, or memorize melodies from recordings, or cruise the 'net looking for tablature. Guitar players debate the sonic and harmonic qualities of ash and maple necks; reed players can decide between bamboo and plastic; percussion players can bang on anything from exquisitely tuned timbales to aluminum trash-can lids. And computerized MIDI machines can play about anything that can be "sampled."
In other words, any modern musical sound can be reproduced with utmost fidelity, given enough practice.
But what about old music? What did it sound like, and what were the instruments like? And who would know if you messed it up?
You can get a taste of anciente musicks in the upcoming "Romance of the Renaissance" concert, 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Orvis Auditorium. Appearing are Europa Early Music Consort, the Orion Early Music Consort, the Skylark Recorder Ensemble, soprano Phyllis Haines and Lina Jeong Doo, and guitarist Jeff Peterson. The event is being presented by the Hawaii Chamber Orchestra.
"There has been a boom in ancient music during the '70s and '80s, played on period instruments," said Phil Gottling, double-reed master with the Europa and bassoonist with the Honolulu Symphony.
What: "Romance of the Renaissance" concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Orvis Auditorium
Cost: $10 general; $5 students
"For example, the recordings with the Academy of Ancient Music (directed by Christopher Hogwood) have been best-sellers. What we're doing, though, is Renaissance music, which predates most of their stuff."
Gottling became entranced with Renaissance instruments and music while working in Paris prior to moving to Honolulu. "Just being on the Paris streets was very medieval," he laughs.
What we think of as musical notation wasn't really standardized until the last century, and the first attempts at doing so -- around the 1300s -- looked like little flags, said Gottling. As for additional arrangement information, about all that shows up is "common time" beats, which works out to 4/4.
"Gregorian chants -- which had a notation of long and short notes -- helped lead to modern notation. One big problem with old arrangements is that the instrumentation isn't given," said Gottling. "We just try it with a variety of different instruments until it sounds right."
This is complicated by the ancient practice of "loud" and "soft" editions of the same instrument. Loud versions were played outdoors, soft indoors, but they could also be mixed. Again, the only solution is to play around until it sounds right.
Most instruments are made of wood or metal and don't age well unless they're Stradaveri. By the time they're museum pieces, they're too rare or fragile to play. So modern musicians rely on precisely made replica instruments, copies of museum instruments.
The bible for such instruments is the "Syntagma Musicum," written in the 1600s by Michael Praetorius, a German composer and arranger whose hobby was documenting instruments in drawing form.
"We also learn a lot from stained-glass windows, from paintings and sculpture, on details like how to hold the instruments," said Gottling.
"Oddly, the best ancient stringed instrument replicas come from Japan," said Gottling. "I get most of my bassoon-like double-reed instruments from England. They're often constructed like modern instruments, with two key differences -- they have simpler key arrangements and they don't disassemble for easier transport."
Gottling is able to fit almost everything into a "huge duffel bag." They also don't have much, if anything, in the way of electronic gear. "We prefer not to amplify if we can help it, because it distorts the sound," said Gottling.
Giv Cornfield, on the other hand, uses a computer program called Noteworthy Composer to arrange instrumentation for his Orion Consort. "I can put the music in and play it back with different mixes of instruments until it sounds right," he said.
Cornfield's Orion Master label has released something like 500 records over the last couple of decades, many focusing on ancient music. His specialty is the recorder, yes, that humble elementary-school instrument known as "flute douce" in France, "flauto dolce" in Italy and "blockfluote" in Germany -- because it was carved from a single block of wood.
"Ancient music is an avocation, and I've been playing recorders for 40 years," said Cornfield, whose wife also plays in the consort. "It's one of the oldest instruments known, originally a shepherd's instrument, and we have recorder music going back at least as far as St. Ambrose in the 4th century."
"The heyday of the recorder was the Renaissance -- we're going back even farther than that; performing Crusader melodies from the 11th and 12th centuries -- and then it was superseded by the flute. The postwar baroque-music boom helped bring it back, as well as Karl Orff's 'Method' of giving children a basic music education -- why it's used in elementary schools today -- and March is Play the Recorder Month, did you know?"
No, we did not. Nor did we know that the recorder of today is an exact duplicate of the Medieval instrument. "Even the plastic ones are copies of Medieval instrument designs," said Cornfield.
Like the Stratocaster guitar and the Coke bottle, the design simply can't be improved upon. Henry the VIII, that wife-whacking English monarch, was so recorder-mad that he owned hundreds. They come in five sizes, each size representing an octave change in pitch.
So Cornfield's recorders don't look much different than ones in museums, and they aren't dried out and cracking.
"Recorders have to be played regularly or they lose it," said Cornfield. "I was in a museum once in Rome and saw a beautiful pearwood recorder on display and wondered aloud to the guide what it sounded like. To my surprise, he pulled it out of the case and handed it to me to try.
"It was in beautiful condition. But when I blew into it, the dust of centuries flew out the other end, all over us!"
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