Notation. Creativity

Posted on November 18th, 2019 by

NB – newer postings here will be added at the bottom, sequentially.

18 11 19

This week, I am going to post about notation and creativity. This has been inspired by the day that I spent working on the work of the Dresden-based violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656 – buried 17 April 1705) yesterday. So that’s where we will begin.

A Major Allemande by Johann Paul von Westhoff (‘B section’)

I would like to begin by introducing what you are looking at here. This is the second half of the A Major Suite/Sonata (we don’t know what the composer intended to call these) from the set of six.

Keys are indicated at the bottom of the each page: ‘A[natural]’, which means A Major. If it was A minor, then he would indicate ‘A[flat]’.

It’s an unconventional stave (which takes a short while to get comfortable with) but is very expressive and easy, one you know how it works. On the left of each system, the key signature. Although we are in A Major, there are only F and C Sharps indicated, which is common for music prior to 1700, and Bach sticks to this convention for certain keys. As you can see, the layout of the stave means that two sharps means that there need to be four sharp signs – and indeed, one sometimes sees internal repetition of F and G sharp within the conventional stave for a G Clef. Next to the key signature, are two clefs (Treble and alto). So the lower stave is centred on a sounding ‘middle C’ (viola clef), and the upper shows us two notes – the G above middle C, where the lower little loop sits, and, definitely by design, the C above middle C, where he big loop has been placed in the big gap between stave lines.

The stave has eight lines (most of the time), and easy location is offered by the large gaps, which are placed on the F and C above middle C. I say that the stave has eight lines most of the time, because Westhoff has determined to avoid ‘ledger lines’ for high notes, so when he wants to write a note higher than B nearly two octaves above middle C, which is the note above the top line, he inscribes an extra line in the stave. I admit, that this is momentarily disorientating, the first time you see it.

I will talk more about this notation and this music tomorrow, but wanted to include this passage, which is the second half of the Allemand from the second piece in the set of six sonatas/suites. My reason, was that it is a rare instance where the composer has based an entire half (all the movements are in this bi-partite form (which I cannot call binary and will not call ternary) on one sequential pattern.

the pattern

Seeing this pattern find its way from the top to the bottom of the instrument on the page reveals the obvious benefit of this notation. No matter where the material is placed, it looks the same, whereas the modern stave has a tendency, to exaggerate the significance, even the relative status, even, dare I say it, the perceived genders of high and low. I cannot decide whether Westhoff chose to use this stave system for these pieces for this reason – that he wanted to avoid a polarisation of material, to render it all, if you like, equal, or that that happened because he was writing ON this stave. But it’s there, for whatever reason. One of the fascinating results of this lovely way of writing, is (sorry) an ‘equal music’.

More later, but here’s a C Major Allemande from the same set.

C Major Allemande by Westhoff. Live at St Lawrence Jewry. 2019.

18 11 19 Evening

This evening, an unexpected revelation. In the course of working on the 6 Westhoff suites, the last movement of the last suite has been niggling at me. For some reason, the second (and presumably last) page of the movement is lost (it would have been page 31 of the source).

It’s worth noting at this point that this not a manuscript, but an extraordinarily beautiful, and precisely engraved score. There are very few mistakes (and these are easily seen and rectified).

But the missing last page is not so easy to rectify, as it requires composing. I have been juggling with this missing section for the past week or so, and over the past 24 hours it took form. I have a feeling that it will be revised. Here’s the first copy of this initial completion. Not terribly neat, I know, but it does the job.

A first version of the missing section of the last movement of Westhoff 6th Suite. . I apologise for the extra material. I tend to reuse paper, without erasing earlier materia. 18 11 19

But as soon as I had written this, and worked through it on the violin, it dawned on me that I was missing something. In order to have some idea of what the music felt like, to maybe walk a little in the composer’s shoes, it was clearly necessary that I should write the new section using his notation. (To be honest, I am a little embarrassed, that I did not see/think of this, before)

And so I did. It was harder to construct the 8 line staves than I thought, so it’s not as neat as it might be, but here it is. The top two staves are what Westhoff left us and the bottom two, mine.

Trying to think like Westhoff. Top two staves, his, and the bottom too, as can been clearly seen, mine!

It really turned out to be a revelatory experience. The first thing to note, as I hinted in my earlier posting today, was that working with this stave results in a great simplicity of notation. Put simply, every time I wrote notes which would be clear of the bottom and top of a traditional G clef, which would require ledger lines, I was able to simply inscribe them on an extant stave line. The result is much less cluttered than my original, with a clearer sense of the imitative shapes in the music. At the risk of coming across as self-congratulatory, my music works much better like this.

But the clearest discovery which I made, was that like Bach, but not Telemann or Biber, Westhoff always gives every note within a chord its own stem. Here’s a place where Biber has not done this.

A chord from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.

The result of notating like Westhoff’s way, is that every line has independence, place in what Tippet would call the ‘horizontal harmony’ of the piece.

I have always been astonished as how Bach was able to fit all his separate note heads in, in four-point counterpoint, so elegantly, on just one conventional stave.

J S Bach’s notation in four parts (Fugue from the C Major Solo Sonata)

But it’s also clear that Westhoff’s stave offers the composer the chance to do this with no feeling of congestion. It would be interesting, to see the example of Bach shown here, written out on the eight note stave. Perhaps I will try it!

19 11 19 On the train with coffee

I am on the train to work on the final edit of two discs – one new music, one old. But working very  early this morning on Westhoff, a tiny detail surfaced in the writing in his first suite, which raises some questions about my approach to baroque contrapuntal music on the violin.

First of all, I have to reiterate my, somewhat tired insistence that the violin is the ideal instrument for certain kinds of solo counterpoint. When Bach wrote the three great fugues, in his sonatas for violin alone, he was not, as used to be taught, making some instrumental leap into the future, but playing with ideas from the century running up till 1720, when he wrote these piecez. The reason that this is important, is that most of the questions and opportunities around playing polyphony on a solo string instrument with a curved bridge are centred on verticality and voice leading.

The simplest of these questions, which I am going to step around (avoid) this morning, is that of how we attack chords. Put simply, 20th century violinists got themselves into a little bit of a tizzy over the fact that you could not play 3 and 4 note chords with one (un-spread) stroke. It’s interesting that this concern built as pianists started to become focussed on playing chords vertically aligned. These two/one trend/s pertain directly to the question of voice-leading, which is how the ear is ‘led’ through contrapuntal material, how voices are stressed, high-lit (and obscured).

Accompanying this question (which I will explore further, violin in hand), is the, perhaps more vexed question of what we do with a note once it has been struck initially. With certain struck or plucked instruments (harpsichords, harps, pianos, lutes, guitars), this is mostly a question of how long, and how a note is allowed to ring, after it has been struck, and most pertinently, how this ringing relates to the notation. Put more simply, does the heard duration of a pitch always have a relationship with the notation on the page, or is the relationship, more complex, or even imaginary, conceptual.

This had begun to be a question in the 19th century, as is indicated by the fact that a number of virtuosi  composers left works where the curved bridge (which prevents the simultaneous soft playing of more than two strings) is either flattened for certain pieces (Ole Bull),  or sidestepped by the player loosening the bow hair so that it can bee passed over the top of the violin with the stick held behind the instrument, enabling all the strings to be player at once, resulting in a sound that recalls the hurdy-gurdy (or perhaps the Lira da Braccia). In the late 20th century, the great cellist Frances-Marie Utti pioneered a technique, which only works on a high-bridged instrument, using two bows (above and below the strings), which means that all the strings can be played (or not played) with great control.

In the mid-20th century the question of ‘what to do about Bach’s chordal writing’ led to a plethora of solutions from archetiers and players. These were all predicated on the notion that the only way to play contrapuntal material was with simultaneous attack and complet sustaining of all notes. The great Hungarian/Danish violinist Emil Telmanyi made extraordinary (both wonderful and bizarre in equal measure) recordings of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas using the so-called Vega bow, which enabled the player to control the bow tension mid performance. One unfortunate disadvantage of this instrument was that prolonged use resulted in carpal tunnel problems, which was probably a factor in driving Telmanyi (who was Nielsen’s son-in-law) increasingly to conducting.

One of the detailed questions that emerge from this question of ‘do we sustain or release’ long notes, when there’s moving separate-bow material running during them. By now, its generally agreed and the bulk of the baroque canon points thus, that a long note should not be ‘re-struck’, but left to ring in reality and imagination. This certainly seems to make sense … and yet … well look at this.

Look at the repeated notes! From Allemande 1

What we can clearly see here is something very rarely notated in early music, and something which just might suggest that all solutions to the problem outlined above might have merit. If you look at this passage, you will find a two-part texture with one line which changes pitch with the semiquavers, and another which does not. Intriguingly, rather than notating the non-changing pitch with just quavers or crochets (see Bach) Westhoff re-iterates, even scrubs at the held pitch, resulting in precisely the kind of repeating texture, which many of us have worked so hard to avoid, playing multipartite material.

Now it’s worth saying that this maybe the exception that proves the rule, as he does not notate it thus elsewhere in the cycle. BUT… this is the first movement, so the opposite might be true – he just might be offering a paradigm to be followed throughout.

Whatever the case, this is a thought-provoking notation, and has entertained me on this train ride. We are now in the Chiltern Hills and I must pack up, put my coat on, and get to work.

20 11 19 Ornamentation & Practice

Today, I am going to post twice, on the subject of how I practice material like this. The second post will focus on the question of limited materials/gamut. But to begin with, I would like to play with the idea of ornamentation and practice. I will not spend time with the question of when the modern idea of practice appeared, but rather, would like to focus on something which I have come to find very useful, which I think that it is fair to say that I learnt from early baroque music. Here’s the opening of the Courante from the D minor Suite. From the mess, you will be able to tell that it is my copy :

Westhoff-D minor Courante. In this notated copy, red is for covered 5ths, green is for free ringing open strings, blue for shifts

This copy, as well as the normal clutter of my notation, includes various free floating ornaments. In all of the Westhoff, unlike Biber, Vilsmayr, Matteis, there is no material which I would define as a written-out ornaments. My reason for including these is partially because I am exploring possible things to do when I perform, but mainly, something else. Listen to this (I have posted the music just below):

Giovanni Bassano-Ricercata Seconda. Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Viola

This is the second of the ‘Ricercars’ which Giovanni Bassano published in Venice in 1585. The Bassano family were (and are) world renowned instrument builders, players and builders. Some of them, who came to work for Henry VIII, are buried a short walk from where I am writing this, in All Hallows by the Tower church. Here’s the music.

Ricercata 2, from Bassano’s 1585 ‘Ricercate, passaggi et cadentie’

I have said many times, that these pieces by Bassano, are not so much music, but rather explorations of what might be done, by a musician. If you listen to me playing, and have a look at the score, you will see that the music does one very simple thing – it explores the possible options, the trajectories if you like, which result from the opening gesture. It can feel like a the simplest written out improvisation, or maybe a sequence of logical steps and outcomes. Thus:

I have a chair-I sit on the chair-I sit on the chair and lift my left leg-I sit on the chair and lift my right leg … [and so on]

So the usefulness of this (and you will find it in contemporaneous works such as Diego Ortiz Trattado de Glosas 1553), is that it allows me, the player, to gently work my way around possibilities, as, if you like, practice to play in improvisatory context.

So, jumping ahead a century, to the world of Westhoff. I have come to find that what I think of as a Bassano-technique, is extremely useful to practice this music, and also enables me to perform it with the flexibility to change direction, notes, elaborate, extemporise, at will. It’s really very simple: all we need to do, as part of studying the material, is to explore the possible , routes around the material, make, if you like ‘research’, ‘recherches’, which is what ‘ricercate’ are, of what we might do. Even if I don’t add a single till, roulade or grace, in the course of performance, it means that I have weighed the possibilities of the music, looked at it in different ways, what, if you like, I might do, when I am sitting on the chair that I have found.

I find this useful.