What the instrument remembers: contemporary recordings on historical instruments
By Anna Heflin Illustration by Emma Shore October 29, 2021
What is the relationship between a historic instrument and the music it inspires? How does this relationship change when the music does not fit neatly into the approach known as Historically Informed Performance (HIP), which aims to be faithful to the musical era in which a work has developed. was composed using period instruments, a lower center of height, staging (often standing groups), and phrasing associated with the musical uses of the time. In a modern musical context in which historical instruments are not commonplace, their inclusion can open the door to awe and curiosity.
There is a certain degree of incompleteness in the contemplation of historical instruments. Musicians and musicologists are very similar to archaeologists who attempt to piece together narratives by studying the musical “fossils” that remain: the scores, the texts and the instruments themselves. The truth is, we can never exactly replicate a historic performance. If a musician 300 years from now found an electric guitar, amp, tablature, and historical tales documenting Led Zeppelin’s performances, would they be able to sound like Jimmy Page? This is not to invalidate the educational legitimacy of HIP, but simply to draw attention to the central keyword: “Informed”. But what if a future guitarist instead just received Page’s instrument – would something continue?
The sense of mystery that permeates historical instruments opens doors to incredibly creative interpretations that recall, look to the future, and play on the wonderful nature of the instruments themselves. These recordings, which feature ancient and rare instruments playing music outside of the standard instrument repertoire, suggest that the instruments are not mere extensions of human performance; indeed, they have a voice of their own.
Il Cembalo di Partenope
What stories would the oldest playable harpsichord tell us if it could speak? Catalina vicensthe audiobook of Il Cembalo di Partenope takes this question and develops it into a kaleidoscopic journey informed by historical facts and imbued with limitless imagination. From the museum where the actual physical instrument resides, the narrator is fascinated by the instrument and, following a series of visions, finds himself trapped inside the harpsichord (or a dream similar to that Alice). Like a genie in a bottle who is only released when ivory keys are played, the narrator experiences this instrument’s journey from Naples in 1525 during the invention of the harpsichord.
Much of the brilliance of this audiobook comes from the combination of the real and the unreal, or the factual and the fantastic. Vicens finds magic in the instrument’s cloudy history while playing it. It gives voice to what the instrumentalists feel intuitively, the individual character of each instrument, especially one with such a rich history. Performing music dating from the 16th century in Naples and delivering an original text itself, the album defends a beautiful historical recording in an extremely fresh context.
If there is a word that describes composer / violist Molly herron‘s Through the lines, it is the “grounding”. The physicality of the instrument is highlighted in this new record for a bass viol consort. Herron uses her experience as a viol (i.e. viola da gamba) player to highlight different sonic properties of the instrument, each portrait resulting in an enveloping hot bath. The style of composition is informed by extensive historical knowledge which somehow feels just as close to modern popular music. Herron’s intention of accessibility and relevance in today’s musical landscape doesn’t seem forced, but rather seems an intuitive sequel to what might naturally emerge.
A forgotten feature of most Renaissance music is its functionality. Joanna mattreythe last album of, Funeral song, was reportedly executed during a funeral at an earlier time, serving a concrete ritual purpose. This inherent sense of function and the sounds themselves anchor Funeral song in the past.
The sound accent of the album is the Stroh (or Strohviol) violin, which, while it was invented in 1899, summons in a counter-intuitive way the sensations of a much older music with its obscured and brassy timbre. The Stroh violin, a string instrument mechanically amplified by a metal resonator and a horn attached to its body, sounds as if it should have existed centuries ago. It was originally created as a solution to a problem encountered by early recording artists: the sound of stringed instruments was very difficult to capture. The horn attached to the Stroh violin provided a solution.
The Stroh violin is joined by the two-track organ and another unusual instrument, the daxophone, on the “Last Dance” track. Both the Stroh violin and the daxophone were created by inventors; we can thank John Matthias Augustus Stroh and Hans Reichel respectively. Without going too deep into the rabbit hole, the daxophone is an experimental wooden electric musical instrument commonly believed to possess both human and animal vocal quality.
Speaking with Mattrey, she mentioned that this sense of history relates to the series of harmonics – the chorus of notes that naturally resonate with a specific instrument – of the Stroh violin. Combined with the enlightened historical perspective that Mattrey brings to the album and the extraordinary additions of the organ and daxophone, the effect is mesmerizing.
Antiphonic music is traditionally music performed by two interacting choirs, often separated by opposing choir attics, and was particularly popular in Italy during the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods. Sarah davachiThe modern version of antiphonic music does not include two choirs, but rather offers a play on the “real” and the “synthetic”. by Davachi Antiphons combines the 20th century electromechanical mellotron (English horn, bass flute, clarinet, recorder, oboe, French horn, chamber organ, nylon string guitar) with electric organ, pipe organ, harpsichord, synth and other instruments. Resolutely vintage and Gothic, these two groups of instruments transport the listener to a resonating cathedral.
Thinking about which of Davachi’s albums to write for this piece, I couldn’t choose, so I included two. Davachi took the time as an instrument whisperer and the voices shine through on his record Cantus, Descant which features four separate pipe organs (including one from 1478) and a reed organ throughout the album. After spending a decade looking after the keyboard collection at the National Music Center of Canada, it is perhaps not surprising that in an interview with The creative independent, she says instruments are almost like people, that you have to spend time getting to know them.
At first glance, between Davachi’s two albums, Cantus, Descant might be the most obvious choice for a piece on historical instruments. But in many ways the concept of antiphonic music runs a common thread throughout all of these albums, pointing to the dialogue between ancient instruments and today’s musical sensibilities. For Vicens, this dialogue allows the literal emergence of a specific harpsichord voice, evoking chronicles of time that we will never be able to reach. For Herron, the result is a portrait of the viola bass as a whole rather than any particular instrument. Perhaps hearing this way is something more subtle, leaving the imagination and the body to act as a conduit rather than the other way around. By allowing these resonances to move through us as listeners, we may have our own journey.