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You Can't Sing A Footnote

September 25, 2008

The quest for so-called "authenticity" in the early music movement is one of those crusty topics that never goes away. Research into Medieval music practices serves an academic purpose, sure, in as much as finding out how music may have been performed in the distant past enriches our experience of it. But to what extent are all the academic tracts useful when it comes to the practical business of performing? My mixed feelings about this topic crystalized last week when I attended the Anonymous 4 "Chant Camp" which I initially blogged about yesterday.

Susan Hellauer, co-founder of the famous American early music ensemble (pictured) argued passionately in favor of bringing early music to life in a way that makes sense to the performers, even if that means turning one's back on scholarly thought. Anonymous 4 focuses on capturing the flow of words, phrases and musical lines in the repertoire it sings. It doesn't prescribe to the more academic "solemnes" method of reconstructing early music which produces a cooler and less emotional effect.

Knowledge about ancient performance practices is mostly based on conjecture: We can't know for certain how things were done back then. Who's to say where authenticity lies when a source for a piece of chant might be Roman, but the text, Franco-Flemish? "You have to do the best you can. You read what the scholars say and then do something that means something to you," Hellauer said. "You can theorize yourself into silence and never sing a note."

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