One of the warmest April days on record greeted the start of the interdisciplinary conference ‘Material cultures of music notation’, held from 20 to 22 April 2018 at Utrecht University. The historical importance of the Academiegebouw (where the Union of Utrecht was signed in 1579, unifying several of the northern provinces of the Netherlands), as well as its convenient location on Dom Square in the heart of the city made it an ideal setting for the conference. Funded through a Veni postdoctoral grant by the NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research), ‘Material cultures of music notation’ aimed to approach the notation of music—in the broadest sense—‘not just as a vessel of music-theoretical knowledge, but as an object of social interaction and cultural exchange’ (see http://notationcultures.com). The wide-reaching theme attracted interest from musicologists from numerous subdisciplines as well as scholars from other fields from all over the world. Forty-four papers were presented in two parallel sessions, most of which were mixed sessions with varied content and research perspectives, covering topics ranging from piano rolls and the role of notation in improvisation to notation in South Indian music and modern digital techniques. The subdiscipline of early music was well represented, with almost a quarter of all papers dealing with medieval or early modern topics. In his paper ‘Musical graphs and the crafting of communal identity in early medieval Europe’, Giovanni Varelli used manuscripts from the abbey of Nonantola (near Modena) as a case study to show how the notation itself can not only convey musical information, but also express a monastic community’s identity: the wide variety of regional notational types, at a time when text scripts became more and more consistent and standardized, is in contrast with the normalization of the liturgy that was promoted by Carolingian politics. The abbey continued to use the same type of notation for over three centuries, despite the widespread influence of other traditions, even during an interregnum of almost a century when the abbey was out of use. All this emphasizes the role of neumes as (in Varelli’s words) ‘complex manifestations of a cultural dimension’. Chant scholar Matthew Peattie approached neumatic notation from an entirely different perspective in his paper ‘Recall notation and 21st-century orality’, namely that of the modern-day performer. Because it represents no (precise) pitches, neumatic notation is intelligible only to those who already know the melodies, but does not provide sufficient information to guide a performer singing unfamiliar material. Peattie argued that such ‘recall notations’, a term borrowed from Susan Rankin and other scholars, should be approached as the original users did, insofar as this can be identified: presumably a combination of using the notation as an aide-mémoire, a manuscript to sing from directly and a guide for performance. (Neumatic notation offers much more information about performance and expression than most later notations.) Importantly, the notation was embedded in a culture of predominantly oral transmission. By studying the music aurally with the help of a music teacher and also by studying original manuscripts (which would not be used to sing from directly, but would help the singer understand how the music was to be sung), modern-day performers could re-create this orality. Modern editions of early repertories often include information about pitches, but Peattie argued that this is not necessary, though it could be added via a recording, through which it would be aurally conceived. The edition should be no more than a pedagogical tool from which singers learn the music, but which is not used in performance. ‘Buy the edition, and then forget about it’, Peattie said. Peattie’s paper set up a dialogue with Alon Schab’s presentation the following day, entitled ‘Performers of early music: self-fashioning through notation’. Schab outlined how from the mid-1960s onwards performers of early music attempted to achieve ‘authenticity’, and he explained how and why they started naming the manuscript sources they had used on their record sleeves. The critical editions and especially ‘original’ notation used by ensembles would be able to enhance their reputation and show their scholarly approach to the music they performed. The recording became an ‘audible history book’, Schab said. However, because facsimiles and digitized manuscripts have now become so widely available, the listing of original sources no longer shows that the performer has made a substantial scholarly effort to understand the original format of the music. Moreover, even those ensembles who list medieval manuscripts as sources for their performance often sing from modern editions. Schab argued that critical thinking and scholarly research should be embraced again by early music performers. Music iconography was well represented at the conference. Laura Dolp, Sanna Raninen and Tim Shephard each presented a paper on paintings featuring musical artefacts and in particular musical notation in various formats. Dolp discussed Hans Holbein the Younger’s Ambassadors, the 1533 portrait of the two French aristocrats Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve at the court of Henry VIII. She pointed out how an opened hymnal, combined with the other objects in this painting, symbolizes political and religious solidarity, represents both the earthly and the celestial (and divine) worlds as well as the boundaries between sacred and secular, Catholic and Protestant, and the internal mental and the outer physical world, yet transcends national space. The hymnal is directly modelled on the Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn (1524) by Johann Walter, but Dolp showed how the music is deliberately ‘incorrect’ and fictionalized. As both Raninen and Shephard showed in their papers, most of the approximately one hundred paintings from c.1420 to c.1540 which depict music books display notation that is either obscured, upside-down, fictional, illegible or a combination of these things. They discussed the symbolic meanings of the notation through a variety of examples. Overall the session showed that music notation in Renaissance paintings may indicate that people are singing, represent a means of promotion of the printer or composer of the original, signal intellectual and cultural prestige, symbolize harmony or love, recall sound or symbolize belonging (or exclusion, if the painting’s viewer cannot ‘join’ in these depicted performances). Another important iconographical contribution to the conference was by the art historian Beth Williamson, the first of three keynote speakers (the other two being Roger Moseley and Kiene Brillenburg Wurth). In her paper entitled ‘The work of notation in the visual culture of medieval devotion’, Williamson argued that studying not only the visual aspects of art, but also using the other senses such as hearing, can enrich the field of art history. She discussed two case studies to explain different ways in which music, which is often ignored by art historians, can be ‘embedded into instances of visual and material culture in the form of musical notation’ (conference programme, http://notationcultures.com). The first of these was a stained-glass window from the 1440s in the Beauchamp Chapel of St Mary’s Collegiate Church in Warwick. The window contains very detailed musical notation consisting of recognizable monophonic and polyphonic chants and one text which is accompanied by blank staves. The music is the same as would have been sung in the chapel and a worshipper’s viewing of the window could therefore have coincided with a performance of the same chant. The responsory Gloria in excelsis would normally be performed monophonically, but is given in two-voice polyphony on the window, referring to how it would have been sung on Christmas Day. The notation, then, reminds the viewer of a particular historic moment, perhaps even the moment of Christ’s Nativity. Williamson’s second case study was the 1433 painting Madonna of Humility by Domenico di Bartolo, which portrays a barefooted Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus while several angels stand behind her. One of these angels holds a stringed instrument and musical notation appears to rise up from her head like smoke. Though the melody is unknown, the music can be identified as a 15th-century Sienese lauda. Two other angels hold their heads together and appear to be singing (possibly polyphony). The words ‘Adora muste’ emerge from their heads where their brows meet. This might have been a recognizable song for a contemporary audience. The various forms of musical notation in the painting may bring to mind the sounding music, as Williamson said: ‘it takes the viewer back to a particular performance, while they inwardly contemplate it’. Both in the stained-glass window and the painting, then, the musical notation works devotionally: it requires time and concentration to read, can recall (sacred) song, and can direct the viewer’s mind to time and eternity. Other contributions on early repertories were by Louisa Hunter-Bradley, concerning music printing in the Low Countries; Nicholas Bleisch and Frieda van der Heijden, both dealing with the trouvère repertory and the manuscripts in which it is transmitted; and David Maw, who presented a paper on the increasing status of instrumentalists and instrumental music in the Middle Ages and its effect on musical notation. Organizers Floris Schuiling, Emily Payne and Eliane Frankhauser were happy with the success of the conference and enjoyed the variety of (sub)disciplines and approaches they were able to offer in their rich programme. Schuiling said that, though it will not be an annual event, there may be another ‘Material cultures of music notation’ conference in the future. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Early Music – Oxford University Press
Published: May 30, 2018
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