Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Landmarks (45)

Guillaume de Machaut: Ma fin est mon commencement.  

I'm going to cheat here and let this little rondeau — with all of its play of multiple symmetries and self-similar constructive wit uniting text and tunes — stand in for the whole corpus of Machaut's music, because I came to know the whole surviving catalogue more or less at once and I'm attached to all of it, secular and sacred, monophonic and polyphonic, and must refuse leaving anything out.   It may be fairly argued that Machaut's musical style is not sufficiently distinct from the surviving music of his contemporaries, but none of his contemporaries, nor his immediate successors left a body of work comparable either in size or variety to Machaut's, and none, to my ear, was his match for the shape of his tunes or sensitivity of his ensemble textures. (And, of course, his musical work was a complement to his poetry.)      

The Machaut celebratory year of 1977 was an important one for me, as discovering Machaut's music showed that music research and performance could be complementary activities, and the combination of both activities was compositionally inviting.   A summer workshop in the mountains, with a collegium led by La Noue Davenport, was an exciting introduction to the rhythmic and tonal vigor of this music and an incredible contrast to the fare in high school band or choir.  Copying out scores by hand, with the ambition of getting friends to sing or play them, was an opportunity to gain fluency in all the c clefs and try to puzzle out the Medieval French, but most importantly, to discover, for the first time and from inside-out, how a style of music, and the formal or textural variants within that style, actually worked.   In the polyphony, especially, I was drawn to the great degree of freedom that voices could have between points of resolution or cadences, an experience marvelously echoed in the elaborating voices and instruments in Javanese gamelan music, Karawitan, which come together at seleh, targeted tones at the end of formal units.   All the elements of this style — the fixed forms, some syllabic, others melismatic, the cadential formulae, the use of accompanying tenors, the use of extended syncopations and hockets — all registered, deep, in my musical consciousness, and with this a certain aesthetic ambition, that music should be able to live both in the depths, in its construction, and flow, at its surface.  

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