Mutable Mobiles – thoughts on science, musical scores, and improvisation

Neil and I participated in the 2019 International Guitar Research Centre (IGRC) conference in Hong Kong, an academic gathering which took place alongside The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts International Guitar Forum and the Altamira Hong Kong International Guitar Symposium and Competition. It was an incredibly packed week of presentations, lecture/demonstrations, and concerts, and a momentous time to be in Hong Kong, as I have reflected on in my history of science blog.

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We walked through this park each day – past a community garden and playground – on our way to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Neil’s lecture/demonstration at the conference explored the practice of improvisation and guitar music in the early 19th century. He brought our nifty packable Terz guitar to play examples of improvised preludes. An excellent overview of all of the IGRC papers and performances can be found here. 

In this post, I would like to turn my historian-of-science eye towards the IGRC proceedings and apply insights of the French philosopher Bruno Latour to the practice of music. In his book, Science in Action, Latour refers to the accumulation of scientific data and the dominant explanatory theories as “immutable mobiles.”  The process of writing down and circulating scientific discoveries results in scientific knowledge that travels without being changed by local observations (i.e. that is mobile and immutable). Universal scientific findings are findings that are true everywhere. According to Latour, the repeated iterations of information layered multiple times results in scientific knowledge that has gained legitimacy and authority. In the same way, I suggest, a musical score, composed and set down on paper, widely circulated and played over and over by many different musicians, starts to become an authoritative “classic.”

The period we refer to as “Classical” in Western music is generally thought to be the period from about 1780 to 1850. Much of the music composed was published to be purchased by a broader public of expert amateur musicians. These were often highly accomplished players, however, they were not necessarily trained in music theory or the intricacies of improvising from a bass line, as were professionals, especially during earlier periods. The composers who wrote for these musicians, such as Leopold Mozart, specified the exact notes these musicians should play and did not expect them to add to what was written on the page. By the time Beethoven was publishing his music, all musicians were expected to stay true to the score.

Nevertheless, the practice of improvising continued to be a vital part of music-making. Virtuosi famously invented cadenzas to impress their audiences. Amateurs also played improvised preludes and passages, especially in the early 19th century. This was true for guitarists as well as for pianists and other instrumentalists and for singers. This tradition was largely lost by the mid-to-late 19th century in classical music but continued to be a key element of new musical forms such as jazz and eventually rock & roll.

Therefore, when we play musical scores from the early 19th century, we can think of them as mutable mobiles. These scores were published and meant to travel – one could hear the same duet variations of Fernando Sor’s Souvenir de Russie, Op. 63, or Mauro Giuliani’s Rossiniani, in Paris, as well as in Vienna or St. Petersburg. The evidence, nevertheless, suggests that these standards of the guitar repertoire were also meant to be interpreted somewhat freely, perhaps with an improvised prelude, a flashy cadenza, or even some flexibility in the interpretation of an arpeggio.

Like a scientist – a term invented during this period – the early 19th century musical artist created musical performances working from both a written score and from his or her own observations and experiments. In the early 19th century, science too was often performed for a public audience. Sir Humphry Davy, for example, exhibited his own improvisatory flair while demonstrating the properties of gases. Such improvisations were expected. Improvisation was part and parcel of early 19th century culture, both in art and science.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Announcing the 2019-2020 Guitar in the Gallery Season!

MARK YOUR CALENDARS:
Mark Wilson-October 12th and 13th
Scott Kritzer-November 16th and 17th
Tamara and Neil Caulkins-March 21st and 22nd
Jessica Papkoff-April 25th and 26th
Oleg Timofeyev-May 30th and 31st
Saturday performances are at 7:00 p.m. in the Fire on Main Gallery in Soap Lake, WA and Sunday performances are at 2:00 p.m. in Gallery One in Ellensburg, WA.

See below for Artist photos:

Mark Wilson-October 12th and 13th

Mark
Scott Kritzer-November 16th and 17th

Scott
Tamara and Neil Caulkins-March 21st and 22nd

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Jessica Papkoff-April 25th and 26th

Jessica
Oleg Timofeyev-May 30th and 31st
Oleg

Neil Caulkins to Perform in Hong Kong

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What You See, And What You Don’t; Improvised Preludes From Early 19th Century Guitar Methods

Neil Caulkins will be presenting a lecture/recital on the early 19th-century performance practice of improvised preludes.  It will be on July 17th at 9:45 a.m. in the International Guitar Research Centre’s conference as part of the Altamira Hong Kong International Guitar Symposium in Hong Kong, China.

Overview: We see descriptions of composers and performers from the 19th Century being tremendous improvisers.  We also see reference to improvisation in method books from that time.  What we do not see is improvisation on the modern classical music stage.  There were more methods for the guitar written in the early 19th century than for any other instrument. Because the guitar was not yet taught in the conservatories, these methods had to offer detailed instruction about every aspect of music. This makes them a treasure trove of information from which all musicians can benefit.  This lecture/recital focuses upon the early 19th century performance practice of the improvised prelude. A detailed examination of existing written examples of these improvisatory preludes will be beneficial to all musicians who perform music from this period.  Then we will explore how to construct/compose our own “improvisatory” preludes using historic cadence examples as the basis for historically informed introductions.

Sources: Current scholarship, such as by Kenneth Hamilton, has focused upon the piano literature such as by Cherny. This lecture draws upon guitar methods and music from the early 19th century. The foundational methods by Sor and Aguado establish a basic understanding or recognition of improvisation. Then the methods of Batioli, Boccomini, and Opus 100 of Mauro Giuliani, will be examined in detail.  Cadence examples, particularly from the Batioli method, will be presented as grist for construction of our own “improvised” preludes.

For more information, go to:  https://classicalguitarmagazine.com/alatamira-hong-kong-guitar-symposium-and-competition-is-fast-approaching/.

Guitars in England

 

We have been generously loaned a guitar for practicing while we are here in the UK, but didn’t realize that it would be a fine handmade instrument, carefully crafted from local woods. The luthier, Les Backshall, has built forty guitars in the last decade or so and is now making ukeleles for his grandchildren (lucky kids!).

The top of this guitar is European Spruce, common in modern guitars as well as earlier instruments such as lutes and vihuelas. However, unlike most classical guitars which have backs and sides made of Rosewood (either Indian or Brazilian), the backs and sides of this guitar are made of Yew (taxus baccata). This yew is a tree that figures importantly in English history. Yew needles and seeds are also toxic to humans which has led to many references to it in mythology (think Druids – this is England!).

 

The Yew tree is indigenous to England. A slow growing conifer, it has a beautiful, distinctive grain and bright sound. It is perhaps similar to Maple, which is what one usually finds on the backs and sides of early nineteenth-century guitars, including ours. We came across a very old Yew at the Oxford Botanical Garden on a visit there last week.

Yew was a much favored wood for the making of longbows and lutes. It conjures images of King Arthur and traveling bards. As we’ve wandered castle ruins and cathedrals these past few weeks, adventure tales of Medieval England come to mind.