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.

20190715_120349
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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Saturday, January 28, 10:30 am Concert at the Willamette Heritage Center, Salem, Oregon

willamette-heritage-visit-01The Willamette Heritage Center is a particularly apt place for a performance of early nineteenth-century music on guitars from the period.

Located across from Willamette University at 1313 Mill St SE, in Salem, Oregon, the Willamette Heritage Center preserves buildings that date from the 1840s when Euro-American missionaries and immigrants settled in the Mid-Willamette Valley, home of the Kalapuya. It is likely that these settlers would have brought guitars with them very similar to the ones we will be playing on our concert!

The concert will take place in the Pleasant Grove Church, built in 1854 by Oregon Trail immigrants. The Heritage Center includes many other historic buildings and the 1896 Thomas Kay Woolen Mill (where Neil’s mother shopped for fabric for her sewing projects well into the 1960s!).

The mill is a National Park Service-designated American Treasure, vividly telling the story of industrialization of the Mid-Willamette Valley. Concert-goers are encouraged to stay and visit the rest of the Willamette Heritage Center to experience the life and culture of early Oregon and the era in which the Caulkins’ music would have been heard.

The concert is Free to the Public. Donations to the museum will be gladly accepted.

CWU Concert Tuesday, January 10, 2017 at 7:00 pm

Join us for a concert of early nineteenth century music on period guitars at Central Washington University, Department of Music, Jerilyn S. McIntyre Music Building Recital Hall, Tuesday, January 10, 2017, 7:00 PM. Admission is Free to the Public.

PROGRAM

Grand March, Op. 21  –  (Benigne) Henry (fl. 1818)

The Polonesi Concertanti, Op. 137  –  Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829)
No. 1 Allegretto/Trio in D major
No. 2 Allegretto/Trio in A major
No. 3 Allegretto/Trio in E minor

Duet Op. 34, No. 3  –  Antoine de Lhoyer (1768-1852)
Allegreto Moderato
Andante Sostenuto
Rondo Allegro

Ich Denke Dein  –  Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-1856)
Mazurka

 

House Concert in Redmond!

klassen-house-concert-3

Thank you to everyone who came out to our Redmond House concert on Saturday, November 12! It was an honor to have so many knowledgeable aficionados of the guitar in the audience and a pleasure to meet many of them afterwards.

Merci to our gracious hosts, Matt & Cathlyn!