Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Illuminating Ornamentation

I mentioned about a month ago that I recently collaborated with artist Jim Zingarelli as part of an exhibit called "Drawing as Encounter." Again, just to be be clear, he did all the drawing/painting/etc. I was just an encounteree, although that did produce some musical performances from me that have become part of the exhibit. The process of talking with Jim about the different ways we think as artists - he as free-thinking creator in visual media, I mostly as a recreator of existing musical scores - brought us back several times to thinking about the phenomenon of the musical score, both as visual object and as a somewhat vexing authority figure.

Musicians, of course, tend to refer to the score as "the music" even though, as I cleverly demonstrated at the exhibit opening by holding The Well-Tempered Clavier up to a microphone, the score doesn't produce any actual music. The process of interpreting those little black specks is an art in itself (I like to think), but one fraught with all sorts of tension about being true to the composer's wishes, etc.

Jim had the idea of emancipating the score, in a way, by treating it as a sort of canvas to which he could add his own decorations. We talked about various possibilities, including some music of Poulenc, whose musical spirit reminds me of Z's work. Jim showed me a little impromptu watercolor sketch he'd made that was inspired by listening to some Poulenc I'd suggested. The delicate figurative intricacy of the sketch somehow brought to mind the kind of florid ornamentation one sees and hears in the French Baroque style. It occurred to me that the music of François Couperin, whose scores are readily available in public domain form, might make an interesting canvas for our experiments since the music lends itself to liberal ornamentation from the performer.

The first score I gave him is a beautiful little piece charmingly self-titled "Le Couperin." I chose it partly because it can be played slowly enough that florid elaborations are possible; I actually removed all of Couperin's indicated ornaments and then basically instructed Jim to do whatever he wanted to with the rest. His intent was not to try to think like a musician, but rather to respond to the score as a visual object. My job, then, was to perform it, finding whatever suggestion and inspiration I chose to from Jim's encounter with Couperin.

I don't mind admitting that I'm no expert when it comes to Baroque improvisation - or when it comes to any kind of improvisation, for that matter. In fact, this is part of what I hoped to gain from the experience - the enigmatically ornamented score presented itself less as an academic challenge in following instructions than as inspiration to be freely creative. Although I did settle on some consistent ways of interpreting some of the colorful markings, I gave myself permission not to be too constrained by them. Still, one of the outcomes of the experiment was finding that the new score was not just liberating - I also learned that certain ideas (end of m.4, for example) worked so naturally that they became, in my mind, settled ways of reading some of the markings.

But, I'm not going to try to explain or defend any of my choices here. There are still some passages that I'd like to explore more, but I won't say which ones. Here then, complete with the Couperin/Zingarelli score, is one possible interpretation:

Note that there are ways in which this sort of visually inspired interpretative process is related to some of shuffling experiments I've blogged about recently. Although Jim's score markings (or "illuminations," as I like to call them, thinking of medieval manuscripts and the like) aren't exactly random, the way in which they interact with the notes is at best tangentially related to the kinds of instructions that notes are supposed to convey. So, just as shuffling an iPod can lead to unexpected connections and discoveries, using an artist as intermediary can provide a fresh way of looking at an old score.

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