Friday, June 2, 2017

A Musical Post For Musicians And Any Curious Listeners

Since getting hold of some of Dusan Bogdanovic's scores in which he makes extensive use of polyrhythms I've tried learning to play some of his easier pieces on guitar - for my own instruction and pleasure, not for performance.

By chance I also re-read the piece by the medieval musician Benjamin Bagby about an approach to trying to come up with a performance practice for playing medieval harp.  Luckily, it's posted online with some of his other pieces.  The problem is, of course, that we know that very small harps were a vital part of music performance in the medieval period, harps of up to 10 to 13 strings, most likely in most of the period but we have no actual music to indicate how they were played.  Bagby's piece is largely about how he had a moment of revelation while reading Paul F. Berliner's book, The Soul of Mbira., a book about the performance practice of what is often called a thumb piano in America but which has many different names and forms in much of Africa with many different performance traditions.  You can read his piece which is a good place to start when considering playing any medieval instrument as it's almost certain that most of the playing done on those instruments must have been improvised, I'd guess most of it in the manner of preludes, variations and what would, much later, be called fantasies.  

So how do these two paragraphs meet?  First, Dusan Bodanovic has also been instrumental in trying to revive the art of improvisation in classical music, as well as introducing polyrhythms and a level of contrapuntal complexity into classical guitar playing which extends the resources of the instrument as played.  His poly-rhythmic studies - which I'm slowly learning to play - also use rhythmic and contrapuntal effects, some clearly inspired by some African traditions.  I've gotten some useful hints about how to approach learning some of the very complex polyrhythms that are a lot harder to play on a fretboard than on a keyboard. 

In listening around to mbira playing on Youtube and online, recordings I'd certainly never hear anywhere else, I came across some instructional videos by authentic practitioners of some of those traditions.  They aren't exactly music videos, though they're certainly interesting in their approach to teaching people how to play poly-rhythms.  Here, for example is one by Forward Kwenda, demonstrating a teaching method of learning the two voices separately then combining them.  

And here is one where he plays against a video of himself.

In his article Bagby says that when applying the implications contained in the book to his instruments, he isn't advocating an adoption of African musical motives as medieval music - though a few years before that doing so with much later Arabic music practice was all the rage.  It's more of an understanding, practicing musician to practicing musician, of how to create moving musical experience using a limited number of notes on a small instrument.  So much of Africa and the world has so much to teach us in so many ways other than just crude imitation.  The current form of Mbira has a much extended range, of three octaves more or less, perhaps more relevant to the contemporary guitar, but much smaller versions of the same instrument are in current use, as well.  

Bagby has gotten a huge amount of music out of a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon era lyre-harp with six strings, much more music than you might suspect possible.  He uses it mostly to accompany his own recitation-singing of medieval poetry, most of the literary evidence available comes from descriptions of such use.  You can hear, for example, his recordings of Beowulf online.  Others in the informed, imaginative reconstruction of the medieval period have taken his example and are running with it. This man, Peter Horn, for example.

Is that what medieval music sounded like?  Well, I doubt it sounded like any one thing anymore than all of contemporary improvised music sounds like any one thing.  I'm sure it varied greatly, region to region, performer to performer.  I am pretty sure anyone who was stuck with using six notes or ten or 13 would use any sounds, any combination of sounds they could get out of it and control, as it suited their musical intentions and pleased them and their audience.  And what do we have of medieval music, especially that without notated notes or a notated, reproducible rhythmic structure, anyway?   We're people living so many centuries later and we don't have recordings of them making music.   Maybe that's as far removed from the actual people then as someone living on the other side of the world could imagine us and our music without much to go on but a few fragments of instruments and a few literary descriptions, more or less.  You certainly couldn't reproduce the music of the Mop Heads based on the, uh.... literary description of it.  And, anyway, if there's one thing we do know, whenever a.... uh....  "literary"  man puts two words about music on paper, at least one of them will be wrong. 

Bagby's article first appeared in the compendium of practical-theoretical advice "A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music," edited by Ross Duffin.  Another article from that collection, unfortunately not available online, is the practical-theoretical advice on how to get started "Improvisation and Accompaniment before 1300" by Margriet Tindemans.  Though I think her approach is a bit too theoretical.  I'd just advise someone to start with some musical motives from Gregorian Chant or other fairly reliably knowable medieval song and play around with those, to start with, picking up what theory those have to teach you.   While I wouldn't start setting modern chords to them - modern being anything appearing in music well after 1300, and trying to pass it off as real, authentic "medieval music," do what you want to.  Set it to the most massive of jazz chords if you want to.  Just be ready to duck when they start throwing stuff at you. 

Update:  I started with Bogdanovich's  4th of his "7 Little Secrets",   I went from there to 6 and 7 of the Little Secrets, then to what looked like the next harder one. Then the much harder, 7 Easier Polyrhythmic Studies which will probably take me a year to learn.    I've also been practicing the polyrhythms in Polyrhythms, A Musician's Guide by the jazz drummer Peter Magadini.  If I lived another 70 years I might learn enough of it.  I'll be playing a harp before then. 


  1. Cleaning out the house, the Lovely Wife found a book of folksongs I'd gotten in elementary school (back when we bought books through the classroom, via Scholastic, and folk songs were still the rage). A book appropriate to the age group buying it, IOW.

    She pointed out to me something I'd never paid attention to: the songs were arranged for guitar and piano by Carla Bley.

    Who knew?