Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Calextone Explores the Transition from “Maker” to “Composer”

The name Calextone is a variant of Callisto, the nymph pursued by Jupiter that Juno changed into a bear (after which Jupiter raised her to the heavens to become the constellation we now know as Ursa Major). This afternoon in the Noontime Concerts series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Calextone was the name of a quartet of four women specializing in music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. All four of them, Allison Zelles Lloyd, Shira Kammen, Frances Blaker, and Letitia Berlin, both sang and played on historically-appropriate instruments.

The selections chosen for the program covered a period of transition described in a scholarly paper by Rob C. Wegman as “from maker to composer.” Only four of the selections had named composers. These were Johannes Ciconia, Solage (of whom so little is known that his first name is uncertain), Matteo da Perugia, and Guillaume Du Fay. All four of these composers preceded what Kate van Orden called “the first century of print” in her book about the rise of “authorship” in music. That means that the music was documented in hand-written (and usually ornamented) codices. While the name of a composer may have been attached to such a document, the composer himself may not have had a hand (so to speak) in the content. As was the case with the other works on today’s program for which composers were not identified, the codex was the result of the effort of a scribe. Often it is difficult to identify who that scribe was, let alone how much he knew about the making of the music he was documenting.

The significance of the title of Wegman’s paper is that “making music” was originally just something that people did with instruments and their voices. This might be a solo activity or the result of several of these people gathering in a group. In many respects they are similar in nature to many of the earliest practitioners of jazz, who knew how to make music and never felt that ignorance of music notation was an impediment. Convergence on a systematic approach to notation, in turn, preceded the first efforts to print notated music; and, before that, it led to a new class of music makers (“composers”) who would work with notation without necessarily beginning with “making music” as a prerequisite practice.

For those acquainted only with music that had been firmly grounded in publication, this afternoon’s selection would probably have had alien qualities. Multiple voices would be singing different melodic lines (thus marking the origins of counterpoint); but they would be singing at the same time to different words. The implication seems to have been that tunes came first, usually sung to words; and polyphony emerged as a practice of singing (or playing) several different things at the same time. What resulted was given the classificatory name “motet.” Furthermore, to the extent that they could be perceived at all, the words also had alien qualities, reflecting the predecessors of what we now call “modern” languages.

For all of that strangeness, though, Calextone could present their content with a highly affable style. (Those familiar with recordings by other early music groups might accuse them of being a bit too affable. Another school of thought suggests that secular music probably had a sharp edge of vulgarity to it. Calextone seems happier with the more refined rhetorical stance that we used to be able to find in recordings by Anonymous 4.) In addition Lloyd had a gift for presenting texts in strange words with a delivery that convinced the listener that they meant something, even if what they meant was in question. (This is a style often found among the best folk singers presenting songs from other countries.) The result was a recital that ran a bit on the long side but never seemed to strain the attention of the curious listener.

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