Exactly a week ago, I wrote an article on this site in which I cited the research results that Rob C. Wegman published in 1996 in an article in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. The full title of the article was “From Maker to Composer: Improvisation and Musical Authorship in the Low Countries, 1450–1500.” Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s observation that “author” is the root of the noun “authority,” I interpreted Wegman’s article as a study of a “shift in authority,” arising from the impact of the publication of music, a practice that began to take root when Ottaviano Petrucci printed his first volume of the masses of Josquin des Prez in 1502. Prior to Petrucci, performers, by virtue of not only their skills of execution but also their capacity for memory, were the only “authority figures” in the practice of music. Thanks to Petrucci, composers could take on that “mantle of authority” and could maintain it after they had died. (Considering the attention that Josquin still receives, one can even say with confidence, “long after they had died!”)
This past Friday ECM New Series released a new album by vocalist John Potter entitled Secret History. Prior to his retirement, Potter was the Director of a postgraduate program in Vocal Studies in the Music Department at the University of York; and he has remained at that university as a reader emeritus. He is no stranger to the ECM label, having sung with the Hilliard Ensemble on many ECM New Series albums, including their highly imaginative Officium release with improvisations by saxophonist Jan Garbarek. He has also made ECM New Series recordings with The Dowland Project.
The title of his latest release reflects some of that playfulness encountered when Foucault wrote his “What Is an Author?” essay. The essay that Potter provided for the booklet that accompanies his new album begins with the assertion, “Music history is traditionally written in terms of composers and the first appearance of their significant works,” where “first appearance” tends to be tightly (but not exclusively) coupled to “publication.” However, when viewed from the practices of the “makers,” particularly in that early sense of the performers, one encounters a “secret life” beyond that authority of authorship.
This new album investigates one dimension of that secret life developed by the performers of plucked-string instruments, such as the vihuela and the lute. The documents used by these makers, once publication became a fixture in the world of making music, were inevitably in tablature, rather than using any system of notes on a staff that would have been found in that first published volume of Josquin’s masses. Tablature notation represented which fingers pressed down on which strings at what position along the next, and it was usually familiar only to those who played plucked-string instruments. An example is provided in the booklet, although it does not appear to be one of any of the selections on the recording:
It is only when the reader reaches the end of Potter’s essay that one discovers that the selections on this album come from intabulations collected by the English antiquarian Edward Paston, who lived from 1550 to 1630. These consist primarily, if not exclusively, of transcriptions into tablature of music previously published in staff notation, including several of Josquin’s motets and a complete setting of the Mass by Tomás Luis de Victoria. One might call this music one of the earliest examples of “inauthentic arrangement;” but “secret history” gives the practice a much more positive connotation!
The result makes for a fascinatingly intimate account of how music originally created for sacred purposes found its way into a secular setting. While this may be Potter’s album, the “motivating force,” so to speak, behind the performances can be found among the three vihuelistas contributing to the performance, Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, both of whom contributed to Potter’s Amores Pasados ECM New Series album, and Lee Santana. The vocal performances are both solos and duos with Anna Maria Friman (also on the Amores Pasados album). Two of the Josquin settings also include a bass line performed on gamba by Hille Perl.
Another element of intimacy can be found in the introduction of five solo vihuela preludes that separate the movements of the Victoria Mass setting. Heringman is listed as the composer of these preludes. Each is extremely brief (less than a minute in duration); and it is not hard to imagine that all five of them arose out of some improvisatory “goofing off” (as Pete Seeger would have put it). The attentive listener is thus reminded that there is always a place for present-day practices that will not compromise music of the past and may actually honor it as much as the earlier “makers” did.