Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Baroque Bows and the Bearded Lady


On a CD that I've recently received for review is a symphony by Peter Maxwell Davies but of more interest to me on the same disc is a piece by Davies called "Cross Lane Fair" which, written in 1994, was inspired by memories of a childhood fairground.

This composer is notorious for his dislike of pop music and will quickly leave places that pump out wallpaper musak. Minimalist music he dismisses as repetitive and having no interesting musical development. I'm afraid I always steered clear of his music, finding it too cerebral and difficult for me. I've changed my mind.

The old rebel of contemporary music is up to his ninth symphony which will be performed at this year's Proms for the first time on 23rd August. Nine is a particularly important number for the major symphonists, as you may well know. "Cross Lane Fair", an admittedly comparatively much lighter work than the symphonies, is scored for chamber orchestra, Northumbrian pipes and an Irish drum, the bodhrán. The pipes consist of one chanter, usually with keys, and four drones. Each note is played by lifting only one finger or by opening one key and the effect which is comparatively staccato combines with the small bore of the pipes to create a much quieter instrument than the full-blown bagpipes, hence they are less primitive in effect. The bodhrán is the most basic of drums. It consists of a circular frame on which is mounted a single skin. The player is usually seated with the drum held vertically and one hand placed inside the frame on the skin. This hand is then used to control both the volume and the pitch of the sound while the other hand beats the skin, either directly or with a "cipin" or "tipper".

Adding these two instruments to a modern chamber orchestra immediately gives it a feel of the earth and its natural rhythms and folk now meets contemporary head on in the evocation of an old fairground. It is not so much in the musical development that this music is effective but in the characteristic sounds that come from it and these are strongly reminiscent not of avant-garde music but of the Baroque.

Baroque music refers to a style popular during the 17th and early 18th centuries and one of its features is dependent on the combined timbre of the wind and stringed instruments involved. Its effect is similarly both earthy and mystical at the same time. In the case of strings, on the surface those old Baroque instruments don't look much different from those employed today, but digging a little deeper reveals that this is not the case. Take the violin bow for example. Today the stick has a curve that is towards its hairs, while the baroque bow stick was parallel or with an outward curve. The hairs were slacker and one common technique was to hold the hairs, not just the stick, so that pressure on them could be varied. True four-string chords could then be created and other effects controlled.

Musicians tend to think that there is a single correct way to hold and play an instrument but this is often not the case, it being as much a matter of fashion and style as any command from above. Experiment is always worth the trouble and I can recommend it to you both in playing and listening to music. One of my greatest recent pleasures as someone with a passion for contemporary music was discovering how the Baroque style sits so easily in that contemporary sphere. It's an unlikely bedfellow but works really well as a means for marrying the old and the new, for me at least.

The Bearded Lady? Another marriage of genres, she was at that Salford fair and, along with The Five-Legged Sheep, has a whole little musical section dedicated to her.

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