The Secret of Performing Medieval Music



The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, NYC (photo: Kevin Harber)

Any person who devotes their life to performing early music will tell you—the farther back you go in history, the more it demands of you in terms of information gaps, aesthetic choices, and leaps of faith. Gaps beget questions, which then (hopefully) beget answers.

And those answers? It depends.

Part of the challenge (and reward) of delivering a performance is having committed to a choice in the first place, even if it’s devoid of historical precedent.

Dharmonia sheds light on the challenges of performing medieval music.

In his book The Invention of Medieval Music, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, whom I respect very much as a scholar, says “The modern performance of medieval music absolutely requires that one believe both incompatible things together: we try to do it the way it was, and we know we cannot, and we argue for both.” I’m not so sure that trying to do it ‘the way it was’ and ‘knowing that I cannot’ are actually incompatible.

To me, those two facts taken together are more like a Zen koan, the proverbial “sound of one hand clapping.” The very fact that we medieval music nerds do spend a lot of time trying to “find out what might be recoverable” means that we acknowledge that some is not recoverable. This is not the same as “arguing for both.”

We are not arguing for anything. We are assembling musical material from a particular time period, and where there is not enough there to make a complete performance that we as performers can do with conviction, we invent the rest…

Read more: The Sound of One Hand Plucking (Dharmonia)

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