100 Years of Jazz: Ragtime

Ragtime

Blog by Louise Balkwill

In our last blog, we looked at Congo Square and the origins of Jazz music. Now we visit the 1890’s, when Ragtime appeared in its earliest form.

Unlike the earlier music of Congo Square that was passed down aurally from generation to generation, Ragtime music gained popularity through being passed around as sheet music, and is thought to be the first written ‘pop’ music – Blues, in contrast, was thought by the higher classes to be a lower class rural music (although very important in the history of jazz – we will have a listen to some blues in the next blog.)

Named ‘Ragtime’ because of its ragged, syncopated rhythms, the music became very popular for dances and was written mainly by middle class African American musicians who had gained influence from minstrelsy and classical music, as well as the improvised and traditional music of Congo Square. The music was accompanied by a dance called the ‘Cakewalk’ – this made way for endless variations that the kids of the time loved to get their feet into. Ragtime music was also a very popular choice to accompany silent films in its later years. You might well have heard of “The Entertainer” (or even played it for one of your grade exams); this is a Ragtime piece written by Scott Joplin, the celebrated “King of Ragtime” in 1902, 115 years ago!

Ragtime started off as a music witten only for solo piano, but in the early 1900’s, orchestral and ensemble arrangements became popular. The violin then became the main leading instrument in these ragtime ensembles with this popular line-up:

  • Melody: First Violin (or Cornet with second Cornet harmonies)
  • Beats 2 and 4: Second Violin (prior to the banjo)
  • Beats 1 and 3: Bass Viol
  • *Obbligato: Piccolo or Clarinet
  • Bassline: Trombone
  • Percussion: Strict time drumming

*Obbligato, (Italian: “obligatory”), in music, essential but subordinate instrumental part. For example, in an 18th-century aria with trumpet obbligato, the trumpet part, although serving as accompaniment to the voice, may be as brilliant in its writing as that of the voice itself.

Fancy having a go at learning some Ragtime Piano?

Check out this video with on-screen sheet music of the first known rag, written by the first published African American composer, Tom Turpin!

(If you liked that, check out YouTube user RagtimeDorianHenry’s other ragtime videos!)

In the next blog, we’ll be looking at early blues and how it has played a massive part in the evolution of the jazz tradition!

Noteworthy People – Sir Simon Rattle

by Jess

It’s time for our first “Noteworthy People” of the academic year and this half term we have chosen…

Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle is one of Britain’s most renowned and highly regarded conductors. He became recognised as an international artist whilst conducting the CBSO from 1980-98, before taking over as lead conductor of the world famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002.

Now, the big news…

Simon Rattle is back in the UK!

He has taken over as musical director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Britain’s highest profile orchestra. And music lovers have high hopes for this new collaboration.

Taken from an article written by Erica Jeal for the Guardian:

“Teachers dream that his influence might fix the funding crisis in music education. Managers hope this rare household-name conductor will be a shot of adrenaline for the box office. Audiences want to hear that velvety Berlin Phil tone added to the LSO’s already dazzling palette, and the LSO players themselves know that he is likely to be listened to when he insists on good rehearsal time and conditions for his musicians.”

The LSO have celebrated this new era for the orchestra, as they call it, with a 10 day festival called “This Is Rattle”, consisting of talks, exhibitions, specially commissioned art works and of course, several concerts.

There is even a hastag!

#thisisrattle

Want to catch Rattle in action? He’s back conducting the LSO in December at the Barbican Centre for a concert of Bernstein (16th December) 

And to finish, a bit of light relief…. Some say the LSO/Rattle brand started back in 2012, with a famous fictional character to help….. Thank you Mr Bean!

Have a great week!

Jess

100 Years of Jazz: Part 1 – Congo Square

Blog by Louise Balkwill

2017 is a very special year for music – it marks 100 years since the release of the first ever jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues” by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band! Since then, popular music has foxtrotted, swung, bopped, rocked and rolled its way into the 21st century, but the rich culture of improvised music from New Orleans is still rife today all over the world.

 

Congo Square, the Birthplace of Jazz

Before we look at the journey that jazz music has taken over the past 100 years, we must ask how it came to be in the first place.

Rewind 100 years further to the year of 1817; 198 years after the first Africans were sold into slavery in America. The mayor of New Orleans city council established “Congo Square” (originally known as Beauregard Square and Congo Plains) as an official site for slave music and dance by restricting any kind of gathering of enslaved Africans anywhere else in the city.

Every Sunday, they would gather in Congo Square and sell goods to raise money to buy their freedom. In the glimpse of free time that this weekly ‘day off’ provided, they would also gather together to sing, dance and create music. Original instruments used included long, narrow African drums that had previously been banned in America, triangles, jawbones and early ancestors of the banjo.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s drawing of a bamboula, made at Congo Square on February 16, 1819. (© Maryland Historical Society)

Dances such as “Flat-Footed-Shuffle” and the ”Bamboula” were performed as these rhythms were played. As time went on, the dances and music evolved with new influences and ideas.

Visitors from all over New Orleans began to gather to spectate and dance along to what they then coined “Black music”, and this culture began to spread across America.

African slaves dancing the Bamboula; Illustration by Edward Windsor Kimble at The Historic New Orleans Collection

The square became a mixing pot for a rich diversity of traditional African rhythms passed down through many generations, as well as European music that English-speaking Africans were familiar with.

In 1865, after almost 250 years of slavery in America, the cruel trade was abolished, but the musical traditions that had evolved over the past few decades stuck.

 

In the next post, we’ll be looking at how African American music evolved into the new hip trend of the late 19th century – Ragtime!

The Becky Dell Music Academy – A London Living Wage Organisation

We are delighted to have been awarded the London Living Wage Employer mark by the Living Wage Foundation, a foundation supporting the fair pay of employees across the country.

Although we have only recently received accreditation, we have always strived to provide fair wages for our admin staff and tutors are paid above the Musicians’ Union recommended rate, which makes for a happy team!

Congratulations also to Mycenae House, our biannual concert venue, for being awarded the same mark.

We thought you’d be happy to know that you are supporting the fair pay of employees by choosing to have music lessons with us – a big thank you from the whole team!

The Becky Dell Music Academy – A London Living Wage Organisation

Noteworthy People – Imogen Heap

By Jess

We are bringing back one of our segments called “Noteworthy People” where we focus on an inspirational person and tell you about their work. This time it is…

Imogen Heap

In the music industry we are often told to have several “strings to our bow” – excuse the pun. And no one seems to fit into this more than the lovely Imogen Heap.

On Wikipedia, the first sentence of her biography says Imogen Heap, is an English singer-songwriter, composer, and engineer.”

That’s already three big things!  Sorry, ENGINEER…?! We will come to that later!

You might know her as a singer-songwriter for songs such as Hide and Seek, The Happy Song or Just For Now. She recently appeared in Ariana Grande’s charity concert One Love Manchester as one of Ariana’s role models and icons:  

 Then again you could have heard of her because she composed the music for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

West End composer, nominated for an Olivier award- not bad going!

Becky went to see the production (lucky thing) a couple of weeks ago (the tickets had been pinned above her computer for literally a year!) and was absolutely blown away by the whole production, saying the music really added to the magic.

But what struck me in the Wikipedia description was the word Engineer. So I browsed trusty Google and realised how amazing this woman actually is!

I found a Guardian article titled “Imogen Heap: saviour of the music industry?”  which describes how she’s created a pair of musical gloves that allow her to change and create sound with her hands.

They are called Mi.Mu gloves and they give her the freedom to improvise and use simple movements to sculpt her music. Hence her job title- musical engineer!

She decided she had to embrace the ever changing music industry rather than running to catch up with it. Her innovative invention is a massive step forward for exciting and engaging live performance of electronic music.

As ever with music, it’s better to watch and listen to really understand this concept, so here is her TED talk – grab yourself a coffee and watch how she has the audience (and the music!) in the palm of her hands!

 For more of an overview of her exciting career check out her BBC Music page – we’re big fans here at BDMA! 

Back to the Future for Classical Music

by Jess

Classical Music….

Out dated. Boring. For old people.

I DON’T THINK SO!

Unfortunately, these are however some of the typical stereotypes we often hear when talking about classical music. Those of us that love the music know this not to be true! But how do we convince the non-lovers?

It is a sad fact that the world of classical orchestral concerts is fading away and people don’t go to as many classical concerts as they used to. Which is why the orchestral world needs a rethink – how can we keep this fantastic music living on?

A classical orchestra concert typically consists of an overture, a concerto and then a symphony in the second half. This has been the structure for many years, and yes, it works for the audience that currently watch it. But as we know, that audience is getting smaller and smaller and we want to bring new listeners in.

So I thought I’d have a little delve into some of the ways orchestras have been trying to tackle the problem.

What exciting new concert programmes have they come up with?

Have they collaborated with non-classical artists?

Have they varied their repertoire?

The inspiration for this research started when I played in a concert with the Notting Hill Orchestra the other week, an entire concert dedicated to film music. Not necessarily your standard Classical rep but it was ACCESSIBLE to the audience and brought in a full house. The pieces were relatively short and easy to listen to but what struck me most was HOW the orchestra put on the show.

Yes, I say show because that is truly what it was.

The orchestra were sat traditionally in the middle of a beautiful, high ceilinged church with spot lights surrounding them. Alongside the music, there was a light show that complemented the storylines and action within the music. It made the whole event really exciting and a very visual and successful way of introducing people to an orchestra.

Any die hard Metallica fans would also know that they have used an orchestra. Heavy metal meets classical symphony orchestra?! 7

What?!

Back in 1999 they recorded “Symphony and Metallica” (or S&M) with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The bassist from the band, Cliff Burton, came up with the idea to “combine heavy metal with epic classical” (I love that classical is described as epic!) and actually a lot of inspiration for Metallica songs before this album he took from the work of Johann Sebastian Bach – who knew?

Back to the year 2017, the BBC Philharmonic orchestra (in Manchester) have been collaborating with Radio 1 Live Lounge to create a series called “Live Lounge Symphony” where they join forces with pop acts, adding the “epic classical” sound (I’m going to keep using epic!) to their famous chart topping songs. Last year it was with Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne!

Something else I’ve spotted in the concert halls recently is symphony orchestras playing film scores alongside the showing of the film. Just a few days ago the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra played John Williams’ score for “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone” at the Royal Albert Hall. Imagine not only watching the film on a HD, 40-foot screen, but having the full spectacle of an orchestra at the forefront of the stage.

“an unforgettable experience for Harry Potter fans”

…and music fans!

Let’s hope we get more of these!

On the same theme as bringing a film to stage, orchestras have also been collaborating with actors and storytellers to bring famous children’s stories to life with live music. What a great way of heightening the imagination of young people as well as introducing them to the sound of the orchestra and the setting of the concert hall, with stories that they will know so well.

Finally, the one thing we have missing from the above collaborations and concerts is the use of traditional classical music repertoire.  

I’m happy to say that the concert programmers seem to be finding a way of broadening their audience for this too. Flicking through the Hallé Orchestra’s concert programme there are titles such as “Russian Spectacular” with music from Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and “Never Mind the Weather” with music by Gershwin.

I like the idea of a theme to a concert, with some pieces the audience will recognise and some new ones they will be introduced to. I feel it’s a non-daunting way of getting people to watch and listen to classical music.

Hopefully ideas like these will continue and classical music and symphony orchestras will stay in the concert hall for many years to come.

On tour with the Street Orchestra of London

by Sophie

I recently took part in a really exciting project called the Street Orchestra of London (SOL). I didn’t quite know what to expect before we began but I soon realised how friendly everyone was and that we were all equally excited about the week ahead. This was the second SOL tour so some people had done it before but every single one of them had returned because they had had so much fun the first time around.

Having now completed my first SOL tour I can honestly say it was one of the best weeks of my life.

Here’s why:

The mission statement of the SOL is to bring high quality, live music to everyone, anywhere for free. We aim to reach wider audiences, providing free public performances in a variety of locations. On this tour we played at London Bridge Station, a refugee centre in Dalston, Greenwich Park, the Hackney Showroom for an orchestral club night, the Migration Museum, Brighton Pier, Brighton Pavillion Gardens and most recently at the Sound Unbound festival at the Barbican Centre.

A standard day in the life of a SOL musician would include between 6-8 performances in different locations, some of which may be planned, some of which might be completely spontaneous. It’s all hands on deck and we can go from sitting on a coach to performing in just 10 minutes.

The theme for our tour was ‘migration’ and as such we chose our repertoire to reflect this.

For example, we included Dvorak’s New World Symphony which he wrote after he migrated from the Czech Republic as it now is, to America. Neil Armstrong even took a recording of the piece to the moon on the Apollo 11 mission!  We incorporated music from composers all around the world, such as Bernstein from America, Bach from Germany, Prokofiev from Russia. We also included two world premieres by young composers: Bandstand by Freya Waley-Cohen  and Toranj Aftab Darvishi. I learnt that ‘Toranj’ is the pattern commonly found on Persian rugs! Bandstand also featured members of the orchestra ‘migrating’ into and out of the audience. The repertoire was varied; we played jazz, pop, funk, classical, North African, West African, folk.

I don’t have a favourite as it was all so much fun, but one piece that sticks out particularly is Maghreb Mix which is a medley of North African tunes including some from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. This piece required us to play some quarter tones – often we would consider these notes to sound out of tune as they’re not notes used in most Western classical music, but when used in certain contexts and everyone does it together they can sound really cool.

Each concert featured a different selection of music, and lasted a different length of time. Volunteers from the orchestra put together a new programme for each concert, selected from our tour catalogue of 23 pieces.

Joining us on our tour was a very special man called Jean-Paul Samputu. He’s a Rwandan composer and singer and he wrote and sang a few of the African songs we played on tour. Normally in an orchestra we don’t have to sing, but in his pieces there was also lots of singing for us and we loved it! His pieces, including Simba, which means ‘Lion’, really have a feel good factor to them, and they’re inspiring as he wrote them after a very turbulent time in Rwanda’s history. Jean-Paul is known also as an ambassador for peace and travels the world giving talks on forgiveness –an inspirational man to have the privilege to tour with for a week.

We try to get the audience involved as much as possible and break down the traditional barriers often associated with a concert orchestra. We encourage our audiences to dance along, sing along, and even conduct along.

One of our pieces required a guest conductor aka a volunteer from the audience to lead us. Our first violinist gave them a 10 second masterclass in conducting before embarking on Offenbach’s Can Can and it usually surprised them when they realised just how much power you have when you’re holding a baton. Despite occasional disagreement between the brass and the string sections (brass usually won as they’re louder!), we did our best to follow our guest conductor and usually the audience clapped along, with some brave people even attempting the Can Can dance!

Some of our performances were planned in advance, and some were more spontaneous. Some of the guerrilla gigs included flashmobs in Ikea and B&Q in Croydon, at a market in Lewisham and at Greenwich Park where we joined a busker, much to his surprise! He loved it though: as we played the theme for Ski Sunday whilst wandering around, he joined in and even came to support us at our orchestral club night at the Hackney Showroom later that evening!

One of the best things about SOL is seeing people’s reactions. I will never forget the expression on one homeless man’s face in a refugee centre in Dalston when he heard us play for the first time. I’ve never seen music affect someone visibly so deeply before, and it moved many of us to tears. I feel so privileged to have been able to take part in a project that has moved people to tears and to dance, and affect so many people in such meaningful ways. It’s such a joy to be able to bring a smile to someone else’s face.

It is this that the Street Orchestra of London stands for, and this that we hope to continue doing through the power of music.

The only thing that could have made the tour any better would be if I’d managed to avoid having a seagull poo on my hand while I ate pizza by Brighton Pier…but then they do say that’s meant to be good luck…!

We will be on tour again in July 2017 – look out for us!

#streetorchestra

 

Love of Life and the Living World

Love of Life and the Living World

By Indigo Star

Many of you will have heard of the incredible singer, songwriter, producer, DJ and actress Bjork. With around 4 Million records sold worldwide as of 2015, is it any wonder she is considered by many to be ” the most important and forward looking musician of her generation” and “one of the greatest women in music”?

Famed for her innovative approach to vocals and composition, her expansive career, which spans 4 decades has taken her audience on an immersive journey through a myriad of influences, genres and styles.

But here is where it gets really interesting.

Not only has her music reached the masses but her forward thinking approach has lead her to pioneer a new technological app along with an unchartered teaching approach that could change the way we engage and create using colour and sound as a combined tool…This app is called Biophilia – but more on that a little later.

Collaborating frequently with multidisciplinary artists and exploring the way music is visually represented Bjork continues to develop an ever-expanding platform for us to broaden our perceptions of music and inspire our imaginations.

 Her collaborations have extended to include scientists, environmentalists, artists, academics and technologists and it was these collaborations that culminated in the release of her extraordinary 2011 album “Biophilia” in which Bjork brings the multi sensory experience and expression of music to a whole new level.

This official video of one of the album tracks is breathtaking in it’s concept and delivery. In it Bjork creates an audiovisual landscape of our living nature…

click here

And with that let me bring you back to the app this wonderful artist has created…
Bjork teamed up with Producer and app designer Scott Snibbe to create and launch the innovative Biophilia App.

In the creators’ own words…

“Björk has collaborated with artists, designers, scientists, instrument makers, writers and software developers to create an extraordinary multimedia exploration of the universe and its physical forces, processes and structures – of which music is a part. Each in-app experience is inspired by and explores the relationships between musical structures and natural phenomena, from the atomic to the cosmic. You can use Biophilia to make and learn about music, to find out about natural phenomena, or to just enjoy Björk’s music.”

Using similar ideas to those explored within the app, the live performances of tracks from her Biophilia album incorporate giant science based installations, bringing science in its magnitude directly into the concert experience.

Check out this performance…
click here

Now, not only did she create the remarkable app but Bjork simultaneously initiated a groundbreaking education project across Iceland. In collaboration with The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and The Nordic Council of Ministers she set up a collaborative network of experts in music, science, technology and the arts to promote innovation in schools and encourage interesting music and its creation.

Bjork joined forces with the City of Reykjavik and the University of Iceland to launch the Biophilia Education Project which would roll out in selected schools over the course of 3 years.

In layman terms, it’s focus is to draw people away from their desks and invite them to delve into the depths of their imagination. 

With a fundamental ethos of Listen, Learn, Create this exceptional project, by encouraging simultaneous learning between multiple disciplines, encourages diversity and stimulates experimentation and growth in a more tangible way than many traditional teaching methods . They believe that giving students a new model of open-mindedness and uninhibited exploration creates potential for new discoveries that might otherwise have been missed.

What a woman!


Click the link below to see a guided tour of the app by Designer and executive Producer Scott Snibbe as he gives an introduction to utilising this amazing creative resource :
click here

Perhaps you could put this incredible tool to good use and start your own personal journey into sound science and the unlimited creative multimedia universe or perhaps trial this transformative education tool in a project or classroom of your own.

For more information, videos, downloadable teaching PDF’s and more visit the website:

 

Biophilia Education

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Sing The Rainbow…

Sing A Rainbow

By Indigo Star 9th March 2017

The Colour of Sound

Colour appears in music it time and time again, a perfect example can be found in the popular children’s classic ‘Sing A Rainbow’, we even have a whole genre of music called the Blues that often laments on the woeful human condition of sadness and emotional disarray. We use colour in language to describe strong feelings with terms such as ‘seeing red’ to denote anger, or ‘green with envy’ as the hue of jealousy.

Have you ever considered what sound and music might look like? Did you know that each sound has a corresponding colour and through mathematical science we can calculate the colour of sound and connect the plethora of frequencies visually and audibly perceivable to us.

So how does it work? I hear you ask. Well first you have to understand the fundamental nature of vibration that sound and colour share. Frequency is a measure we use for both and is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit in time. The sounds we hear are much lower frequency than the light we see and therefore sound and light vibrations are very different.

In the 17th century it was Isaac Newton that made the pioneering discovery that white light shone through a prism dispersed, separating into different wavelengths which produced the seven colours of the rainbow.

Light (colour) is formed of electromagnetic waves which are synchronised oscillations of electric and magnetic fields that radiate at the speed of light through a vacuum. This extensive range of continuous frequencies is known as the Electromagnetic Spectrum of which only a narrow band of wavelengths between 1014 & 1015 Hertz are actually visible to the human eye. Though light is a very fast moving wavelength, slow it down enough and it stops being visible and becomes audible.

Sound on the other hand causes air molecules to vibrate in moving compression waves which involves the two simple elements of pressure and time. These fundamental elements can be used to describe absolutely every sound we hear.

Some people are born with a rare condition called Synesthesia, found roughly in 1-4 percent of people. This trait causes them to experience a mixing of the senses which means they involuntarily see colour when look at particular letters, numbers and other symbols or in connection to the sounds that they hear. Many research studies have revealed how we might perceive sound as colour, such as the work of one of Russia’s most innovative and controversial early modern composers, Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915) who developed a substantially atonal music system to which he associated colours with the various harmonic tones of his atonal scale based on his own experience of synesthesia.

He developed a mapping system called “clavier à lumieères” (literally “keyboard with lights”) depicting sound pitch and colour correlation.

      Alexander Scriabins’ musical colour map   

Take a look at the link below to see a fine example of this when Ali Nikrang for Mozarteum Kultur GmbH wrote a program to visualizes a piano performance in realtime using the “colour theory” by Alexander Scriabin.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ES4rQQdnHrQ

The Sound of Colour

In more recent times the colour blind artist and musician Neil Harbisson has overcome his colour blindness by working alongside technologists including Peter Kese, a software developer from Kranj, Slovenia and more recently, Matias Lizana, a computer engineering student at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. Together they have utilised modern technologies to create ‘The Eyeborg’ which used a webcam to detect light and a sound conversion computer program along with headphones to transmit the sound to his ears which was further developed to transmit the sound directly to his skull bone. Though this work Harbisson is now able to perceive a greater spectrum of colours and in turn paint what he hears by using the device as a source of inspiration which informs his painting.

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Sacred Sound

It’s not only in art and music that we find the colour sound combination to be of intrigue and usefulness. Therapists across many cultures have understood the power of sound in conjunction with colour because we are made up of electromagnetic vibrations and frequencies also. Even ancient civilisations used colour and sound as a form of healing practice through chanting to invoke colourful vibration to re-tune the body into balance which is still practised by many today. Often based around the perception of an energy point system within the body called Chakras, each correlating to one of the seven colours of the rainbow and a corresponding sound frequency. Our ancestors developed techniques such as chanting and mantras which would create resonance within the body believing it to have beneficial and restorative effects. Why not try it yourself?

Take a look at the diagram below, get comfortable and sit quietly for a few moments then take a deep and calming breath in and out, notice how you feel. Then begin to sing each of the notes in the corresponding vowel sound whilst visualising its given colour. How does it feel inside when you make each sound wave and imagine it in colour? When finished take notice of how you feel, is it a different when you began? You could write it down and try it a few times to see if you get different results each time.

   

What colour are you most attracted to right now?

Here are suggested qualities associated with the 7 colours of the chakra rainbow. If you would like to enhance those qualities within yourself, your life and your creativity, introduce them into your day through diet by eating coloured food, dressing in colour, singing the vowel while focussing on the corresponding chakra and colour.

Paint With Music

The exciting times we live in present myriad opportunities to access a wealth of information and resources which are becoming increasingly available to us.

Our ability to express ourselves freely and creatively expands in all directions as we continue to find new ways in which to perceive the world in which we live.

As we marvel at the world and express our perceptions, an inevitably fusion of multi mediums, beliefs, creative ideas, technologies and talent occurs in a perpetual spiral of discovery. One such artist who did exactly that is music composer Ólafur Arnalds with his composition Ljósið. Olafur collaborated with video artists to create an eloquently stunning and colourful visual representation of his music. Perhaps you could work with other artists too?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYIfiQlfaas

Explore for yourself by perhaps creating your own unique piece of musical art, this could be done by painting whilst listening to a particular song that inspires you, or perhaps write a piece of music based upon the colour sound charts below. Have fun creating your own new painting with music technique.

Good luck and enjoy the wonderful world of colour, light and sound!

Time Travelling with Music

by Sophie Simpson

Hello! I’m Sophie, a violin and piano teacher for the Becky Dell Music Academy in the new Manchester branch.

I’m sure many of you are aware of how versatile stringed instruments are; as a violinist there are opportunities to play in a pop band, folk music, in an orchestra, a quartet, as a soloist, at a wedding…etc.

However, I’d like to talk specifically about a particular niche I have found myself being involved in within the performance world: historically informed performance or HIP for short.

The music world is a competitive one and it can be useful to find something different to help you to stand out. I fell into the HIP world sort of by accident, but quickly became hooked, though I continue to perform on the ‘modern’ violin too. It might sound dull at first but I promise it’s not! It’s great when you’re performing to know that you’re creating something that sounds the way audiences would have heard it hundreds of years ago – if you close your eyes you could almost travel back in time…

What is historically informed performance?

The idea with HIP is that the performance reflects academic and practical research into how the music might have been performed at the time it was written. This research can take many forms including analysing surviving letters, treaties or publications from the time, the music on the page, or the instruments themselves can give us clues.

There are even some instruments that are no longer in general use, such as the viola da spalla, which looks a bit like a small cello (or big violin!), but was played with a strap around the neck and in more of a guitar hold and has five strings.

Here is a link to a video of Sergey Malov playing some music by Bach on the viola da spalla: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-H6XAIwZKA

So what counts as historically informed performance?

Taken literally, this could encompass anything that happened in the past, even yesterday!

However, when musicians talk about HIP they tend to think of the Renaissance (c.1300-1600), Baroque (c.1600-1750), Classical (c.1750-1820) and Romantic (c.1820-1850), or even early 20th Century time periods. Early recordings from the 20th Century can be classed as a useful resource for research, though obviously there are no recordings from the Baroque or Classical eras!

As a violinist one of my specialisms within HIP is the Baroque era. How are Baroque instruments different to their modern counterparts?

Instruments have been constantly developing along with technical advances and to adapt to changing styles of composition; there was never one point in history when people woke up and said ‘we are no longer in the Baroque era, today marks the start of the Classical era and we must adapt our instruments accordingly’!

The Baroque and modern violins look relatively similar upon first glance. The shape and dimensions of the body are much the same as they have always been. You may have heard of violin maker or luthier Antonio Stradivari and even today many luthiers try to make copies of his violins.

However, there are some differences: the Baroque violin does not have a chinrest as this was not invented until around 1820 by Louis Spohr; neither did they have shoulder rests, but they may have used a piece of soft leather to make it more comfortable to hold; the strings were made of gut instead of metal as they are today; the angle of the neck was shallower on a baroque violin than a modern violin as the gut strings could not take the tension that comes from a steeper angle.

The bow was also different: the baroque bow is shorter and convex (frowning) in shape whereas the modern bow is concave (smiling) and longer, which makes it more powerful. I play on a replica baroque violin for my historically informed performances of music from the Baroque era. The baroque cello does not have a spike, but instead the cellist balances the cello between their legs.

Wind and brass instruments also differed as they were not able to make metal keys for them in the baroque era, so brass players had to tune notes with their lips only, and wind players had basic holes for their fingers cut into the wood. These instruments feel and sound quite different to their modern counterparts.

In the Baroque era, the piano hadn’t been invented, but they did have other keyboard instruments including the organ and harpsichord. The harpsicord is similar to the piano, except that the strings inside are plucked instead of hit, and there is no pedal so it sounds quite different.

One of the other main differences is pitch.

Today we usually label an ‘A’ (the note an orchestra will tune to) as 440 Hertz, but in the baroque era, their ‘A’ may have been higher or lower than how we hear it today. It varied according to where you lived in Europe and how the church organ was tuned. Because people were not able to travel as far and as frequently as we do today, there was no standardisation of pitch until much later on. Based on research, historically informed performances of works by Monteverdi are often at a higher pitch of A=465Hz and Bach is often played at a lower pitch of A=415Hz.  

This picture is one of the earliest known depictions of a violin.

It is artist Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Madonna of the Orange Tree, painted 1530. A cherub is seen playing a bowed instruments which clearly has the hallmarks of a violin.

I hope this has been an interesting introduction to the world of historically informed performance, and an eye opener to just one of many musical opportunities out there waiting for you!

Over the last few decades, there has been a boom in interest in HIP and there are now many groups and orchestras who perform in a historically informed manner, including the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Academy of Ancient Music. There are also several vocal groups who sing with a historically informed approach, including I fagiolini and Ex Cathedra.

Do look them up if you’re interested in finding out more!