Every now and then a recording or performance comes along to challenge your assumptions, possibly giving you a new way of seeing things. I’ve been listening to two Bud Roach CDs:
Within a few seconds of putting them on the player in the car, I’m spirited away to another place, another century. Whether or not you understand the Italian text (I pick out parts, but need the enclosed booklet to decode all the wit), it’s a magical combination. Roach is guitarist & tenor for these songs, singing at times with great delicacy, sometimes with a broad & comical approach to his vocal production.
It’s quite a bit to wrap my head around, these solo performances (the what, the how, and more questions than I can throw a stick at). I can’t help wondering who might have heard these, what composers might have been influenced by this music. Were these songs in the ear of the public, and therefore, likely to have been heard by more established composers? and how far did the influence extend? I’m no early music scholar, just a fan. But listening to these songs one wonders how and where these lovely songs would have been heard. Roach’s essay in the enclosed program notes are wonderfully suggestive. I have to include a big quotation.
Proud and haughty/ The true enemy of love/ You make your heart / A preserve of harshness
You give me death/ In exchange for my faithful love / O cruel and pitiless one!
You are so unfrateful to him that adores you / I hate myself for loving you so
So begins the first aria from Alessandro Grandi’s third volume from 1626, one of the finest examples (and collections) of a much-maligned genre from the early 17th century. Musicologists from the beginning of the early music revival have been unusually scathing in their surveys of secular Italian song, whether labelled canzonettas, arias, cantatas or even monodies…Moreover, notions of class-based discrimination appear to inform their thinking, just as they did those of the self-appointed defenders of high art held in 17th century Itality. Uncritical acceptance of the prejudices of mid-20th century academics denies us the chance to explore the beauty of these arias. Then, as now, it is difficult to find critical approval for respectable composers incorporating folk elements in their music. However, when experienced as they were performed at the time, these works can move our hearts as surely as they did those of their contemporary audiences. Recent scholarship has taken a more generous tone…
Part of my background is in drama scholarship, leading me to imagine possibilities and to resist the kind of class bias Roach describes. Writing and telling history is always susceptible to vested interests. I can’t help wondering if the improvised theatre that we call Commedia dell’arte –known to have originated in Italy long before this music—might have employed songs like these. Serenades that we encounter in other operas sometimes employ lots of musicians (thinking of The Barber of Seville), sometimes very few (Manrico or Don Giovanni). Whether we’re speaking of the innamorati (lovers) or the zanni (servants) , I recall mentions in the scenarios of songs. Because they’re merely scenarios a great deal is filled in through improvisation. If there were popular songs to which a city was already receptive, surely that would be a good choice for the performer. The many blank spaces in the history of this period are gradually getting filled in by speculative explorations such as these from Roach. I am reminded of CdA because the world of the CdA is one of traveling performers, disparaged often as thieves, where the class bias is deeply seated. But these performers were not permitted into established theatres—who wouldn’t want the CdA’s free-wheeling bawdiness in their officially sanctioned (aka censored) spaces.
Now in fact Roach’s texts are not as wild as all that, they’re quite respectable: at least in his performances. But the innamorati and their amorous aspirations represented the more conventional aspects of a CdA story, while the servants carried the most anarchistic elements of the stories. Even so, the texts offer improvisational possibilities even when done with a straight face.
So that’s me babbling about the “what” of Roach’s CDs (and going off on tangents as usual), yet I could just as easily get lost in the “how”, in his approach to the performance of these songs. His voice is very easy on the ear. I have listened to him for hours at a time without fatigue. His playing is a big part of the formula. At times the strings are stroked very gently, while at other times he’s highly energetic: but never loud. Roach is also artistic director of Capella Intima , an ensemble I encountered last year in La Dafne, a co-production of Marco da Gagliano’s 1608 opera. In addition to the singing & strumming he’s a fascinating stage performer, judging by his incarnation as Demo in Toronto Consort’s Giasone earlier this year. In my review from April I said
With the exception of Roach whose broad delivery suited a character showing the influences of the Commedia dell’Arte , everyone seemed to underplay in a largely deadpan delivery.
In a real sense this is all research. Creating a role, putting it onstage, or taking a score and realizing it in a new century, one is making a hypothesis of how the text can work, how the music can sound. Roach’s two CDs offer us something that can change the way we listen, challenging our assumptions about the music and how it works.
Yes I’ll be keeping my eyes open for Roach’s next early music venture, but in the meantime he’s doing something different this weekend, as he joins Talisker Players & Whitney O’Hearn for “Puttin’ on the Ritz”: a pair of concerts celebrating Irving Berlin on Sunday, January 11 at 3:30pm and Tuesday, January 13 at 8pm, at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre.