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GUEST BLOG: “The 'Why' Question (Part 1): Asking” by Jameson Marvin

       If a choral conductor has studied a score carefully, and has given considerable thought to the musical meaning represented by the composer’s notation and vocabulary of expression, (s)he can not help but form opinions about how the composer’s choices of harmony, melody, rhythm, and texture relate to the text. The composer’s setting in some way reflects the text: the general affect, and/or a specific word or phrase. Thus, text-music relationships may reveal a composer’s “locational” highlighting, or may represent a mood or changing moods. But inevitably understanding the compositional structure will motivate us to try to answer the question, Why did the composer do that?!
       Imagination – it is a characteristic human quality not unknown to choral directors! Studying a composer’s notational craftsmanship is fundamental; however, more importantly, we must try to understand the composer’s mind’s ear that is reflected by the symbolic notation of it. We must imagine the expressive gestures behind the notation. Too often we follow the notational instructions too literally, not burrowing more deeply to consider the question of why.
       How do we best answer that question? Through understanding change, attitude, and implication: how the text-music relationships may relate, at any given moment, to the composer’s chosen tempo(s), meter(s), texture(s), speed of harmonic rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, articulation. Once we begin to understand the expressive gestures that lie behind the symbolic notation of them, then we can tell our students, “this is why the composer did that and that is why we are taking the piece this way!” That is powerful, and it can be inspiring to them.
       Making meaning out of music – is music making. We begin with the basics: intervals, and their inherent expressive power of emotion. Intervals (horizontal and vertical) create emotional response. The foundation of western choral art is entirely wrapped up with intervals – intervals innately project sound qualities (affetti), emotions.
       Interestingly, recent research reveals, that humans probably sang before they spoke – sound audibly coming from mouths spontaneously ushered out to signal an internal emotional response. The earliest group singing was perhaps in response to personal, cultural, philosophic, spiritual qualities aroused by emotions. From the earliest times to the present, spontaneous group singing has occurred to express emotion: love, war, joy, grief, elation, melancholy, celebration, mourning, victory, defeat, anger, jubilation, triumph, tragedy, loss, liberation, sadness, comfort.  This intrinsic fundamental of “chorus singing” offers us a window of insight into how we might view a score: the gesture behind the symbolic notation of it reveals the core of the composer’s mind’s ear, the intended emotion to be experienced through bringing the notation alive in sound.
       First came singing; then came “notation” as a means of preserving aural sound and how it was sung. While very little is known about the earliest singing of Gregorian chant it seems clear that it developed soon after the birth of Christianity and was established by the beginning of the 2nd century. It was not until the 9th century, however, that chant notation appeared. For seven centuries texts, illuminated by innumerable melodies, had been passed down entirely through aural tradition. Notation developed out of the necessity of preserving the aural tradition.
       The early notation of chant served singers, not by clarifying pitch and time, but rather through illustrating symbols of melodic contours, placed above the texts, that acted as “memory bells” for the singers, reminding the of the actual melodies and how they were sung. The specificity of how is not known, though scholars are clear that the symbols related to expression along the lines of fluid and flexible singing with varied aspects of emphasis, motion, resolution. Why did the earliest notational symbols preserve, not notes or rhythms, but expressive nuance?” To remind singers of their rich heritage of the emotional vocabulary associated with the enormous treasure trove of melodies that adorned their sacred texts.
(This is the first installment of a three part series.  Part 2 will appear on September 17.  Part 3 will appear September 24.)