Today we live in a culture of the sound bite and of the Superficial Event. Even in the domain of public broadcasting, classical music is delivered in a streamlined and atomised fashion, a kind of musical wall-paper. Careful listening, submerging oneself beneath the surface, appreciating works of art as unique creations: all these are studiously avoided. A similar process has taken place in the culinary domain, where the standardised and artificially enhanced flavours of fast food threaten to supplant the culture of dining as a cultural and social event.
Even the early music movement, with its consciousness of historically informed performance practice, has not escaped such tendencies. Music from before 1600 is frequently presented as meditative music in beautiful spaces, cast adrift from its intellectual, emotional and historical context. Centuries that saw profound developments in music are homogenised into a uniform “feel good” soundscape. No conscious difference is made between, say, Notre-Dame polyphony of the 13th century and a mass by Ockeghem from the end of the 15th, as if to suggest, by analogy, that there is no difference between the gothic style of Notre-Dame and the palazzi of Renaissance Florence. Composers of the 15th century developed a perfect balance between horizontal and vertical structures, offering listeners the chance to define their own perspective on the temporal unfolding of the music, a perspective that could change from one listening to the next. This balance gradually disappeared in the music after 1500. If listeners really want to experience the subtleties of this balance, they need to listen in a very different way from that normally practiced nowadays. Moreover, the cultural context of these works was quite different from ours. They were not intended as works of art enshrined in the cultural temples of our time – the concert hall. Rather, music was embedded in ritual events, daily life, philosophical speculation, street theatre and life at court. Improvisation played an important role. The written version of a work was the exception rather than the rule.
To hear such music as we do, as consecutive events in a concert setting, without commentary, without specific knowledge of the circumstances that gave rise to these works or even without an adequate translation of the text, is to experience only the husk of the music, not its fruit.
Slow Listening intends to upturn such a one-sided and superficial experience of music through a novel conception of concert performances. The listener’s attitude towards the music is subtly altered through dramaturgical staging and an artistic presentation of (contemporary) texts, leading to an increased engagement with the music.
In addition, Slow Listening performances are defined through a new attitude towards performance: singing from original sources, which are notated in an entirely different way from modern ones. In Renaissance sources, the individual voices were not arranged in score, but in individual parts. This meant that singers could immediately grasp the contours of their own part but were not optically oriented towards what the other voices were doing. Instead they had to locate their own part aurally within the musical web. The notation also gives the singer many clues which are not nearly so obvious in modern notation. As a result of this performance practice, the identity of each individual voice part is clearer to each singer in the ensemble. The increased intensity of the musical interaction between each of the performers becomes palpable to the audience. To my knowledge, almost none of the leading ensembles of this repertoire do this at present. To date, Amarcord Ensemble has had the courage to engage in this risky adventure.
The Goldberg Foundation encourages and supports ensembles which adopt the principles of Slow Listening, and not only in Renaissance music.
Our second programme around Ockeghem’s Ma maistresse has been performed at the first Festival of Renaissance Music in Reutlingen with Ensemble Peñalosa.
In march 2010, our third and most important programme was realized in cooperation with MaerzMusik Berlin (Berliner Festspiele) and with funding of Hauptstadtkultufonds. Et ecce terrae motus – The earth trembled, Brumel’s 12 part mass on a journey from the catastrophes of present day to the year 1510 and back. See the performance on the front page of this platform. Further concerts were given in Rennes, Reutlingen and Brugge.
In june 2016 our fourth project, Josquin’s Im-Mortality, was created during the ION festival in Nuremberg. Further performances are planned in Berlin and Brugge.
Exerpt of the Slow Listening Concert Leipzig, October 1, 2006