My Journey to Early Music
by Mauricio Roman
Everyone has a different musical journey, which often starts at home. For many of us, however, the journey to early music has taken place in our adult life. Early music is a fairly specialized approach involving the use of period instruments and compositions, methods of tuning and performance, coupled with an appreciation of music in its historical context. Why is this important? For me, it has opened up a rich world of musical experience with a wider range of expression while broadening my sense of history.
Using Bach for Concentration
My journey to early music began with Bach seven years ago, when a friend in Silicon Valley introduced me to the concept of music as a tool for concentration. The open working space at the startup where I was working was too distracting. My friend suggested trying focus@will, a startup created on the premise that music can be scientifically optimized to boost concentration and focus, so that if we listen to the right music, we can prime our brain for maximum concentration.
At the time, this service recommended Bach’s music – played by a hired pianist. At first, it helped me concentrate when working on complex tasks. However, the more I played it, the more I sensed that its style was too flat. I am not a music expert, but in my childhood, I heard a fair bit of classical music at home.
After some research, I found a couple of pianists – Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter – whose renditions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier were spirited and graceful. I could play these works over long periods of time, as in these expert hands, Bach has a way of keeping the music going without putting an end to it, which is great when one handles a multitude of interrelated software concepts that need to be expressed in code.
The state of being focused without interruption while working is now called “being in the flow”, a concept popularized in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Robert Csíkszentmihályi. He described being in the flow as a person “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Attending an Early Music Concert
After four years of listening to Bach in this mode, I got an invitation in 2019 to volunteer as an organizer for a “Baroque Concert” at Amazon, with a visiting orchestra, which seemed a bit mysterious, and I gladly accepted. My task was to help with planning and ushering. Planning involved a series of meetings – we had to have a tight security plan, foreseeing contingencies such as what to do in case someone in the audience brought dogs (which are popular at Amazon).
When the Seattle Baroque Orchestra (SBO) began its performance, it became evident to me that the musicians were “in the flow”. They played this Baroque music as if it were jazz – fully immersed, feeding off each other, and slightly improvising. The magic of this moment was enhanced by the intimacy and warmth of the place – a large living room we call Van Vorst where historic Amazon events have taken place over the years. The sound was colorful and brilliant, which I later learnt was the product of using period instruments tuned at a slightly lower frequency, or pitch, than modern ones.
This concert was the fruit of a partnership between Early Music Seattle, SBO’s parent organization, and the Amazon Symphony Orchestra. For me, it became a bridge from listening to Bach as concentration music to traveling back in time and expanding the range of human emotions associated with music. Diving deeper, I found that music of this period left some room for the performers to improvise, especially in ornamenting melodies. Composers of the time used patterns with variations to create their works. The well-known epic musical narratives for which Beethoven is known today only came at a later time period.
Discovering Early Music Pitch and Temperament
SBO’s director, Alexander Weimann, explained some of the technical nuances of early music. I used to believe that musical notes had fixed frequencies set in stone, but learnt that these frequencies, or pitches, were relative and could change with many factors – what matters is the ratio between frequencies. In Bach’s time, for instance, pitches varied widely from place to place and could be as low as 377 or as high as 567 Hz for A above middle C, based on organ samples. A few decades later, Mozart preferred it set at 423 Hz. In the nineteenth century, as music moved from the halls of the nobility to larger scenarios, pitch was gradually increased. In the twentieth century, with the advent of broadcasting, a global standard was set at 440 Hz (called A440, which can be tested here).
Higher frequencies project better through space. According to one musicologist, larger rooms could accommodate, and even required, high, brilliant pitches at climaxes, effects that could be achieved when playing scores of earlier music by employing instruments pitched higher than those that had performed the same scores in smaller rooms. Early music is typically played nowadays in smaller venues with a lower pitch (415 Hz for A above middle C), a choice which gives this music a different color and a special warmth. For anyone who is accustomed to the A440 pitch, this shift can be hard to adjust to. Luckily, that was not the case with me.
Another reason why early music has a different color is due to how notes are defined, or tempered. Today, we use equal temperament. The key problem at hand is how to divide the frequency range from a note to its double – say from 415 to 830 Hz – spanning an octave. Equal temperament solves it by dividing the range into 12 steps with equal distances – in logarithmic multiples of 21/12. Nowadays, since we have grown accustomed to this “equal temperament”, the journey to early music involves some degree of unlearning.
In an equally-tempered scale, none of the accords – that is, integer proportions of frequencies, such as 2/1, 3/2, 4/3, 5/4 – are exact. Concretely, in this system, a fifth interval (27/12) is slightly lower than the perfect ratio of 3/2, the fourth (25/12) is slightly above 4/3 and the major third (23/12) falls below 5/4, as can be easily verified.
Well-tempered systems were created in Bach’s time to incorporate at least some perfect accords. One system, for example, maximized the number of perfect major thirds (intervals with the ratio 5/4) at the expense of having imperfect fifths (intervals with the ratio 3/2). We do not know, however, which system Bach used for works such as the Well-Tempered Clavier – a portion of which is interpreted in this video using three different well-tempered systems, each of which brings out different shades of musical color. Bach left us with a scribble encoding a well-tempered tuning, shown below, which several researchers have used to come up with different systems.
Exploring National Styles
The next step in my journey was to listen assiduously to Baroque music. Noticing that Amazon Alexa did not respond well to the command “Alexa, play early music” (which results in early 2000s pop music), I programmed it with instrumental playlists from various countries – Italian Baroque to make Seattle’s wet cold days seem a bit warmer, German Baroque to help me concentrate in my work, French Baroque to soften the nostalgia of being far away from friends and family during the pandemic, and Spanish Baroque to evoke that fiery and multi-ethnic civilization which gave birth to my country of origin (Colombia) and many others.
The Seattle Baroque orchestra and Early Music Seattle (EMS) have often explored the national characteristics of early music, primarily but not limited to the Western tradition, with guest musical groups from diverse countries, which many volunteers help accommodate and host to keep overall costs low. During the pandemic, EMS hosted virtual concerts with early music from Ireland and Spain, and a concert with musicians from Cuba had to be cancelled early in the pandemic.
Researching Instruments and Historical Context
At a small concert in Queen Anne, I witnessed a “mano a mano” between a viola da gamba and a violin, which helped me understand how the chirpy violin displaced its larger cousin over time. I understood that musical instruments were also technological devices subject to market dynamics which unfortunately led some to become obsolete. In this transition, something was lost, as the viola da gamba aligns better with the frequency of human speech and can better imitate the human voice in all its modulations. This instrument is now a pillar of the early music revival.
Similarly, the earlier harpsichord used by Bach was replaced by the first pianos used by Mozart and Beethoven. As these instruments progressed, the tension in their strings increased, projecting more brilliant and powerful sound. Another difference is that the piano strings are hit by a hammer, whereas the harpsichord ones are plucked, which make it sound slightly similar to a guitar.
At this time, I applied and was invited to join the board of directors of Early Music Seattle yet, a few weeks later, the pandemic arrived. Board members are actively involved in supporting the organization via fundraising, volunteering for committees, and contributing to the newsletter. One of the interesting tasks was to help think through how to restructure SBO to adapt to the new times. During this period, I also spent some of my free time doing research, seeking to understand composers new to me, such as Monteverdi, within their multifaceted historic contexts, while exploring the intersection of music and art, publishing a series of posts for the newsletter.
Contrasting Tonal and Modal Music
Getting to appreciate instrumental music prior to Bach was, at first, difficult for me. Before his time, music was largely modal: each piece hovered around a central note with each mode incorporating different harmonies; melody remained dominant, tending towards a final note. By analogy, we can think of modes as the color palette used by a painter. Some modes are cheerful, others melancholic, and yet others sound eerie. Modes were thus supposed to align with and elicit emotions.
Continuing with the visual analogy, whereas modal music restricts the artists and their instruments to one palette at a time, tonal music frees composers to use, or modulate across, multiple palettes. Bach took advantage of this innovation, codified in 1722, to compose pieces that modulate across multiple accords (with occasional dissonances) which never really end. By varying patterns in surprising ways, he keeps our mind engaged and our attention focused. For example, in his Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach modulates across all 12 tones – each centered on a different note, along with their minor and major modes. A major mode builds the fifth chord (3/2 ratio) with a major and a minor third (5/4 x 6/5 = 3/2) and is usually cheerful and uplifting, while the minor mode does it in reverse order and is considered melancholic, gloomy and sad.
Modal music gives pride of place to melody over harmony, with pieces which are usually short and tend towards a final note; when coupled with period instruments, I found that they expanded and gave color and depth to the range of emotions that are deeply human and which, during the pandemic, often came to the fore. In modal music, I also saw another benefit – it could serve for me as a bridge to appreciate music from non-Western traditions, as this music is also essentially modal, as is the case with Indian classical music and Chinese pentatonic music.
Coming full circle, the next step in my journey entails sharing the gift of early music which I once received with other co-workers, by inviting them and their families to experience first-hand this beautiful music, brilliantly composed by Bach and masterfully performed by the Seattle Baroque Orchestra – the Six Brandenburg Concertos – performed at nearby Town Hall. Since Bach likes to modulate a lot and wander through the keys in each of his pieces, director Alexander Weimann will tune his harpsichord with an irregular temperament, close to the Vallotti temperament, which makes for a tuning system that works in all keys, so the instrument does not need to be re-tuned between each concert. This is therefore a unique opportunity to hear Bach in the context of his time period. Looking forward, I plan to read a book recommended by Gus Dernhard, EMS artistic director, called “How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)”, available on Amazon.