Tuesday, October 26, 2010
album of the day: Mr. Demachy - Pièces de Viole
A few weeks ago, my loveliest and I started talking about and listening to more classical music - in particular, cello stuff, and in particular, Bach. About that time, I heard about the music streaming site Pandora, and added Bach to my list of musicians (along with Beth Orton, John Fahey, Bert Jansch, Land Of Talk - a very weird list). Pandora uses something they call musical DNA to identify what similar music you might like, and plays it for you.
It played me two Baroque composers I have since fallen madly in love with: Tobias Hume (of which more anon) and Machy (aka Le Sieur de Machy, or on the cover of this album, Demachy) - both composers and players of the viol, the predecessor of violins, cellos, etc. The Pièces were written sometime in the 17th century, but feel rather pre-Bach, both because of the lack of more modern instruments, and because they're still written in more varied modes.
I realize this is why the musician in me loves this music. It's just not like music that's been made since Bach, since we've standardized and reduced our modes and have perfected tuning and scales of instruments, in particular of stringed instruments. Back then, one viol was much like another, but not identical to another, and the frets on them were adjustable, which would change the way the instrument scaled.
But the real reason I have fallen in love is that the bass viol's range is somewhere between a cello and a viola, and has the sonority and cry that cellos have. The varied musical modes add more to the melancholy of the bass viol's sound, so the whole of it has tremendous emotional punch. You do have to really like melancholy music, though.
The four suites contained in the Pièces are modally and chromatically linked, progressing from D minor, to D major, to G minor, ending in G major. Even the major keyed suites aren't your grandpa Bach's major key, because the intervals are both not quite the usual and the steps aren't quite the same as on Grandpa Bach's blasted violins and cellos.
I want to make my guitar sound like that, and to a limited extent, one can do that by changing the tuning. I keep a crappy Takamine tuned to open-C major, with the low E string tuned down to C, but because the frets are built for higher string tension, the lower tuning distorts the scales. Yippee, I say.
I'd love to get my hands on a bass viol, but my guess is they costs millions of dollars, and I have no experience whatsoever with bowed instruments. Maybe I should look for a lute?
That's the other reason I'm enamored: I love early instruments almost as much as I love early music. They both have an imperfect grace that I'm just a sucker for. The viol, like the guitar, derive from an earlier mainly Spanish-made instrument called the vihuela (there are Mexican vihuelas nowadays, but these are the old jobs, the vihuelasaurus as it were). Viols moved north into France, and eventually England, and somewhere along the way somebody decided to bow them instead of pluck them. Machy has a little pluck left in him, too. It sounds somewhere between a guitar and a harp, hint of banjo in there, rather than like a plucked violin or cello - the sound boxes are smaller and so there's much less of that deep resonance.