The star of this recording is recorder player, Vicente Parrilla, who has so consumed the model books that he can now speak their musical language with confidence and freedom and create truly modern performances. Parrilla should be considered among the most expressive and technically proficient modern recorder players.
Whenever I can, I record my live concerts, even if the available recording equipment is bad. In such cases, the resulting recording would be normally considered useless for a lot of people —especially when you play the same pieces in more or less the same way in different concerts— since it would not help to present a good sonic image of yourself as professional musician. But in my case, there is a powerful reason for me to document my performances: improvisation.
“Once you have been bitten by the improvisation bug, it is not a choice anymore.”1
As I have devoted myself to developing the necessary skills for becoming a fluent improviser since at least 2005, I have ended up collecting many live concert recordings with varying degrees of audio quality — but always containing fresh, improvised musical material. And that is what makes them interesting for me, regardless of their audio quality. (That said, I would recommend headphones for listening to the series of videos included in this article).2
La sventurata musica — sì veloce nel morire. [Unfortunate music — so fast to die]
Among other things, these recordings have allowed me to capture my spontaneous improvisations, to document my development, and, ultimately, to show visual proof that real improvisation is happening in my performances.
Moreover, visualization of musical ideas often seems to be a requirement for the academic world to take certain musical matters seriously: Adam Neely calls it “the cult of the written score.”3 I owe the idea of transcribing myself to the alto saxophonist extraordinaire Lee Konitz:
I have suggested that to learn a solo from a record you should listen; sing it; play it; write it down and analyze it. The same should be done for your own solos, so you can confront what you play, study it, and enjoy the process.
I needed a few months to transcribe the 34 minutes of audio.
Add to that a few months to prepare the music score e-edition PDF (99 pages, including preface, score, and parts).
And some further months went into the making of the six new videos with audio-synchronised, animated transcription that I am releasing today.
So I am very happy to finally share the transcription of the six available recorded versions I have so far of La Spagna, dating from 2011–15. Below you can find the complete transcriptions (score and parts) as a free PDF download — And do not miss the series of synchronised transcription videos.
In transcribing these improvisations, I tried to achieve the maximum simplification of the notation. Therefore, I have generally avoided tuplets for notating irregular rhythms, instead using rhythmical proportions in their simplest possible expression: ×5, ×18, etc. — meaning, respectively, five notes in the time of one in the cantus firmus or, even more explicitly, eighteen notes in the counterpoint line for every note of the cantus firmus, etc. In addition, I decided to keep the original cantus firmus note values, which translate as long note values in my counterpoint lines by today’s standards, but that made things easier for me (and I believe it is easy to get used to it).
Numbers (2–10) set in big font in the middle of a score indicate a new repetition of the cantus firmus (see bar 47, for instance).
‡: A double dagger indicates a wrong note according to Renaissance counterpoint rules, referring mostly to perfect intervals being approached by similar or parallel motion (I did not take the time to be exhaustive).
(‡): The same sign in parentheses usually indicates wrong, but I really meant it.
One of the most recent pieces I have added to my improvisation repertory is the cantus firmusLa Spagna. This has been a bit of a challenge for me because, with the exception of a few Renaissance polyphonic madrigals, I have mainly worked so far with relatively short repeated (ostinato) bass patterns.
This cantus firmus was a basse danse tenor, a musical line on which to improvise or compose polyphonic elaborations….The internationally known melody existed incognito as —among other designations— “La Spagna,” “Spanier tantz,” “Tenore del re di Spagna,” “Castille la novele,” … “La basse dance de Spayn” and “La bassa castiglya.”
Although, naturally, I was familiar with the cantus firmus La Spagna, having known and played many of the extant fifteenth-century duo settings of it for many years, it was not until 2011, on the occasion of a CD recording project collaboration, that I started playing the cantus firmus itself on one of the pieces of the programme, and conceived the idea of improvising upon it. Now, let me explain a bit what I have done with it so far.
About the Performances
A Brief Commentary on the Performances (with Synchronised Transcription Videos)
Because it would be very incongruous for that which can be performed not to be able to be written down.
The recorded arrangement started with the cantus firmus melody itself, and was intended to show its plausible medieval origin prior to a fifteenth-century polyphonic setting by Isaac. For this reason, it was first performed in parallel fifths, thus evoking early organum and conductus styles. In that section of the piece, I was just playing the melody a fifth higher than the viols, although in one of the takes I started filling in the transposed cantus firmus with improvised motives. I succeeded in keeping the fifths during my improvisation except for a few bars (29–36 in the transcription) in which I switched to octaves. Both takes (plain fifths and the improvised one) were included, so the recorder appears overdubbed on this track.
After some touring following the 2011 CD release, this 2013 date, featuring the debut —and only public performance so far— of a new quartet, was the first time I included La Spagna in one of my own concert programmes. It was a big step since I went from improvising on a fixed section of one minute (one repetition of the cantus firmus, see the above video) to a fully improvised, open-ended performance, which that particular day happened to last about five minutes (six repetitions of the cantus firmus). This can be liberating when it comes to exploration and improvisation, but it is far more demanding.
At that time I still kept the initial fifths approach from the first medieval version (arriving at the interval of a perfect fifth in my counterpoint at the beginning of every note of the cantus firmus) most of the time, occasionally adding some thirds and octaves. As a result, most fifths are necessarily approached by similar or parallel motion. A total disaster according to counterpoint rules, but at that time the sonority of the fifths really helped me find my way through the long tenor melody (useful while you are still in a learning process). After all, it was the first time I performed a long, fully improvised version of the piece in front of an audience. The good news is that I was able to get rid of this method in later versions.
It was also the first time I started experimenting with rhythmic proportions in a structured way, trying to achieve a progressive accelerando (×1 to ×5) and a final rallentando (×4, ×3, ×2.5, ×2 and ×1). I was joined by Pablo, who soon started adding proportions in the bass line, and then the real fun began: polyrhythms!
A fifteenth-century-based piece performed on recorder plus audio tape? Well, considering it was a solo concert, I did not have many choices. This performance, at Coimbra’s conservatory, took place a few days before another concert with the same solo programme in Porto (version 4 below). Thanks to Inês Moz Caldas and Fernando Paz (who also made the audio recording used here) for their invitation to perform.
Two great things about using a pre-recorded audio for the cantus firmus: since the tape was playing it in a loop, it was always rhythmically consistent (which is really helpful when playing complex rhythmic proportions on top), and I did not have to worry about someone getting tired after playing it over and over — a real cantus firmus machine.4 So I took my time and delved into it for more than eight minutes.
Video 3: synchronised transcription
Six improvisations on La Spagna [3/6]
A year after the previous version, I was finally free from the need to use fifths as an aural guide through the cantus firmus (although still not entirely successful in strictly following the Renaissance counterpoint rules by ear), broadening my interval palette with thirds, sixths, and octaves as the main intervals on top of each cantus firmus note. Although I kept the rhythmical accelerando and rallentando achieved by proportions as a general principle, I was not so strict as in version 2, opting for more free sections and freely jumping among different proportions whenever I felt like. As I transcribed the recorded audio, I was amused by a few things I did not recall doing after the performance.5
This performance, from May 3, 2014, took place just three days after the previous one. This is the fourth piece of the programme I conceived for my concert at the III Erta Iberia annual meeting, held in Porto. Again, it was a solo performance (and hence the tape again), this time in front of an audience that comprised a good handful of fellow recorder players, makers, colleagues, and educators.
This is the longest of the six versions: an 11′ 26″ improvisation (ten repetitions of the cantus firmus) in which I decided to explore one rhythmic proportion for each repetition of the tenor melody in a more rigorous way than I had previously done (see Table 4 below).6
If I have to highlight one thing from this version, it would probably be imitation: it was almost certainly the first time that I happened to repeat a few extemporaneously conceived melodic motives (at different pitch levels) a few times in a row on top of the cantus firmus.7 Moreover, the transcription allowed me to discover that a few other motives appeared again in different parts of the improvisation.8
Video 4: synchronised transcription
Six improvisations on La Spagna [4/6]
Table 4. Version 4: proportions
Repetition of the cantus firmus number
7 & 8
×8 to ×12; free (mostly ×10 & ×12); ×16; imitation
Again, this performance, from May 16, 2014, at the Warsaw Music Encounters Festival, was close to the previous one (version 4) — it took place only two weeks later. Having not included it in the programme, we performed this improvisation on La Spagna as an encore. That is why we tried to make a reasonably short rendering of the piece.
Since I took some time before starting to play,9 I decided to speed up my usual process of gradually augmenting the value of the rhythmical proportions, going from ×1 to ×12 in only four repetitions of the cantus firmus (159 bars). As it was a performance with an open structure (we had not defined any shape other than the gradual increase and decrease of rhythmical proportions), a lengthy, strict rallentando in proportion (from ×6 to ×1) definitely helped in defining a clear ending for the piece.
A fair number of new melodic, recurring imitative motives started emerging as soon as I abandoned the (self-imposed) idea of progressive proportional accelerando in favour of free counterpoint, somehow managing to keep these motives coming for about forty bars in a row (bars 139–179).
On March 15, 2015, I was lucky to share the stage with the great Italian jazz pianist Enrico Pieranunzi at the Sevilla Early Music Festival (FeMÀS). It was the first time, and so far the only one (yes, I probably need a manager), that we played together. A truly wonderful experience.
“Fine, it was an audio tape first… and now a fifteenth-century-based piece performed on recorder and piano?” Well, I think we managed to prove once more that, thanks to improvisation, it is possible for two musicians with completely different backgrounds to quickly establish a musical dialogue (we only had a one-evening rehearsal the day before the concert, the first day we ever met), and easily communicate with each other and with the audience.
Naturally, the resulting performance was different from what I usually aim at achieving when I play with an early music ensemble. In such a case, we always try to be as faithful as possible to historic styles. Yet on this occasion, two different languages came together. As usual, I was only interested in staying within the scope of fifteenth-century musical style. But of course nothing stopped Enrico when he felt like employing modern harmonies during the concert — even if he tried to adapt his harmonic language to the original pieces most of the time.
La Spagna was the earliest piece in the programme. Though Enrico is a deep connoisseur of Baroque composers such as Scarlatti and Bach, it was the first time he had dealt with a fifteenth-century piece. We had no defined structure other than starting and finishing with Guilielmus Monachus’s Falla con misuras counterpoint (from Ms. Perugia 431, ff. 105v–106, originally composed on the La Spagna cantus firmus), which we used as a main theme upon which we improvised in between.10
Traces of Guilielmus’s Falla appeared sometimes during our improvisation (bars 1–2 and 31–35 in the transcription, for instance). For the first time, I mostly played rhythmically free counterpoint from the beginning, alternating sections dedicated to a particular rhythmical proportion (such as ×9, ×12, ×15, and ×18; see Table below), with attempts to catch and react to what Enrico was playing (bars 7–18, 33–34, or 61–66, for example).
Apologies for the bad-quality audio: our recording equipment failed at the last moment, so the audio is just the one from the video camera — which was placed at the end of the hall. I would recommend the use of headphones to listen to the video.
Moreover, this table shows how variable in length the different improvisations can be, depending on factors such as:
Their different functions within a particular performance context. Whether they belong to:
1.1. A short, fixed section within a CD recording (version 1)
1.2. A regular piece within a concert programme
1.3. The last encore of the concert (version 5)
The performers involved
Hence the big differences between the duration of the improvised solos, and thus the number of bars and cantus firmus repetitions.
I feel this article contains some of my most important work so far — even if, to my own astonishment, the publishing medium is not a CD recording but a URL.11 Maybe it’s just a sign of the times? Don’t get me wrong, I love making CDs, but music shouldn’t need a recording situation to occur, and our best performances aren’t always captured on an album — and for sure, what happens on stage is always the real thing.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned the importance of showing visual proof of the fact that real improvisation is happening in my performances. These transcriptions, along with the synchronised videos and the data contained in the different tables, demonstrate it.
Although it would be taken for granted if we were dealing with other musical styles (especially jazz), I find this crucial in a musical context such as current early music performance, in which there is no doubt that improvisation is still not as developed and the norm as it was in the past. Although there is certainly a group of real improvisers among early music performers today, I believe they are still a minority compared with the many performers who claim to improvise in their concert programmes.
May this article encourage other early music improvisers to share their work publicly.
☞ You are free to perform the music; to share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format; to adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially,as long as you follow the license terms.
Many thanks to David Lasocki for editing a draft of this article.
This is an intentionally modified version of the original quote, “Once you have been bitten by the jazz bug, it is not a choice anymore,” by Terri Lyne Carrington. ↩
What follows is a transcription of Adam’s speech on his video The cult of the written score: “The only surviving record of the music of Western composers the past four hundred years or so has been in their sheet music: musical academia has vastly inflated the importance of written music … For whatever reason musical academia has decided that the written note is more important than the actual performed note. Essentially, musicians are often judged based upon their ability to play exactly what’s on a piece or paper; or composers: it is much more about the process that went into making the music rather than the music itself. I call this the cult of the written score, and it is pervasive in all sorts of academic and collegiate thought.”↩
This is how I did it: I connected a little (but powerful) bluetooth speaker to my cell phone, and it played the cantus firmus on loop, which I had previously recorded on a basset recorder. After pushing the play button, I needed some time to get back to the stage center. That’s why I started playing in bar 8. ↩
Like certain rhythmical patterns (bars 153–154 and 167–168); a spur-of-the-moment, rather wild section (bars 172–176: a (‡) is missing in the transcription); and some rests (bars 237–240 and 311–321). ↩
Therefore, I went strictly from ×2 (first round of the cantus firmus) to ×7 (sixth round), followed by a free section in which I played mostly ×10 and ×12 (seventh and eighth rounds), finishing with a progressive slow down (ninth and tenth rounds). ↩
Most prominently in bars 154–156, 222–225, 241–243, 251–256, 345–348, with two particularly long ones in bars 329–336 and 413–417. ↩
Like the one in bar 293 (coming back in bar 297), or a falling-thirds motive that appears at least three times: bars 201–202, 261–262 and 307. (Also, going wild again in bars 404–406 — sorry about that). ↩
Since it was the first time I performed this piece with these musicians (and I was used to a steady pulse in the tenor melody), I wanted to make sure that the beat was rock solid before starting to play, and that is the reason I did not start playing until about minute 1. ↩
I’m a professional musician, recorder player & teacher. I’m also one of the few Early Music performers fully focused on improvisation, and that’s why —I guess— I’ve been called a rara avis within this field.