I have recently answered a few questions from fellow recorder player and improviser Martin Erhardt for the Deutsches Institut für Improvisation’s newsletter. Here’s the full text, published with their kind permission.
Martin Erhardt: Since when are you involved in historical improvisation? Did it start with a crucial experience, or did your interest in spontaneity and creativity grow slowly?
Vicente Parrilla: It’s hard to say. I started playing the recorder when I was 7, and just about one or two years later I was asked to join a recorder ensemble of about 12 young players (they all were just a bit older than me) which mainly performed as three separate quartets. For nearly ten years, we rehearsed every weekday during summers and every weekend during the rest of the year. It was quite an intense experience that led to many concert appearances during that time, and our director, Alonso Salas, always favoured Renaissance music in our programmes and rehearsals. I especially remember getting acquainted with the music of Antonio de Cabezón at a pretty early age, which also meant an early exposure to embellishments — and I have felt attracted to them since that moment.
Later, as a conservatory student, I also remember bringing lots of diminutions repertoire to my lessons in Sevilla, The Hague and Amsterdam. As an early member of The Royal Wind Music, a double sextet of renaissance recorders founded by Paul Leenhouts, I have memories of playing extempore diminutions on the (apparently discreet) c bass recorder whenever I felt like, without Paul complaining: thanks, Paul!
Finally, in 2001, I recall I had to choose one topic for a paper I had to deliver as a final assignment for one of my subjects in Amsterdam. I couldn’t know that at the time, but the title seems revealing to me now: From the eye to the ear: an attempt to raise our eyes from the score. So, I can say my interest in improvisation has grown slowly over time and in a natural way, but somehow it was always there: I can now see I’ve felt an affinity towards it from early on.
ME: Did you have teachers who taught you improvisation in particular?
VP: No, I’m self-taught. My first fully improvised concert was in 2005 with my ensemble More Hispano. That experience became for me a path without way back, and I haven’t stopped focusing on improvisation in concerts and on my recordings since that moment. The work of those years culminated on the CD recording Yr a oydo (2010).
ME: Recently you published this article about your improvisation on La Spagna: What makes La Spagna so fascinating for you that you chose it as your improvisation basis over such a long time? Which other basse danse melodies do you also like to descant upon?
VP: Well, I like the melody a lot, but that’s not the reason why I keep coming back to it for a few years now. I’ve done the same with every other work in my improvisation repertory. The reason is I feel it’s necessary for having enough chances to explore the pieces with enough depth and for developing myself as an improviser. Think of jazz players: they keep many songs in their repertoire during all their life.
La Spagna was the first cantus firmus I improvised on, and it represented a new challenge for me, because, except for a few Renaissance polyphonic pieces, I have mainly worked so far with relatively short repeated (ostinato) bass patterns. I’ve also started to improvise on the Ave Maris Stella cantus firmus: it’s a lot of work!
ME: In your improvisations, one can hear a lot of uneven rhythmical proportions, like 5 or 7 notes against 1. I would be curious to hear your personal estimation of how common these proportions had been in the 16th century. In non-written music maybe much more than in written music?
VP: Probably yes, who knows. There’s relatively ample evidence of their use in written music too, but mainly in the fifteen-century, both in compositions and counterpoint treatises, which often display an enormous volume of rhythmical proportions. As is well known, Ganassi’s examples in Fontegara (1535) document a vast amount of patterns in quintuple, sextuple, and septuple proportions, although I tend to see them as vestiges of an older tradition. It’s thought that in the sixty-odd years since Tinctoris’s Proportionale musices (1472–3) had appeared, the use of complicated proportions had waned.
But Morley (“if his rhythmic intelligence be sufficiently developed to enable him to enjoy a triplet, there seems no reason why it should not, after a little further training, be able to appreciate more extended inequalities”) and Ornithoparcus also mention them. Hernando de Cabezón used quintuplets in his embellished version of Susanne un jour. And the pieces collected in the Baldwin ms. (by Giles, Tye, Preston, Bedyngham and Baldwin himself), many of them dating from the last decade of the sixteenth-century, contain some of the most complex use of proportions I’ve ever seen. Correa de Arauxo published a tiento in 1626 that includes a section in 7/8, and, back in time again, there is an abundance of irregular rhythms in the Cantigas de Santa María by Alfonso X ‘the Wise’.
I’ve gone as far as using ×12, ×15 or ×18 in my improvisations on La Spagna, just as an effort to explore my limits in the use of proportions, while searching for its musical possibilities.
ME: How can it work in an ensemble, where several musicians are making diminutions at the same time: For example, if one plays 6 against 1, and another one decides in the same moment to play 7 against 1: Did you experience if this can work?
VP: Yes, there are of course many chances to produce unexpected dissonances and all kind of contrapuntal problems this way, but on a rhythmical level, it’s entirely possible — although polyrhythms are not the easiest thing to deal with. I documented this in the second of the six versions of my improvisations on La Spagna (see the second video in my article and table 2). There are also examples in written music, like in the English compositions mentioned above, where often three different proportions are used at the same time, and of course in the ‘Ars subtilior’ repertoire.
ME: Which treatises and compositions that can inspire our improvisations do you personally recommend to our readers?
VP: I’m especially fond of late fifteenth-century counterpoint treatises and repertoire and would recommend the writings of little-known Spanish authors such as Domingo Marcos Durán, Guillermo de Podio, Diego del Puerto, Alfonso Spañón, Francisco Tovar or Martínez de Bizcargui: many of them deal with improvised counterpoint. I think historical improvisation is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves, and am very enthusiastic about the work of musicologists such as Julie E. Cumming, Peter Schubert, Philippe Canguilhem, Massimiliano Guido, Santiago Galán and Giuseppe Fiorentino, among others. But players should realise that improvisation-related musicological writings alone, as crucial as they are, will hardly guarantee them the ability to improvise even after rigorous scrutiny. Performers still need to do a lot of practice-based hard (and fun) work!