Hearing Inner Voices

I’m not talking about “listening to your inner bark” here (although perhaps some of the same listening techniques could be employed). I’m talking about what I’ve previously referred to as “the notes that nobody else wanted” or “those messy inner parts”. Think second violin or second soprano. Altos and violas. As an “outer voice” player (bass line and/or melody) I never really had to deal much with the stuff in the middle. It’s sometimes nice to listen to, it occasionally adds spice or life to the music, but I’ve never really paid it much attention. This past weekend I had the challenge of playing tenor viol (an instrument I’ve performed on exactly once before), reading my least favorite clef (alto), and playing 2nd and 3rd parts (really inner voices) in works by 16th/17th century composers John Bennet, John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, and Anthony Holborne. The event was part of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia Classics music series conducted by Stan Baker.

After getting over the usual “what clef is this?” “what instrument is this?” confusion I settled into trying to wrap my mind around these cast off notes. That’s really what they seemed like at first. The notes nobody else wanted. In music of this period there are not a lot of parallel harmonies. A part that follows the melody a third away I can hear. No – these parts seem to occupy their own little space in the universe – a place I’ve never been before. I kept trying to play the notes I THOUGHT should be there but my intuition was almost always wrong. Much of the time I was doubling singers but I found that I had trouble hearing the singer I was doubling because my ear kept going to the person singing the bass or lowest part – or the person singing the highest part. This gave me new appreciation of those people who play and sing the middle parts as part of their daily lives – second violinists and violists – what a different way to hear the music – from the inside out! It does truly take listening deeper to appreciate these parts.

By concert time I was finally able to hear my way around the music – I finally found my partners in the chorus and began to hear the odd but beautiful melodies that made up these middle parts. To hear only the outer voices is like a skeleton with a beautiful face – no substance, no body. I will make a point of listening for those juicy inner parts in the future.

I should add that I did get to play some “outer voices”. The program ended with the Handel Jubilate for the Peace of Utrecht. I played violone – the Duff Dawg , built by John Pringle and on generous loan from Duff (thanks!!!). Mr. Handel really knew how to write a bass line and bassists of all types and inclinations would do well to study his lines many of which could stand alone as melodies.