Winter Wind, Guido Ponzini

March 14, 2010

Another brilliant composition and video clip from Guido Ponzini (YouTube, Ghigo85, 6 mins11 secs). The subtle layering of sound, now plucked now bowed, adds considerably to the creation of a chilling yet bracing feeling, evoking the winter wind of the title. Ponzini clearly understands the historical legacy of a soaring melodic line over a dark, plucked bass, drawn from viol and theorbo, as well as the ‘modal’ scale motifs well-suited to the instrument. He doesn’t try for the jagged harmonic changes in Sollima’s Terra Aria, relying instead on texture, though obviously in terms of length and breadth it evokes Sollima. He speaks directly though to our generation through hints of Japanese koto and innocent Japanese melody. He too matches the plucked viol to the instrument’s strong links with the lute.

The multi-tracked layering is the twenty-first century’s answer to the viol orchestra. The viol orchestra is one of those near-mythical things recorded down through the ages. In medieval times, vast numbers of musicians were recorded as having got together for royal command performances. The thing virtually defies imagination, so commentators often conclude that when writing of such things, they were in fact exaggerating the numbers of musicians in an attempt to inflate the status of the ruler. It’s difficult to imagine their repertoire. The same seems to go with early sixteenth-century France where massed ‘orchestras’ of lutes and viols seemed to have entertained at court. We seem only to arrive at terra firm once we get to the French violin bands of the mid- to late-C17. 

The viol ‘orchestra’ remains enigmatic as part of the Early Music authenticity movement during last century and has yet to be taken seriously in this. But if it can’t be achieved in fact – the idea of eight viols in one room together is all but imposible – , and remains as since medieval times, something of a fantasy, then at least in the twentieth-century, with the ‘invention’ of ‘cello orchestras and here, as in Ponzini’s and Sollima’s case, we can reify the concept through multi-tracking and the ‘virtual world’ of video clips.

I’m imagining the Christmas Day Mass at Notre-Dame-de-Paris in 1189 or 1190 when Perotin’s works were being served up to the French public for the first time, or at least only on high feast days. The cold winter wind, perhaps necessitating the closing of the giant front doors of the cathedral; the guilds and their sodalities gathered with banners and tapestries in the west nave, surrounded by the populace – with no other church to go to, since this Notre-Dame was the only one, this giant ten-storey edifice in the town of 20,000 people – perhaps including the king and court in the front row before the giant rood screen. And beyond the screen, in the light-filled sanctuary of the east choir, a hundred or so priests and a dozen crack soloists, booming out their tumbling multi-layered discant, projected out by the curved roof of the glassed-in nave, out over the high rood screen. The words indistinguishable, the text lost and the momentum of the text in suspension, the audience wondering where the music starts and finishes, a heavenly sound pouring forth without end. Only available on high holidays and feast days like Christmas and Easter, this would have been special-occasion music.

Similarly Ponzini is creating music peculiar to his time and ours. The YouTube ‘performance space’ is special to our time, the string sound deeply embedded in our consciousness as characterful and important, from the medieval to the present. The ‘moving picture’ medium is as important to us as was Perotin’s reliance on the architecture of Notre-Dame.

It goes without saying that I look forward to more of Ponzini working with this instrument, in this medium.

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