Tuesday, 27 December 2022

The Clock and the Lute - Hopkinson Smith - Attaingnant


Until the advent of GPS, maritime navigation depended on one important factor, a single instrument. It was this that decided in the old days that the British Royal Navy would rule the seas, rearranging trade routes and later determining the division of the world.
This instrument, surprising as it may seem, was the clock. 

In a technical term, the marine chronometer. It was the only way to determine longitude, i.e. where you were sailing in a given latitude.

Once out of port, the on-board mechanical clocks were inaccurate. Why? because the simplest and, by today's standards, amazingly accurate pendulum clocks were useless at sea, and the kick-mechanism clocks were so uneven during the long voyage that it was almost the 19th century before the Harrison finally came up with a clock that brought the navigational error down to less than 15 km.

Remember, don't we, that at the equator, 1 second of error means 460 metres?

Was this a great invention?, I think so, especially when you look at the current Swiss COSC standard, which allows a daily deviation of -4 to +6 seconds for mechanical chronometers.
Yes, a 20 million Patek Philippe can do that much in the space age... a 50 cent Chinese quartz watch is about 200 times more accurate...

At the time, the competition for precision was a major issue in the watch industry, and ingenious inventions were made to eliminate the inaccuracies. One such was the tourbillon mechanism, a tiny component that wobbled back and forth while rotating, which was complicated but sent pocket watches flying into the chronometer club above.
The word also means whirlwind or vortex.

To connect from here to the music, we need the psychological term "transference", a type of linguistic transposition.

Cross-fading in electronics is a measurable parameter, the appearance of a signal shape in another 'empty' conductor.
In psychology, Freud wrote full of books on why we hear specific words in situations that weren't there.
Linguistic permeation is just like the previous ones, the bouncing of similar word forms in different fields of meaning.

The tourbillon is a strong echo of the tourdion. So much so that many people confuse the two. The tourdion is an old French dance, which is also a round dance, the origin of which is completely unknown. First printed around 1530, Pierre Attaingnant was the first French publisher to put together a volume of the hits of the time, including this one, with lots of instructions on how to play the lute. It is not known whether he was a musician, but he certainly knew calligraphy.
From this selection of more than a hundred lute pieces, Hopkinson Smith produced an album that many consider to be the best of the American-born lute-phenomenon's albums.

There are three types of lute pieces on the disc:
Transcriptions / intavolations of sacred vocal works, including some very early polyphonic mass parts from the Josquin era.
Preludes, the name is a little misleading, these are entirely free fantasies here, there will be plenty of them in Dowland's 100 years from now.
And 'dances' that have always been popular in every age, their origins obscured.

The Tourdion is usually the fast paced part of La Magdalena, this is the most famous and earliest Bassa Danza.

It starts a bit awkwardly, in a kind of choppy-renaissance-dance way. But two things immediately stand out. The incredible fluidity with which Hopkinson Smith plays it. And the strangeness of the multi-note accompaniment in some places and the plain bass line in others. This pseudo-polyphony is very typical of the period; the basso continuo, that hadn't been invented yet, we're 70 years before Caccini.
The 'La Magdalena' is really a four-part chanson; what came before that and where it came from is hard to say.
Then the third verse, here the tourdion itself, very fast tempo, ornamentation on the back of ornamentation, the way he plays it here is, for me, in the astonishing category. A simple melody? Just try it with a guitar, tying the basic chords together, what a pain in the ass it becomes...

And here's track 10, a beauty.
The pseudo 'lower-line', the piano lefthand, is very-very special.
The weird thing is, after several listens, it sounds like a very free fantasy of La Magdalena.

Hopkinson Smith writes that some tunes can have a particular effect on the listener, musical semi-intoxication, he says, a kind of musical poisoning, getting into the body. And the chain of repetition, like a probe, takes it deep down into the bones, where it resonates for days. And then, how it continues to work in the depths of the unconscious, can no longer be traced.

The mechanics of modern luxury watches would not require a tourbillon, and since then there has been a much simpler and cheaper, and above all more efficient, way to balance them.
Yet they still put it in.
So much so that they sometimes insert a transparent glass into the watch case to reveal this tiny masterpiece.

Prestige complication, say the experts. It's like the 8-cylinder engine in cars, completely unnecessary to boost horsepower, but with a huge potential for failure because of its complexity.

Can we give you more examples?
One for sure.
Just this record. As played by Hopkinson Smith. A real 'prestige complication'. Because it could be much slower, the melody would come through, and less ornamentation would be much easier to play. This plucking acrobatics seems pointlessly chirpy, very vulnerable playing.

But really?
Anyone who's ever held a luxury watch with a tourbillon will laugh at this incomprehension.

Because it's not about the exact time, it's about something much more.

Something about the sound of an eight-cylinder engine.
Or in a row of planted flowers, in their aimless and selfless beauty.

Something about an aesthetic and artistic surplus that goes beyond the usual grey-goal-like and monetizable things.

Something that is in this album.

Absolutely, highly recommended.

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Thank you for the pictures