Pat O’Scannell on the allure of early music

Pat O'Scannell (2)

Pat O’Scannell is now in her fourth year as director of Musica Matrix, a nonprofit music organization promoting early music in the Rogue Valley.

O’Scannell spent 27 years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a singer and multi-instrumentalist, then as music director with her ensemble, The Terra Nova Consort, in residence.

I have had the pleasure of listening to two of The Terra Nova Consort’s superb CDs: “Renaissance en Provence” and “¡Baylado! Music of Renaissance Spain.” I recently chatted with O’Scannell about her love of early music.

PO: This music is incredibly beautiful. I believe that a lot of people haven’t heard early music, or they haven’t heard the type of early music that would appeal to them. We are talking about 600 years of music, going back to the Middle Ages. It rivals any music that was written from the time of J.S. Bach on.

When I think back on my classical training, I’ve loved about 75% of it. There was about 25% that was a bit too bombastic for my taste. My personal taste was toward Chopin rather than Rachmaninoff. I like the delicacy and intricacy of something, where I can hear the individual lines as opposed to something that is very heavy handed.

As you go back in time, orchestras get smaller, then there’s no orchestra; there are ensembles. Playing is more like jazz. It allows the individual players a lot more leniency. It’s as if you had a whole bunch of classical soloists all playing at the same time. You get to make up all these extra notes. Of course, you have to study the different styles, so you’re doing the right kind of ornamentation for the right period and country.

EH: Is there improvisation within these various forms?

PO: It’s very improvisational. I use jazz as an example because it’s the closest form I can think of to early music. In jazz, players often play from a chart that suggests to them a baseline or a chord progression. The same is very much the case in early music. You have something on the page; it’s a suggestion of something that’s there, but you have to fill in a lot around it to bring the whole thing to life. It makes every performance very fresh.

It’s not like symphonic music where it’s all about the composer telling the player exactly how to play every note. In early music it’s the player figuring out what the music needs to do, to channel the original intention of the composer. The aesthetic was about taking something that was already there and doing something interesting with it. They would choose a motive or melody that everybody knew, and they’d build an entire piece around that.

There’s a lot to early music: If you don’t like Italian madrigals, you might like English consort music. If you don’t like medieval music, you might like some form of Renaissance music. There are so many things you can hear in tambours, languages and meters. Early music is a billion times more rhythmically interesting than later classical music. It’s more along the lines of world music. Especially in medieval music, the rhythms are incredibly difficult and complex.

EH: Tell me about the non-cognitive quality of music.

PO: Music is a non-language-oriented means of expression. With music, there’s nothing other than suggestions of scales or tones; or the ways the harmonies come together; or the tambours of the instruments. It’s very emotional. Because music is its own language, musicians from all over the world can communicate without language barriers.

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