Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for March 2011

I Love a Good List

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It all began as a kind of a joke. We were sitting in my parent’s backyard on a warm summer evening, sipping lemonade made from the fruit of the ancient tree in the corner. My brother had said something about being harassed by bees, and my father had teased him about there only being one truly persistent little fellow.

I don’t know who said it, but someone said there was a bunch of bees lurking, waiting evilly to sting my poor brother without mercy. I picked up on the expression “a bunch of bees” and started listing all the other kinds of collectives that it could be. A bunch of bees, a bevy of bees, a bale, a band, a crowd of bees, a crew, a club, a flock, a fleet, a flotilla, a group of bees, a gaggle, a gang, and a herd of bees, a pod, a throng, a smattering, heck, I even went to a murder, an unkindness, and a business of bees. (Those last three go with crows, ravens, and ferrets, in case you were wondering.)

It became a thing with us, especially my dad and me. I’d spend hours trying to track down the name of a group of turtles (a bale). This was long before the Internet was much more than a bunch of forums. I even tripped over an old high school boyfriend on one of those forums in my mad quest to collect collectives. Later, I discovered that there are whole societies of people like me who collect these words.

It does seem like those people are all kooks, though. Hmmm.

My collection grew, and more than a decade later, my father requested the list, so I posted it to my website. (

When I was doing my research on Hildegard of Bingen, I was curious about why she began listing the local flora and fauna. I mean, it was a great idea but a rather enormous undertaking. Her motives seem to be about providing medical information. If you read some of her advice, well, it’s downright scary. She’d have you ingesting bits of iron ore that had been “soaked” in wine. Yikes. But I digress.

The point is, as I researched, I could see that it was fashionable to make lists in her lifetime. The greatest list ever written had been completed a little over a decade before she was born (the Domesday Book). It’s not clear whether this census of England and Wales (completed in 1086 for William the Conqueror, and meant to account for all of Britain’s assets) was the beginning of that fad or just the epitome of it. But it certainly triggered the tradition of applying a surname, which spread across Europe—they had to say WHICH John or Tom it was: the smith, the dark-haired one, or the one from Leadenham.

But there were tons of other lists. Scientists listed stars and planets and such (as they knew them), mathematicians listed equations and formulas, botanists listed plants, doctors listed bones and cures, women listed fabrics, ribbons, and other sewing notions, and so on, each according to his or her interests. For more than a century, Europe was compiling lists of things.

It’s a wonderful snapshot, really. Domesday set the trend for inventorying, and businesses made lists and itemized for customers, taxes, and their own reckoning of personal wealth. Private citizens listed their belongings and their friends, public figures listed their accomplishments and their supporters. Even lists of lists were in vogue.

The good news is that scientists and historians alike have a wonderful insight into the Middle Ages because of this fad. If you spend some time at your local university library, you can even see some of these lists in action. My personal favorite is the bestiary. These lists of animals (real and imaginary) included stories and fables, attributions of traits (so that when you made your family crest you had the right traits highlighted), and sometimes illustrations or attributions to who might have made the association. There’s a good online bestiary at

During the Middle Ages, the age of chivalry, you might recall, if you were an aristocratic family, you came up with a family crest. This was made into stained glass windows for your castle, emblazoned on the doors, cutlery, and household tapestries, and most certainly could be found on your sword’s hilt and front and center on your shield. 

If you were royalty, for instance, you might choose a lion because it’s the king of the other beasts. It is thought to be wily, wary, and fair in judgements. A lion’s strength is in its chest, its firmness in its head, and its courage in its forehead and tail. The roar of a lion makes other animals weak with fear. The lion is thought to represent Jesus to Christians, to illustrate both irrational fear and irrational courage to readers of Aesop’s Fables, and Pliny the Elder’s readers think of the lion as a kind of self-regulating study in moderation. Rampant (reared up on its hind legs), standing, and lying down lions were options, as were forked tails, two heads, two bodies (with a single head), three or even four bodies, wings, webbed feet, and a fish tail from the waist down.

You and your family leaders would choose the suitable heraldic beast and design something that was meaningful to you. So you consulted a list and later, your crest was added to a list of crests.

In short (is it too late for that?), my interest in lists may SEEM innate, but really, it is yet another outcropping of my interest in the Middle Ages. Put it on the list of things I’m inadvertently consistent about.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 31, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Why Am I Writing About This?

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I’ve begun revising my travel guide/memoir. Revising just isn’t as fun as I’d like it to be.

First, let me say that originally, the book was a memoir. Then, I started think that it would be truly useful and interesting to tell people what to see where in regard to my favorite historical figure, and how to get there and so forth, a sort of Michelin guide to a time and place. And I had gotten self-conscious about why anyone would want to read the meager meanderings of Melanie as she trotted around Germany.

So it shouldn’t be hard to put it back to being a memoir, right? Wrong.

When I vetted the travel guide and the fiction work through my writing group, they kept wondering why I was so interested in this particular character. My answer amounted to “because she was so interesting.” And I’m normally pretty good with words.

One person said that the best parts of the travel guide were the personal vignettes. I told her that I’d written most of the things that held any interest or humor into the book already, and she said “so make some up” to fill in the gaps. That’s partly how I came to write a novel about my favorite historical figure.

Now that I’m revising the travel guide to be a memoir, I’m trying to provide some explanation of why a perfectly ordinary 21st century nominally Jewish and somewhat bohemian woman of Russian descent would get so obsessed over an uptight 12th century German saint.

I guess it’s on the order of why some people like cheese and some people like the color blue, and some people like Josquin, and some like football. I really can’t explain it. The music she wrote (I’m talking about Hildegard von Bingen, if you hadn’t already figured it out) is ecstatic and celebratory, her visions were dark and angry, her studies of nature were thorough, and her thoughts on philosophy were stimulating. What’s not to like?

As I read the laundry list I just wrote, I feel that it doesn’t really explain 25 years or so of fascination. I suppose some of it comes down to just enjoying rooting around in a subject. It might have just as easily been chocolate manufacturing or politics, I suppose. Doesn’t everyone have a pet subject like that?

Oh, and don’t forget all the lovely tangents. There’s all the early music stuff (the development of it, performing it, analyzing it), there’s the history stuff (it was a time when exciting discoveries were just about to be made. The steps leading up to those discoveries are fascinating), there’s the regional stuff (several of my parents’ closest friends during my childhood were from Germany), and there’s the traveling part (putting oneself in the land of the “other,” and seeing how the world works in other places than home).

Okay, so I come from a family that loves music, literature, traveling, languages, taking things apart (and putting them back together again), puzzles, good food, reading, and the occasional terrible pun. I love all those things too.

The thing with Hildegard is that she’s most of those things. She’s a puzzle because she got away with amazing stuff. She convinced people— including Bernard of Clairvaux (who was instrumental in the inquisition effort), a violence-prone king, and the pope—that she heard from God and had messages for them. She traveled around preaching (preaching!) against the Cathars, an odd little sect that everyone loved to hate. But nuns didn’t travel and women didn’t preach. Women STILL don’t preach. Why was Hildegard allowed?

And of course the music is intriguing. First, Hildegard didn’t really know all the rules of Gregorian chant (or she knew and chose to ignore them). But also, she was writing for women’s voices. Men typically have about an octave and a half of comfortable range before you start bringing in the trained singers. Women, on the other hand, often have two or more, even untrained. So Hildegard played with range and vocal leaps in a way that the monks who wrote for men just couldn’t.

Also, where Gregorian chant used texts from the bible, Hildegard wrote her own poetry. She loved a good metaphor and she especially loved the idea of “greening,” which meant that things were virtually verdant with faith or love or other religious sentiments. She especially loved that “virga” had three meanings and she used it constantly. (It is the name of the most stable of notes—a single note that is emphasized or “weighted”—it is a reference to “the virgin” of Christian significance, and it also means a branch, like on a tree, growing and giving life to the tree in its greenness.)

And Hildegard didn’t just write her own texts and music. She made up words if she didn’t know one that meant what she needed. She also wrote a bit of musical theater, something that it took other composers nearly another 300 years to think was a good idea and imitate.

Oh, and speaking of imitation, because people wanted to sing Hildegard’s music and made copies of it, hers is the first European composer’s name to which specific work can be attributed. You see, the church thought it was vanity to take credit for writing music, and most secular musicians were also illiterate (or at least don’t seem to have documented their ideas), so Hildegard began the tradition of being named as a composer.

See? I’m so obsessed with all this stuff that I forgot that I was writing about revising.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

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The History of Music Notation

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Ancient music was learned by rote. At first, there weren’t too many instruments; there were drums, and of course people sang, and they shortly figured out how to make a whistle, which evolved into the flute. Back in biblical times, there were a few stringed instruments, such as the psaltery, the lyre, and the harp.

This is my psaltery. I built it from a kit from MusicMakers, Inc. It can be held on the lap and chords strummed (by silencing irrelevant notes) or held upright against the torso, and plucked with a plectrum.

Here’s an attractive “minstrel’s” psaltery, meant to be played upright. I found it (and its kin, which are for sale) at

That same site offers this lovely little lyre.

At any rate, around the 6th century, folks began to write music down. They didn’t really have a system, and the symbols they drew more or less reflected the way a hand leading a choir rises and falls.

In the following link, you can see a comparison of notation then and now.

The dates on the chart in the link are not quite right (it depends on what country you’re documenting), but they’re close enough for most folks.

The left column of squiggles is what Hildegard von Bingen still used in the 12th century. In the 6th century, when these neumes began to be used, they were not drawn on ledger lines, so there was no way to know how great the interval was between two notes—accommodating the text might require that a note identical in pitch to a neighboring note be placed higher or lower on the page. These were called “unheightened neumes.”

By the 9th century, composers started to draw ledger lines and the pitch intervals between notes began to be consistent (“heightened neumes”). For the first time, someone could accurately melodically replicate a song they had not heard, although the length of notes was still up to the individual performers.

They narrowed the number of ledger lines to four in about the 10th century (notes in a sequential scale on a row—on the line and between the lines—added up nicely to the eight notes of a modern scale. Music was still in five-note modes at the time, but because finding the drone note was an obvious way to pair voices, the octave became an important concept to the evolution of early harmony and polyphony. More on that in Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes). (You might want to visit my earlier blog about Guido’s Hand for more on who and how they came up with the staff that evolved into what we use today.)

The block notes in the center column of the table began to be popular in the late 11th century. The block notes very much imitate the earlier neumes, but the duration of a note began to be relevant. The duration was influenced partly by text and musical sensibility, but composers could add dots and little lines (called epicemas) to note shapes indicating that a note should be lengthened and by how much.

The primary motivation for developing these larger note shapes was so that groups could participate (rather than soloists, for whom the earlier music was intended). They were large enough to be seen from a distance because a whole choir sang from one large book.

Block notes are still in use by people who perform Gregorian chant. The earlier neumes are still used by Hildegardians and by scholars working on the Gregorian chants that are old enough to have been written in them originally. The neumes provide perfectly singable information, and are considerably more musically informative than modern notation regarding nuance of inflection, duration, intensity, and intention.

The earlier link’s chart is missing a stage in development, so here’s a link to what happened next, called white note mensuration.

Although it was developed in the early days of the 15th century, white note mensuration was fast replaced (within century and a half, or so) by modern notation (in the right-hand column of the earlier link’s table).

White note mensuration was not adopted by all countries—the Italians, always innovators, were the primary adopters. They invented the system because rhythm and measured beats began to be relevant. In white notes, the black diamond was a count of one beat, the open diamond with a stem was two beats, the dot meant to add half again (so a dotted open diamond was three counts, a dotted black diamond was a beat and a half), and so forth.

The number of ledger lines increased to five because relatively little music took place in less than an octave. (More singers had training than ever before, and keyboard instruments began to increase in popularity and offered considerably greater range than previous instruments.)

For the first time, duration of a note was prescribed by the composer. How fast or slow the piece was performed was largely up to a conductor, a role that was another new invention (someone who interpreted the music and led the group in a formal way—previously there was a leader to keep groups together, but leaders had no special training and just waved a hand around to show when to change notes).

Some of the symbols (like the C with a slash through it on the top lines near the left edge) told the leader how fast to go (a C meant—and still means—common time, which is heartbeat or walking speed, or 60 beats per minute; a C with a slash meant half that speed, or twice as slow, etc.), and instruments and singers could finally begin to make complex music together because the rules of music were starting to converge on a standard.

The end of the 16th century saw the establishment of major innovations that would change music composition forever: key signatures (how many sharps and flats—the black notes on the piano), measure lines (separating a series of notes into discrete chunks that added up to a specific number of beats), clefs (marking a range of notes. Some clefs already existed, but they were considered movable.

The 16th century created a standard and pitch range for each), and time signatures (how many beats per measure throughout the piece—a major innovation in allowing larger groups and diverse instruments to perform together). The rules of music were pretty stable by the end of the 16th century, when modern notation was in common usage.

This is where Michael Praetorius and Syntagma Musicum fits in, the documentation of modern music notation and performance that J.S. Bach finished, and the standards that we still use today. They got it so right that nothing has changed in 300+ years.

What we do with these notation standards has changed considerably, in large part, thanks to Beethoven. But that’s a story for another day.

So is the tangent about rhythm and rhythmic patterns and its merry companion, counterpoint. In brief, rhythm wasn’t part of Western music until white note mensuration made note lengths standard. With rhythm came harmony (as opposed to polyphony), and in a hop, skip, and jump, music began to sound modern.

Consider the Italian Renaissance the beginning of modern music, with rhythm, harmony, notation standards, and pitch standards. Harmony plus rhythm bred counterpoint further north. But I digress.

Here’s a little running parallel that I can’t resist. Polyphony—multiple parallel lines of melody—began to develop in the very late 12th century and hit its height in the 14th century (or thereabout, depending on what country you are talking about). Harmony (in the modern sense, where chords follow an established formula and some musical lines are not at melodic but are provided purely to fill in harmonies) evolved around the late 15th century, right around the development of modern notation. The pianoforte had been invented and allowed faster evolution than ever before because, for the first time, a performer could play loudly and softly on a single instrument and specific emotions could be defined by a composer. Emotion hadn’t really come into it before. It was all about the math.

And then Beethoven came along and made the math less of a dominating characteristic. He introduced instructions about emotions, so rather than interpreting for themselves, musicians and their listeners were on the same journey.

And that, my friends, is my History of Music Notation in 3+ pages.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm

The Full-Page Dilemma

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I always thought that facing the blank page was many writers’ problem. I don’t struggle with it much, myself. But lots of writers have told me about it and I believe it’s a real problem.

I have the opposite problem. I’ve written and written and the first draft is finished, and now I have to revise. If someone gives me feedback and tells me where I’m too wordy or the metaphor doesn’t work, I’m eager and ready to do the work of repairing it. But left to my own devices?

I think the trouble is that I am very comfortable writing. I like words—I like their nuance and their infinite variety. And, I play with words. I love a pun, I love collectives (I collect them:, and I often enjoy using a word that is appropriate but not often called upon in a given circumstance.

So when I reread my work, I’m embarrassed to say, I enjoy reading what I’ve written. Oh, it’s not that I’m not critical of my own work. It’s that as I attempt to revise it, I often compound the problem by being, well, ME during the revision.

I suspect that the trick is to try to read as if I were someone else. If someone called Adrienne (my dear friend) were to read, what would she call out as convoluted or misdirecting? Or what about my dad, who doesn’t like when it’s sarcastic or snarky?

I think there’s a certain handicap to writing easily. Perhaps if I agonized over the words, there wouldn’t be so many of them. (I think my worst offense is wordiness.)

Here I sit with several complete (and lengthy) documents ready for revision. The most pressing are a work project, my travel journal/memoir/travel guide and my historical novel. Oh, and I’m not counting the two and a half novels that I wrote off and on during the early 2000s.

Oh, and I have the next historical novel bubbling away under the mild-mannered surface. It’s so much more appealing to start the new thing than to do the disciplined, gown-up, and responsible thing and revise my finished works before starting the new. After all, if I do the second drafts, I lose the excuse for not getting published.


Let’s look at what’s stopping me. The work project isn’t a priority for the department, so it’s hard to scrape time together to focus on it. Not only that, perhaps no one will look at it when it’s finished anyway.

The travel journal/memoir/travel guide has been in the works since 1998, and frankly, although I’m thrilled to have finished the first version of it, the revision from travel guide to memoir format is so huge that I don’t want to do it. I’d rather clean the house or something. Oh, once I get started, I know it will be fine, but it’s the getting started that is the hard part. It’s the full-page dilemma.

And the fun one, the historical novel, well, I’m waiting for feedback from my writing group. Even though they’ve reviewed the early chapters and I figured out how to solve some basic problems within those early chapters. They’re going to review the rest next month. Uh huh. I could get started. But not having the whole thing reviewed is an excuse so I don’t have to start.

Look at me. I’m sitting here blogging about not starting rather than starting.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm

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When Characters Take Control

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There I was, all prepared to write the death scene of my historical figure, and I was debating about whether my (entirely fictional) protagonist would repent her wicked ways or carry her jealousy into the next world with her, when POOF! I accidentally killed off another character.

There are three main characters: the protagonist, the protagonist’s best friend who is also the narrator, and the historical figure. There’s a minor fourth character who serves as bearer of news and as general innocent, so the others can have edifying conversations.

I’d written the historical stuff that needed to happen in this chapter when the innocent wanders off into the woods (mushroom hunting), topples off a precipice, and breaks her leg. She manages to flutter about being carried back to the monastery by a burly manservant, but then she succumbs to shock.

I sat there bawling my eyes out as I wrote her faltering; telling the narrator what is to be done with her meager belongings and then the silent aftermath of her death. But once it was written, I was stunned. I hadn’t planned to kill her off—in fact, now I have a problem with the end of the book.

I tried to un-write it, to bring her back to life. Then I tried to justify the death, showing how hard things were in the middle ages and how crude medicine was. I also told myself that it was a foreshadowing of everyone else dying in the next two chapters, everyone but the narrator. (They are all quite elderly. Obviously the historical figure’s life has to end, and I wanted the jealous protagonist to live a roughly parallel life.)

Then, I told someone what I’d done, and how silly I felt crying over a character that on some level I had chosen to kill off. She said, “Don’t write things that don’t promote your plot.” Wise words.

However. Because it’s not a complete work of fiction, some of my plot is driven by historical facts. Chapters are defined by getting to the next momentous event. To keep it from being dry and sounding like non-fiction, I interspersed fictional events that sometimes had to do with furthering the plot and often had to do with revealing life in the 12th century, especially in a nunnery, which is not at all like modern preconceptions (if my writing group is any indication).

I’d addressed the historical event in the chapter already, and because I have a psychological problem with having chapters each of 16-20 pages and then suddenly writing one of only four pages, my sweet little minor character went slipping off the edge.

Oh, I could have leapt forward in time a few months and let the historical figure die her natural and well documented death. But I wanted that particular event to occupy a whole chapter on its own, so the weight of it can be revealed. And I wanted room for my protagonist’s thoughts about it.

So I killed off my innocent. I hadn’t planned to, didn’t know I was going to do it until it was already underway, but that’s what I did.

Many years ago, some creative writing teacher or other told me that when your characters take on their own lives and you lose control of their actions, that’s when you’ve written a plausible character. I’ve had it happen before, where the characters began behaving in a way that I had not planned or foreseen but that was entirely in keeping with my plot. This is the first time where it took the plot somewhere I hadn’t expected to go.

And I’ve slept on it for a few days now, and I think I like it that way. She stays dead. Rest in peace.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 9, 2011 at 11:43 pm

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The Guido’s Hand Seminar

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Today I played hooky from work and went to an early music seminar at Stanford University. Was it fabulous? You bet!

Let me tell you a story.

Back in the 11th century, music notation was a new idea in Europe. It’s not clear if he invented the system, but a Benedictine monk named Guido d’Arezzo is credited both with coming up with what we now know as solfeggio (do-re-me, etc.)  and with designing a nifty mnemonic device using the creases on the left hand to mark off the notes of the scales.

First, you have to know that music notation originally didn’t have the five lines you’re used to seeing. The earliest marks were squiggles on the page called neumes. At first, they described the musical gesture, but not which note should be sung or its duration. Gregorian chant was initially documented this way, starting in the 9th century. Music was learned by rote, and this method sufficed for more than a century.

But by the end of the 10th century, music was getting more complicated (still only one melodic line, still no harmony but now the words were painted across the page in wild and wiggly patterns) and was harder to memorize. Someone had the clever idea to scribe lines on the page, and in the 11th century, duration still was left to the discretion of the performer, but the pitch—the note that’s produced—was finally defined by the composer. The relationship from one neume or note to another could be discerned by its relationship to another neume.

In the 11th century, it became somewhat standard to use four lines rather than marking the whole page with ledger lines. And guess what? If you look at your hand from the palm side, you can see four lines: one where the fingers meet the palm, the two finger joints, and the top of the fingers! Ta-da!

This is what Guido discovered (or is credited with discovering); that each joint on the hand could represent a note, and once learned, he could point to the joints of the five left-hand fingers and the singers would know which note to sing.

This was the premise of the seminar. First, we heard the story of Guido’s life from a professor from Washington University in St. Louse (Dolores Pesce). She told us about the life and times of Guido and others who were making music at that time. She also talked a little about the way the modes were spread across the musical scale and how each mode fits with the others. She had nifty examples from early texts, and we sang a few, to illustrate the way each mode sounds. (Like modern scales, a mode is defined by the half steps—where the black keys on the piano fit in with the white keys. Modes were invented in ancient Greece and morphed into modern scales in about the 16th century.)

Next, we heard about how “literacy” could be optional if using the Guidonian Hand mnemonic device, and a professor from UC Davis (Anna Maria Busse Berger) used the famous troubadour, Oswald von Wolkenstein as an example.

Then, Jesse Rodin of Stanford, with three singers  from Stanford and one from Princeton, illustrated how it works. First, they sang a Kyrie just the way you or I would, from the notes on the page. Then, they sang it in solfeggio, illustrating the notes on their hands as they sang.

Now here’s the interesting part. They sounded pretty good when they sang it as written. But when they sang it in solfeggio and pointed at their hands, the pitch was better, they sounded like they were listening to one another more, and unbelievably, the syllables seemed to make the music more exciting. Instead of singing Ky-ri-e and e-le-i-son slowly and dragged out for a whole line or more, they sang ut (the original syllable for “do”), re, me, fa, and sol.

Suddenly, the various melodic lines popped out. Suddenly, the cantus firmus (the chant melody sung slowly while the other parts were sung more quickly) was apparent and the high voices only a compliment to it rather than burying it, as had been the case when it was sung with the words of the Kyrie.

After that, wonder of wonders, lunch was served. Get this: a free event that included lunch. More get this: an entirely vegetarian lunch with several vegan offerings. Double get this: hardly any nightshades (which I am allergic to). And triple get this: it was delicious. I went back three times for something called Carrot Halva. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out Udapa Palace who catered the event,  in Sunnyvale, Fremont, Berkeley, and San Francisco. Apparently, they are also in Los Angeles, Gaithersburg Maryland, and New York City.

After lunch, the professor from Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins (Susan Forscher Weiss) showed us the many variations of the hands. Apparently, the illustration that we all think of as Guido’s own hand was not in any of Guido’s documentation. There must have been 30 or more images, some showing a spiral pattern of notes, and others the more ladder-like pattern that is usually thought of as the Guidonian hand. Some hands did not look like hands at all, and others had illustrations of saints or other elements than the words of solfeggio.

Next up was the famous composer and teacher, Alejandro Enrique Planchart, from UC Santa Barbara. He was charming and entertaining, but mostly, it was exciting to hear him illustrate how composers used solfeggio in their work. He passed out editions of his own edition of Morales’ “Missa L’homme arme” (“The Armed Man”) and he sang bits here and there and then we listened to a recording. Then, wonder of wonders, he sang with the students from the earlier hand demonstration.

Finally, Peter Urquhart (University of New Hampshire) talked about the modulation of modes (which have five notes) to something recognizable in modern times (with eight notes). It was a controversial discussion, and I’m afraid lots of it was over my head.

It was also lovely to see some old friends, Catherine and Alcides Rodriguez-Nieto and Sachiyo Aoyama, as well as people I don’t see very often, such as Michael and Susan Murphy, Dr. Bill Mahrt, and Herb Myers. There were about 40 people in attendance, some students, lots of professorial types, and a few of us who wandered in from the early music community.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 3, 2011 at 10:21 pm