It’s Zen to be HIP

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is part 13 in my series of articles about how Zen can be an inspiration for lute playing. In our lutedō, we follow the way of the lute. With the teachings of Zen as our inspiration, we explore different ways of thinking about playing the lute. In Zen, we are all one; composer, musician and audience share the same life. How this affects the modern concept of Historically Informed Performance Practice, or HIP, is what this lesson is about.

Playing lute is not about displaying our egos, but about actualising, or giving sound to, the truth of music in our performance. The truth of music might sound very pompous, but it is just another way of describing of what a piece of music is all about. There is a truth in every composition, and we must find this truth and tell the audience about it in our playing. What that truth is, might be different for you or me, might not be the same in every performance and there might not be just one truth in a composition. The composer was in touch with this truth when he composed his piece and the performer’s task is to find this truth and to communicate it to his audience.

In the non-dualistic world view of Zen, object and subject are one, though not the same. In other words, we are in unity with all around us, but at the same time we are individuals living our own lives. In this way of looking at the world, composer and performer are one, though not the same. The same is true for the audience. Realising we are just a part of the unity of composer, performer and audience, we must show respect to the intentions of the composer, listen to him and understand what he wrote. If we would tear ourselves loose from this unity and play the music just as we happen to like it, our performance would become meaningful only for ourselves but meaningless for both composer and audience. Making music is not showing off our egos, making music is about communicating the work of composers to the audience. Therefore musicians have to learn to understand the composers’ works, and musicians have to learn to communicate this understanding to an audience. To learn both these aspects of being a musician took me many years, and I am still learning. I will tell you my story.

When I was a teenager, I played classical guitar. My teacher kindled my natural musicality and helped me to expres that in my playing. Although I loved to play Renaissance music, he never talked about ‘early’ music any differently than about classical or 20th century music. He just encouraged me to play expressively. That is, to play with feeling and to communicate that feeling to my audience. I think that is the best advice you can give to any musician.

Later, when I studied classical guitar at the conservatory, nothing much changed. Of course I knew there were people playing Renaissance and Baroque music on lutes, and that was all very interesting, but somehow that did not affect me in my guitar playing. My teacher told me how Baroque ornaments were different from ornaments in later periods in music history. I learned about tablature, and how a Baroque guitar was tuned. That was about all I learned about early music. The main subject in my lessons was still how to communicate my feelings about the music to the audience.

Yet, something started nagging me. If the composers of my beloved Renaissance music wrote their music for lute, why was I playing it on a guitar? Surely, a lute and a guitar are not the same instruments, so my choice of instrument was affecting my way of understanding and performing the music. I concluded that if I wanted to understand lute music better, I must play the lute.

That is why I took up the lute and went to the Royal Conservatory in The Hague where Toyohiko Satoh became my teacher. At this conservatory one of the subjects was Historical Documentation. We were imprinted with the importance of looking up the original sources of the music we played, to read what the composers wrote about how to perform their music, to study the historical and cultural background in which the music was written and to choose period correct instruments and techniques. This attitude is known these days as Historically Informed Performance Practice, or HIP for short.

For me performing music with a HIP attitude makes sense. If I give myself the same tools the composer had at his disposal, I am more likely to understand his compositions. Lute music was written for a lute, with its typical sustain, dynamic range, balance between treble and bass, double courses and gut strings. If I play lute music on a guitar, all those aspects are different, so I will be further removed from what the composer heard when he composed his pieces. If I use the tools of musical expression in a manner that follows the conventions of the time of the composer, think for example of how to use dynamics, articulation and ornamentation, I will be even closer to the musical world of the composer. Music is not a universal language, so I should not use today’s way of expressing myself for music written in another era. The language of music, like any language, has changed over time. So if I want to understand a piece composed 400 years ago, I must take the trouble to learn the musical vocabulary and grammer of 400 years ago, otherwise I will get a distorted understanding of what was written. And I must speak the musical language of the time when playing the music, otherwise my playing will not make sense. By being a HIP musician I do just that: I inform myself historically. In other words, I try to get closer to the historical and cultural world of the composer, and I try to both understand and speak his musical language.

Do we need to be Zen-inspired to be HIP? Of course not. The traditional way of learning how to become a musician will also teach us with convincing arguments the value of HIP for our playing, as I demonstrated in telling you the story of my musical education. But the non-dualistic world view of Zen teaches us straightforwardly that being a musician is not about displaying our egos but is about being part of the unity of composer, performer and audience. And from this point of view we have no choice but to enter the composer’s world to understand his compositions better. By being HIP we do just that: we enter the composer’s world to understand his compositions better. In other words, we will get closer to the truth in music.

Again we find that our lutedō is just another way of looking at what it takes to play lute. Hopefully this way of looking at things will inspire you to be a little more HIP about your lute playing as well. But don’t forget: the most important part about making music is communication. So whether you are a HIP player or not, never forget to communicate your feelings about the music to your audience. Because after all, that lesson I learned as a teenager is still the most important one in my life as a musician.