Bagby Comments on His Performance
(May, 2003)

These comments are taken from the audio transcript of a roundtable discussion of Anglo-Saxonists and medievalists following Bagby’s performance of Beowulf at the International Medieval Studies Congress in Kalamazoo, MI, May 2003. The moderator was Prof. Mark Amodio of Vassar College. These remarks – together with the responses from other participants –  will be edited and published  as part of a book about the performance of medieval epic.

[Ben Bagby]

Thank you, Mark.  I thought I would speak very briefly about my own background and what it is that brought me to perform the Beowulf story, inasmuch as I’ve been performing it.  And what my values have been, what my agenda has been, and how that’s been influenced by the work that many of you, and certainly all of you have been doing on this text and on the idea of how this story might have been told at one time before it was put into manuscript form.  My background is as a singer and musician.  My training is or has been or was a standard conservatory training in singing art song, which was a kind of rigorous exercise in butchering texts and stories; a very, very systematic dismantling of everything culture in this planet has been trying to do for the last several thousand years.  And it took me as a music student a long, long time to realize that the thing, the artifact that we call art song, or the German lied, the French melodie Francaise, or all of these little pockets of art song, all of them represent a tiny blip on the screen of stories and texts and lyrics as they’ve been performed over the past millennia or so.

What we think of as the main tradition, as we call it in conservatory, classical music or serious music, is actually a tiny little aberration which was set in motion during the nineteenth century.  And what we systematically refuse to recognize is that we’re standing on the shoulders of an enormous giant whom we ignore completely.  And that giant is, of course, the oral tradition of song and the oral tradition of storytelling, which has made it possible for us singers to stand up in front of the piano in our tails and white tie and sing melodies for paying audiences in concert halls with a stage elevated and the audience sitting lower down in a worshipful stance.

The entire structure of the concert as we know it, and here we have it even in this lecture hall, and the structured role of the performer in the performative space, are very strict and difficult structures to break because we have been indoctrinated with the feeling that a performer is somebody who is interpreting, giving voice to, a work of art which was created by a genius creator, in this case, the composer.  We still all suffer, and this is a big debate in music generally, from the myth of the maestro genius; think of Beethoven or Mozart.  The word Mozart is never uttered without the word genius being within four to five words on either side [laughter].  This is an idea which is so deeply rooted in us that we’re not even aware of it.  That we think of these composers as people who have created master works.  They have somehow communed with the gods or the muses, they have made sketches in innumerable sketch books, they have been tortured and had sleepless nights, and filed away and hammered away at this work of art until finally it emerged in the form of the score, the autograph score.  This score then is sent to the printer who prints it and it is then sold to amateur musicians or to symphony orchestras or to string quartets.  And it enters into the life stream of the genius interpreter.

And so we have this paradigm of the Bach Suites for Cello being played by Pablo Cassalls and it’s sort of a full circle of gods with gods, and we mortals are outside the circle and are permitted to watch in reverential silence as these gods commune with something that we call high art.

When, however, you look at the way song is actually performed by singers, especially singers who are coming from a more traditional society, you see that it’s a lot more down and dirty than the conservatory idea would have us believe, that singers actually do come from families with fathers and uncles and aunts and mothers and sisters and brothers and with all kinds of things happening around them that they are listening to.  At some point, they are literally grabbed by the ear and pulled into what is the tradition of their family clan, guild, you name it.  And they start to soak it in.  They do all this without having an idea that this is high art, that they should be reverentially learning it, and that they should never aspire to enter into the closed circle of the gods.  They are simply doing it.  They are simply part of the tradition and there’s none of this question and answer about ‘How close am I approaching the truth?  ‘How close am I approaching the greatness of this music?  The music is linked to stories. The music is linked to the transmission of history and myth creation, genealogy, and all those things.  And the singer is not part of the system of the maestro genius.

There are no schools you can go to in the West, that I know of, where you can escape from the maestro genius paradigm because it’s the dominant one, and it’s actually the only one.  You would have to learn to sing in another way.  Either by singing a non- classical music, Western music, such as jazz.  Although even in the jazz world people now rely more and more on written records than on listening.  If you want to learn jazz and it’s 1936, you don’t go to college, where we have a very good jazz program and a Ph.D. in jazz history.  There is none of that.  You go to clubs and you sit and listen to your elders, who are themselves not maestro geniuses, they are simply – that’s their gig in the club.  You sit and listen to them.  Once in a while they might let you sit in and play with them and you soak it up. That’s one of the closest traditions we can find in our own society.  Nowadays, if you want to study jazz you want to have a degree in jazz.  And people now – you’ve heard of the great player Charlie Parker, his improvisations on the saxophone, which were, of course, not improvisations, they were licks that he played in every club, every night, but they seemed to us like improvisations.  They have, in the meantime, been transcribed by jazz historians or ethnomusicologists, and you can now buy a book with all of Charlie Parker’s solos written out in very precise notation.  And now what happens is that music students who are working for their master’s in jazz performance or whatever will take a copy of this Charlie Parker solo album into a practice room and maybe the person in the next practice room is playing Beethoven and the one on the other side is singing Puccini, and they are sitting in there dutifully learning to play a Charlie Parker solo break from a score.  So you can see that learning to play jazz has also entered into the written world in our culture because it belongs to the same system in a way, the same music training system.

This whole, long preamble is just to say that my work with Beowulf was a little bit designed to  – as therapy– to cure me from my conservatory training, from the mentality which my voice teachers had instilled in me and to help me find another way to use the voice, because in most conservatory training, and certainly all vocal training, there are very rigorous ideas about vocal usage.  And they are accepted worldwide and they have to do with the virtues of singing very loud and very beautifully, and having your voice sound the same all the time.  In other words, having your voice be unified from the very highest notes to the very lowest notes and whether you’re singing in Russian, French, Italian, or German, it’s the same beautiful voice because it’s vocal sound that is the center of the issue nowadays.

I think in the time of orally transmitted epics such as Beowulf, I can’t imagine a scop in an eighth-century or a seventh-century environment, in a place where he might have traveled in his whole life maybe fifteen miles to the left or to the right, I can’t imagine that he was participating in a culture that had unified values of vocal usage.  I think it’s much more likely that his voice was at the service of telling a certain story and that, of course, in his clan or in his group and amongst his masters and those who followed after him, there were some agreements locally linked to language and linked to the way these people spoke and the way they heard rhythm and the way they listened to the sounds of vowels and consonants in their language.  I think that that was silently but, of course, very rigorously adhered to.  No one had to write it down  –  well, they didn’t write anyway  –  but no one had to give it any kind of expression; it simply was taken for granted.

My effort was to enter into something that could be of the same fabric as that way of thinking about singing, that way of thinking about how language is given voice in telling a story.  How in the given structure, in which you have vowels, you have consonants, you have the evident metrical structure of the text itself and, of course, knowing it was sung and it was vocalized or given vocal utterance, you have that instrument which provides some kind of tonal information so that it’s not just random singing on any old note.  It has to adhere to some kind of melodic – not melodic, but tonal program.  That’s a lot of givens.

And so I’ve been juggling with those givens over the years and it really has been a long process of trial and error in many cases.  I did not start out with the theory ‘This is how it must have sounded; based on this and this and this it sounded like that.  Now I will make my instrument and my voice conform to that idea.’  It was much more me without too many preconceptions, other than the tuning of the instrument and what I was taught about the metrics, sitting down and working with all of those issues like a kind of prima materia, like a big lump of clay, kneading it and pushing it around.  And slowly, slowly, slowly, some kind of primitive shapes began to emerge for me as a singer but also as a storyteller because I had to kind of teach it to myself.  There was no one to teach that.  But I did have teachers and I could see in other cultures besides our own that this tradition does live on and there are people who do sing stories.  They use their voices. They’re not opera singers, they’re not lieder singers, and they didn’t go to conservatory.  That’s extremely heartening news for someone like me because it shows that it’s a powerful tradition, it’s viable, it’s still managing to survive in our world of instant media transmission and instant documentation.  My work with Beowulf was really, starting in 1987, a process of working through a very large mass of not very well defined givens, so that I could arrive at something which for me was a precise voice for that poem or that story.

You may have noticed if you were at the performance that I seem to be going in and out of singing and speech and it’s sort of going through a spectrum of sound from using all the weirdest things that voices do—  like screaming and whispering and barking and groaning and so on—through a kind of speech which you could call normal speech, the way you talk to a friend in a café, into a kind of heightened speech, which is what I’m doing now because this is a big room, into a kind of very formal speech which takes on an almost vocal quality of singing, the old style of what we used to call rhetoric, and then into something which is really like spoken song—to the point where you’re no longer sure; ‘Is he singing? Is he speaking? We don’t really know’—into something that you would call song, which is one note perceivable pitch per syllable of the text, and then into something which you would really call vocalism, which is using long notes, singing more than one note on a given syllable, something we call a melisma, and all the kinds of things you associate with singing.  That’s an enormous spectrum.  It covers a huge range of vocal possibility.

And you may be thinking, okay, he sat down and worked all this out and he okay knows that in line 751a speak, but then in line 751b into 752a gradually shift into song.  That is not the case.  At no time did I use any notations to read off of and see here I have sing, here I have to speak.  That whole process was something that I worked on through a long period of trial and error—and memory.  My own personal oral tradition came into being over a period of about fifteen years.  And now it’s very, very hard for me to change anything.  I can, but if I change something I go into a different part of my brain.  I noticed that last night when I tried something new, which I had never done before and I thought ‘Oh, this is great I’ve never tried this and it’s working fine.’  But then it threw me off how it goes into the next part because the doorway had been moved.  And in a way I kind of bumped my head going through the door because it was just not where I was expecting it to be.  Those are the sorts of strategies that are constantly being worked out in performance, but they can’t be fixed beforehand.

I also never wrote down any of the musical notes that I’m singing.  There’s no score for Beowulf , there will never be a score for Beowulf.  I would hate nothing more than to have to sit down and write this down on music paper.  It would be dreadful.  It would be something like a seventy-five-page score that would be unusable.  But some day some music student [laughter] might take that into a practice room and I think right there there’s a compelling reason to keep these things in oral tradition and not in written tradition, because that music student would certainly do something horrible by very slavishly obeying the written score because we are trained as students of music to think of the musical score as really a holy artifact.  It’s really something very much larger than we could ever be.  And I think the banishing of those five lines of music staff from our lives as musicians is one of the most important things we could ever hope to accomplish.  And one day, if I’m ever given the opportunity to start a music school of my own, it will be a staff paper free zone [laughter], especially for singers.

I think I’ve probably gone over the time limit.