At first glance, the Catacoustic Consort might appear gimmicky, like Civil War Reenactors a little too obsessed with an era they’ve romanticized and obsessed over, disconnected from the modern world. But the music of Cincinnati’s Catacoustic Consort isn’t an attempt at time travel so much as it is a method of exploring the sounds, emotions and people of another era — the chamber musicians of the 16th-18th centuries.
This year is the Consort’s 10th anniversary season. Its antique music, played on period instruments (and reasonable facsimiles), has been heard seasonally here in Cincinnati and in traveling shows throughout the United States and Europe.
When we spoke, Artistic Director Annalisa Pappano explained that the music she chooses to reveal in her small-scale performances of as few as a pair of musicians is material crafted by gifted, aristocratic amateurs, often women. Pappano and the rotating series of musicians she works with channel the spirits and the distinct voices of these performers in exhibitions that can be somber or bright, but always uniquely ancient. Pappano is an adjunct professor who teaches at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
“Early Music,” Pappano says, is what this subset of Classical is often called.“But it is not an ideal term. Does that mean kids' music or The Beatles? I think of it as artsy music that I can perform on my Viola da Gamba.”
Pappano personally owns six Viola da Gambas, which are fretted, Renaissance-era instruments that look similar to violins but are played upright, nestled between the knees and bowed using an underhand grip. Five of these are historic reproductions. Pappano’s 150-year-old pardessus de viole was especially designed for women to play. It was made so that performers could smile — their faces would not touch the instrument — and held so that it did not overly draw attention to a woman’s figure or touch her neck, lest a subversive admirer coat the instrument with an aphrodisiac.
Pappano, who in most senses is the Catacoustic Consort — she is its only permanent member and handles the business, organizational and promotional ends of the work — also maintains a reproduction harpsichord and a Lirone, a long-necked instrument with a dozen strings that was developed during the Protestant Reformation to bring wayward Catholics back into the pews. The instrument’s bridge is extremely flat so that many strings are played at once, creating a deep, rich sound.
“It’s a kind of special effects,” Pappano says. “A halo of sound.”
Most of these instruments are strung with gut rather than wire, maintained by specialists and produce unique vibrations even without the lifetimes of experience that Pappano and her cohorts bring to the stage. But it is their historical interpretations of the antique music that really brings it to life.
“Ideas of communicating music have changed a lot,” Pappano says. “It evolved rhetorically using the art of speech. It used to be that the main purpose was to imitate speech.”
She explains that modern music often incorporates soaring intonations, emphasizing the idiosyncrasies of the instrument’s design. But Early Music involved musicians attempting to get their instruments to practically speak, intoning actual words.
The stories told in the Consort’s music are varied; some are sacred pieces that were played in churches and many others include themes common to modern Pop: love, anger, sadness. It’s these common threads that connect the dead composers in Pappano’s gig bag to the present.
What the present has in common with the past and the differences, such as how female composers' only public voice might have been through their music, fascinates Pappano.
“We really haven’t changed that much,” she says. “It’s this woman connection. I find it interesting. Women were not meant to be out there (at that time).”
Since founding the Consort in 2000, Pappano says she has grown as a performer and interpreter of the past. And interpretation is key when speaking of music that hasn’t been heard in centuries and is only heard now by the carefully informed reading of aged sheet music.
“I learned a lot and I really wanted to learn a lot,” she says. “It’s probably a lot like a writer who writes where they’re at emotionally; at one time I performed a lot of laments. Now I’m in a happier period, and my music sounds so, too.”
THE CATACOUSTIC CONSORT's next performance is Saturday at Walnut Hills Christian Church (1438 E. McMillan St., Walnut Hills). For a complete schedule of the Consort’s 2010-11 season, go to www.catacoustic.com.
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