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Interview with Patrizia Bovi

In 2019, Micrologus performed a sold-out concert at AMUZ with carnival and penance songs from Florence in the 1500s. The audience were wildly enthusiastic about the varied programme and the lively interpretation by the Italian ensemble. Its artistic leader, Patrizia Bovi, has been researching the polyphony of her homeland for many years. She is currently living in the mountains near Assisi, where she is working on her doctoral thesis.


AMUZ: How did you come into contact with polyphonic music?

Patrizia Bovi: I got to know polyphony as a child – and not just that, polyphony was my first real experience with music. My parents were both members of a choir that specialised in polyphony. They rehearsed three times a week and when I was about seven or eight, I used to go with them. I listened carefully, followed my mother’s soprano part and soon learned everything off by heart. They sang madrigals by Monteverdi and Gesualdo, and I still know Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli by heart now! I sang troubadour songs instead of children’s songs. I remember the Calendimaggio in Assisi as well. It’s a three-day reconstruction of a historic, mediaeval festival, with parades and historic costumes. Music is a central part of that event that is still held today. There is a contest for choirs, for example, who sing 16th century polyphony on the central piazza in Assisi. So as you can imagine, polyphony and early music are very much alive in Assisi in general. If you grow up in a mediaeval city, your parents sing polyphony and you are surrounded by music from early childhood, everything is connected. It wasn’t until later, when I was a teenager, that I discovered pop and rock. I went to the conservatory when I was 16, where I learned to sing opera as well, but it has never been my favourite music. Mediaeval music means more to me than simply going back in time: it is an instinctive feeling for music. Modal music comes very naturally to me. Later on, I studied that music in greater depth and I am still researching it.


AMUZ: Which conservatory did you study at?

Patrizia Bovi: Perugia, but they didn’t understand my passion there. I only had older teachers and they didn’t know anything about early music, not even Monteverdi. Music before J.S. Bach was unknown to them, and Bach was performed romantically. One of my three teachers claimed that the French haute-contre was abnormal – ‘sono malati’, he declared, ‘they’re sick.’ They were ‘fake’ voices. Even music from before Mozart was not considered ‘grande musica’. That was the mentality back then, but I had clear ideas about early music and a passion for it, and that was absolutely the direction in which I wanted to go on exploring.


AMUZ: Is that why you founded your ensemble, Micrologus, in 1984?

Patrizia Bovi: Yes, with three friends, Adolfo Broegg who died in 2006, Gabriele Russo and Goffredo Degli Esposti. There were four of us, but lots of other musicians became members and stayed for years. All the collaborations we had – and still have – have been very stable. With any music, but polyphony in particular, it is important to have a specific sound that corresponds to your idea of how mediaeval and early Renaissance music should be performed. You always need to have the same singers and instrumentalists. If you keep changing your formation with every programme, you don’t have an identity. That specific sound is important to Micrologus.


AMUZ: Can you describe Micrologus’ sound?

Patrizia Bovi: I can assure you it was a long search. We are always looking for the natural sound of the voice, but that ‘naturalness’ takes a lot of work. What is essential is the quality of the pronunciation of the text and the vowels. If you sing in Italian, you need to produce exactly the same sound as when you are speaking the language. Every singer who sings with us has to practice that and follow the method we have developed ourselves. That leads to the same, natural sound when we sing together.
That natural sound isn’t Micrologus’ invention: it is based on our study and interpretation of descriptions in old treatises. For some theoreticians, it was important to give the impression that singing didn’t take any effort at all. The voice was supposed to flow freely and clearly, and to be completely relaxed, which Castiglione would later call ‘sprezzatura’ (‘the impression of effortlessness’ –Ed.). That even applied to Gregorian chants. The theoreticians emphasised that you should sing music in a range that was comfortable for your voice. If you have a naturally high voice, you should not sing in the low register. Besides sounding unpleasant, it would distract the audience. All the words had to be comprehensible. The intervals such as fourths, fifths and octaves also had to sound perfect. You were not allowed to add vibrato, because then the intervals would not be pure. Later on, when new musical styles developed, the singing technique would change. Composers and singers used their voices in more virtuoso ways. Nowadays many singers have a woolly sound, but the reverse was true in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.


AMUZ: Historic treatises are important to your research. Even your ensemble, Micrologus, is named after the title of a treatise by Guido di Arezzo. But you also research oral music traditions.

Patrizia Bovi: If you want to perform early music today, you can’t base your interpretation on the current performance of classical music that is taught at certain conservatories. Besides studying old sources, you also need to study oral traditions, especially when it comes to repertoire with a specific function. I am not claiming that that oral tradition can be applied to all mediaeval and Renaissance music. In Europe, and also in Italy which is the area I am studying, there are still many oral traditions where polyphony still exists and is performed in a completely different way to the way that classical music is generally performed. If you listen to the way they sing, it provides a lot of inspiration and your certainties collapse, because if you want to reconstruct mediaeval singing technique, you can’t do it based on classical singing technique that instructs you on how to position your palate or how to pronounce vowels.
You need to study the context of those oral traditions and understand the function of the music, such as that of Sardinian polyphony, and draw a parallel with the function of music in the 14th and 15th centuries. For example, there are still confraternities that perform music specifically linked to certain events, such as processions during Holy Week. Take Gubbio, where two groups of men sing two-part polyphony on Good Friday. Similar traditions still exist in Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Puglia and in the Naples area. There is evidence that these pieces were already being performed in the 17th century. Obviously certain things about these traditions have also changed over the centuries; you always need to bear that in mind. Their specific, archaic way of singing does correspond to information passed down in treatises, however. They sing intervals such as fourths and fifths, for example, in a very pure way, without vibrato, and they have retained the intonation. Listening to these performances interests me more than listening to a choir performing 19th century music.
What is more, you also have the uninterrupted tradition of singing poetry. It began in ancient Greece and developed over the centuries, because new things were constantly being added. An important time was the period of humanism, when people wanted to return to the Greek way of singing poetry. That started a new tradition. Over the course of the 15th century, for example, we see the tradition of ‘cantar versi’, the improvisational singing of poetry accompanied by the lira da braccio and lute. It was one of the important skills that a courtier had to possess. Many people were involved in that tradition, whether as amateurs or professionals. The tradition continued throughout the 16th century and into the 17th, when it was transformed into an oral tradition. That is why you still find people today in some regions of Italy who improvise sung poetry. The tradition has changed – the instrumental accompaniment is different now – but specific poetic forms still exist. For example, there are still poets in Tuscany who use the same forms as Torquato Tasso.


AMUZ: So your doctoral research is a combination of historic musicology and ethnomusicology?

Patrizia Bovi: I have to be very meticulous in my work, because the academic world is always cautious about oral traditions. That is because oral transmission means there is a considerable risk of changes. So you have to take risks, but I am prepared to do that and I want to seek out the connections between traditions and today’s world. Of course you shouldn’t sing Palestrina the same way as Corsican polyphony. But if we are talking about mediaeval lauds and their function in confraternities, there is still a link. I also prefer to look at what confraternities are doing today than to start entirely ‘from scratch’. Some performers currently no longer base their work on musicological research and come up with something completely new. They claim that we don’t know anything about performance practice in the 12th century. And that idea is gaining ground, with the result that we are losing a lot of knowledge about historical performance practice. It is not true that we have insufficient information: we know a lot from treatises. Musicologists have been doing a lot of work over the last fifty years to find new sources and open them up. It’s true that you have your personality and voice as an artist, but you should take the sources, organology, iconography etc, into account. It is essential to convey that to students.


AMUZ: Where do you teach now?

I teach courses and international masterclasses at the Centro Studi Europeo di Musica Medievale Adolfo Broegg in Spello, in both summer and winter sessions. I also work with the Centre de musique médiévale at Montpellier University, where I teach musicology students. The head of the centre, Gisèle Clément, wants to offer the musicologists practical lessons as well, which I believe is a very intelligent idea. I will also be working with the Fondation Royaumont and KU Leuven next year, teaching Italian Trecento music.


AMUZ: You also collaborate with artists in other areas. How does that influence your work?

I have worked with the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui many times since 2006, and that is a dream collaboration. We have already created a lot of productions, and a few weeks ago he phoned me to ask me to work on a new production for Torino Danza in which he will be dancing three solos. Working with him is always an adventure: it was something that was missing from my life. I always stick to the music itself when I am putting programmes together – I follow a musical idea or material from a manuscript. But when you collaborate with choreographers or visual artists, you need to work with their concept rather than from the score. So then I have to search for music that can express their concept. So I don’t necessarily look for music based on a text, but also based on mode, rhythm, tempo etc. It’s a completely different creation process. For the upcoming production, for example, Cherkaoui has asked me to find music that ties in with themes such as loneliness and fire. I immediately thought of a song about miners in sulphur mines, where many of them died. It is an intense, emotional song that expresses so much despair and pain. But even without understanding the words, the mode and long notes will make a strong impression on your psyche. I wouldn’t be immediately inclined to perform that song in a normal musical programme, but here it fits the concept perfectly. In the production Babel, I followed the dancers’ movements with my voice. I improvised on a mediaeval song. Working with artists like that is an important lesson, because you have to take their movements into account. But if you bring all the elements together, you take the whole creation to a higher level. It is not just 1+1=2: you get different layers. And Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and his dancers understand music so well. I am already looking forward to our rehearsals in September.

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