Quick: Name the oldest piece of music you've ever heard at an area festival.
A Bill Monroe number at the World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, maybe an old-time fiddle tune in the Shakori Hills woods? Something by Jelly Roll Morton or Duke Ellington, perhaps, at the Art of the Cool? A Tin Pan Alley number covered by an indie rock band at Hopscotch?
The North Carolina HIP Music Festival looks at those ages and laughs. Outside a brief foray into the 21st century, the month-long event, now in its third year, plunders the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries to showcase music at the edges of the classical canon.
The notion of HIP, or "Historically Informed Practice," is simple—play music the way it may have been played when it was written. HIP musicians initially began with pieces that dated to around 1750 and worked backward to the oldest available notated music. The scene has subsequently pushed forward, embracing alternate ways of playing Beethoven or Brahms, Wagner or even Schoenberg.
This often entails using antiquated instruments or older versions of modern instruments. The baroque violin, for instance, has a shorter fingerboard and a different bridge. The neck attaches at a shallow angle, so the gut strings take less tension than their modern counterparts. Without recordings, scholars have reconstructed the details of how these instruments were likely played and how this repertory sounded. The players fill the gaps through inferences made in the spirit of the music.
The Triangle supports a surprisingly large concentration of such musicians, allowing the HIP Festival to tap area ensembles for all of its twelve concerts. Nine local groups join performers from Duke University and UNC–Chapel Hill for a deep dive into the past, a chance to hear music you may have considered familiar, recast in its original glory.
The festival begins February 6 and 7 with what may be the most HIP-ready music available, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's Mystery Sonatas. Biber was one of the greatest violinists and composers of the late 17th century. The Mallarmé Chamber Players, including six violinists, will deliver his set of 15 Rosary Sonatas—one for each of the Mysteries of the Rosary, key moments from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ.
What's most striking about this work, written in the 1670s, is that each sonata calls for a different scordatura, or tuning system. Each string of a violin is typically tuned a fifth apart from its neighbor, giving its open strings a range of almost two octaves. Here, each sonata gets its own tuning, and they grow more complex as the work progresses.
Early on, Biber moves a string a single step or two. During the middle five sonatas associated with the crucifixion, though, Biber wrenches the top strings down and the bottom strings up, collapsing the range into less than an octave. And for the resurrection, the violinists cross the middle two strings behind the bridge and nut to create a different instrument altogether.
As the tension on the strings and their relationship to one another shift, the instrument's resonance changes, allowing Biber to radically reconfigure the violin's sound. Sometimes, as in the fourth sonata, the violin takes on an open-tuning glow that suggests the fingerpicking of guitarists like John Fahey or Jack Rose. In the sixth, the vibrations almost disappear, conjuring an unplugged electric guitar. Biber composed his music to showcase his technical ideas.
These sonatas rank among the greatest music of their era, easily matching anything by Bach, Vivaldi, or Corelli. Each sonata has a unique form. Some brim with dance rhythms or include intricate fugues. Others seem rhapsodic and open-ended. Often, the connection with the Mysteries of the Rosary seems tenuous. The eighth sonata, "The Crowning with Thorns," feels convivial, while the fourth, "The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple," is fairly somber, occasionally violent.
Nothing else at this year's festival is as extreme as Biber's work, but the programing still ventures into plenty of underexplored Baroque corners. The quintet Raleigh Camerata investigates 18th-century Moravian instrumental music, while Baroque & Beyond team with Voices of a New Renaissance to perform vocal and instrumental music from the royal palaces of London and Paris. Aliénor pairs a harpsichord duo by Johann Ludwig Krebs, a student of Bach's, with two new duos by Edwin McLean and Mark Janello.
At the end of February, the festival closes when HIP's founding institution, Mallarmé, and the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Music present a semi-staged version of Handel's 1738 opera, Serse. Handel played so thoroughly with operatic conventions that the work initially flopped. But now it's known best for an opening countertenor aria that's perhaps the greatest love song ever written about a tree.
Even if HIP musicians fail to re-create the exact experience of hearing this music in the 17th or 18th century, the quest is a worthwhile one, capable of reintroducing audiences to composers like Biber before their names disappear in history's advance. The classical music machine is often too focused on the pivotal 19th century to remember what came before. HIP offers a rejoinder, as in tune and time with the past as it can be.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Recovery Time"