by Clay Zeller-Townson, founder and bassoonist of Ruckus
Before performing alongside countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo this spring, the leader of ensemble Ruckus talks about playing Baroque music on the instruments for which it was written.
Woodstock, 1969. Jimi Hendrix launches into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Those searing distorted harmonics. The weight, intensity, and power of the sound. Now imagine that rendition performed … by a virtuoso ukulele player. Even with a gloriously gifted performer, there’d be something vital missing, wouldn’t there? What made it radical and powerful would evaporate into a cute, tinkly ditty. I think we can agree that every instrument has its own unique strengths, and that, conversely, no instrument can do everything.
In classical music, the instruments that we know and love have changed a lot over the last 400 years. Their names have not changed, but technological developments have affected their sound and function. And, while I think we can safely say we have progressed technologically in many ways over the last 400 years (plumbing, perhaps?), who would ever say ‘Gosh, if only Michelangelo had a 3D printer!’?
Our ensemble, Ruckus, is an early instrument group. These instruments, which are replicas of 17th- and 18th-century instruments, are tailor-fit to the Baroque repertoire. Our core members perform what are called basso continuo instruments (“continuo,” for short). Continuo instruments are a combination of sustaining instruments (cello, bass, bassoon, organ) and plucked instruments (harpsichord, lute, theorbo, harp) that play continuously in this music. Some music historians would prefer to call the Baroque Era the “Continuo Era” — the presence of these instruments is one of the defining characteristics of music from the time.
It was thought, in Florence in the 1580’s, that music had lost its way. This polyphony thing was too abstract! What music needed was to get back to its roots. A group of theorists decided that by writing dramatic music for singer with plucked instruments, they could reconnect with how they imagined ancient Greek drama was performed. Of course, they didn’t succeed at recreating an ancient practice (even today, no one knows what ancient Greek music sounded like), but they did create the beginnings of a new musical system, one based on vertical harmony rather than independently voiced counterpoint. The system of major and minor keys, which has been fundamental to the past four centuries of Western music, finds its root in this moment.
For the members of Ruckus, what is so thrilling about playing continuo instruments is not pretending to be a 17th-century musician channeling a nonexistent ancient Greek practice, but the freedom granted to us as performers. The music on our page is written in a shorthand, consisting of numbers and a single note; it really gives us very little information. The question of which instrument should play is undecided, let alone the texture and dynamics. Even the notes we play are up for us to discover and decide. This is a deeply improvisational practice, and any given piece is different every time we play it. This freshness keeps us on our toes, keeps the music alive, and hopefully keeps you, our audience, spellbound.
Ruckus playing Benedetto Marcello’s Sonata in G Major, Op. 2, #6, II