The term inégales is found in French baroque music, meaning to play two notes of equally written time values unevenly, with the first longer than the second. ‘Swinging’ notes is now common practice in many genres, especially jazz.
I am lucky to have played with Les Arts Florissants, specialising in French baroque, and now with Peter Wiegold’s ensemble, Club Inégales. So I am wondering, because of their use of the ‘unequal’, is there a common ground? Yes, a name. Yes, a style. But is there a more profound similarity of meaning? And then, as a musician, why was I drawn to play with both?
Playing for William Christie in Les Arts Florissants, I experienced inégalité at its source. Our approach was ‘authentic’: old instruments, swung rhythms, and ornamentation. But more importantly, Bill looks at music with freshness and originality. He is free in interpreting tempi, instrumentation, voicings, and form. His sole purpose is to communicate expression in the music, through text and phrasing. It is paramount to him to make the music relevant to us today:
“My idea is, essentially, to proclaim very loudly that old music is new music,” Mr. Christie said. It seems new for two reasons. “People haven’t heard as much as perhaps Beethoven or Brahms,” he said, “but also it’s new in the sense that it can accommodate itself, I think, to different interpretations”.1
It was important to me to play the seminal works of Bach, Purcell, Monteverdi, and lesser-known masterpieces too, and I love the pure, often earthy, sound of old instruments. However, most of all, what drew me to the early music scenes of London and Paris was the curiosity, questioning, and searching of my colleagues. As players and academics are looking further back in time and in greater detail at manuscripts and treatises, historically informed performance remains an exciting and vibrant world.
When approaching a Baroque masterpiece with Club Inégales, old music becomes new in our way, not like that of Les Arts, but equally valid, or, dare I say, more so? It is re-invention (perhaps going further than Bill’s approach); not recreating and playing Purcell as perhaps he heard it, but taking (in this case) King Arthur from 1691, and looking freshly, finding originality as creative musicians, even more authentic to our own age and soundworld.
It is still historically authentic, as Purcell would have expected his musicians to bring their creativity to the music. Even within an ensemble, they would have played freely with expression, ornamentation, even altering notes. He would have written for players he knew, who would extemporize on the spot to make performances alive and popular.
So as players in Club Inégales bring their improvising skills, perhaps there are parallels in the relationship between written and improvised music within Club Inégales’ work and Purcell’s own music scene.
There is a Club Inégales ‘sound’, for sure. Peter shapes the pieces in the moment, by directing the ensemble to vary texture, structure, and form. But also, players have personal and collective responsibility to respond in free invention and improvisation. All involved have an acute awareness of balance and structure.
Baroque music is ripe for re-invention and interpretation. Both with the inégalité and exploration of the early music world, especially that of French Baroque, and in Club Inégales, where we find uncontrived, organic expression and exciting new performances, relevant to today.
1 Michael Cooper, 2016, Les Arts Florissants Bring Opéra-Ballet Back to Life, New York Times, [online] 13 April 2016, Available at:nytimes.com/2016/04/14/arts/dance/les-arts-florissants-bring-opera-ballet-back-to-life.html.