The notion of medieval music needs to be reconsidered. The Organum Ensemble has persistently avoided obsolete categories – Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque – by putting together programmes and records that happily skirt the centuries, embracing along the way the concourse of living, contemporary oral traditions. Yet we continue, in default of words, to qualify ourselves as a medieval musical ensemble.
The term ‘musiques anciennes’ has entered into usage over the last thirty years to designate the music that is not taught in conservatories. This marginalisation has led the musicians devoted to theses repertoires to elaborate new teaching approaches and new professional strategies. But this ‘ancient’ music has shown numerous likenesses to certain existing contemporary practises. Can that which is contemporary be qualified as ancient ?
Cantus ex tempore
The natural progress of this renaissance of ‘musiques anciennes’ is found in the re-evaluation of the practise of improvisation, which, after the study of the manuscripts, the treatises and the anecdotal texts of the time and their juxtaposition with living practises, is the final logical step.
The science of music has always been founded on the act of immediate creation, that which today we call improvisation. This word – which in our language has gained certain negative harmonics – was in the past known as cantus ex tempore. This is the music that emerges from the instant, as opposed to cantus ex opere, that which is drawn from a previously composed work. Cantus ex tempore, the music that springs forth when conditions – the conjunction of multitudinous factors – reunite to allow one to hear what the instant will produce. It was in the past a way of sacralising the celebration of a particularly solemn moment; it was at the origin the basic function of the organum chant or its transposition onto the instrument that bears the same name.