The performing arts are fairly unique in the SCA in that the skills necessary to participate are moderately widely practiced or experienced by folks in their modern lives. Indeed, between radio and recordings, we may well get to hear more music than any generation before us (although my hunch is that we actually sing less). No special gear is needed to sing or to tell a story, so the "barrier to entry" is fairly low. And the SCA performing arts have a long tradition of endorsing "SCA appropriate" performance - which is to say, it doesn't have to be period as long as it feels period.
Maybe that is why we tend to be so awful with documentation and research?
In my experience, performance A&S documentation typically consists of asserting, "This is period." Possibly, a source and date of the source are given. Because what else can you do, right? The music and text are medieval. I will perform them now. Et voila, I have given a period performance.
That is fine for the beginner's level of research. That might be your entire goal. That's okay. (Just so we're clear on that.)
(And just to be really, really clear, I don't have an especial beef with traditional music, either. On the balance, I'd rather have music at events than silence. Medieval music would be spiffy, but SCA appropriate works, too. But we're talking about research, so we're talking about researching period performance.)
But there is much, much more you can learn and then bring to your performance:
- How are performers of your type depicted in historical records or literature?
You want to be careful about using literature as sources. Sometimes it may be your only option. Also consider whether or not the reader's disbelief is suspended and in what fashion. The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron are both about people telling stories; but the story-telling is also a framework for presenting a series of stories. Did readers suspend their disbelief at such a motley band of pilgrims traveling together, accepting it as a convention? Or do you think it's plausible? What research would you have to do to make a case for using The Canterbury Tales as a source for storytelling practice in fourteenth century England?
- Are there any records of how performances of your type were received by listeners?
- How are performers of your type depicted in iconography (pictures)? Can you infer anything from that?
- What tools of theirs are extant, and what can you infer from them?
I think it's Timothy McGee writing on medieval music who noted that medieval and Renaissance sheet music only contained the singer's line of music, not the whole score. Their performance techniques, then, must account for that.
- What critical commentary or aesthetic treatises are available? What do they mean for you?
Theoreticians wrote on what made "good" music and poetry; texts like Aristotle's Poetics speak somewhat to what makes a "good" story.
- Are your original works modern or medieval in style and theme?
Just like jazz sounds different from bluegrass, modern musical styles sound different from medieval and Renaissance ones. The common themes and values exemplified in story and poem are often not the ones we champion today. Expose yourself to good recordings or translations of authentic works and try to gain an understanding of what makes them different from modern versions. The people of the past had modes of expressing joy, love, grief, honor, and more. You can use those modes instead of a John Denver-esque ballad.
For pieces in your repertoire:
- What themes are appropriate to pieces in this style?
- What accompaniment may have been used?
- How is different from or alike other styles in use at the same time and place?
- Was there a special use for pieces of this style (e.g., Kyrie Eleison as part of the Christian Mass)?
Performance leaves no definitive record - we have no A/V recordings from the Middle Ages, alas. We can't ever know what a medieval song sounded like. We can make educated guesses, and wrangle over details Was there musical accompaniment? Was it used while someone was singing, or as a prelude and a postlude? Would it have echoed the melody or would it have been some sort of drone? Would the singer have played it, or would he have had an assistant for that? And so on and so on, splitting hairs over the often-ambiguous evidence left to us.
But we can know some of the things performance was not. And we can support our own educated guesses with both information from books and from our own experience as performers.
The reading can be difficult and technical - really, that's no different from any other area of research.
An an Extra-Special Note for Singers and Musicians
Many SCA musicians and singers do not read music. Of those that do read music, many will not have had any grounding in music theory. This can make understanding the theory that underpins medieval and Renaissance music very, very challenging.
I highly encourage you to try, if you are interested in deep research into the musical arts. But, as an alternative, you would do well to buy and listen frequently to CDs by reputable historically-informed performers. You have internalized our modern musical idiom by hearing TV theme songs, commercial jingles, popular music, children's songs, and more. You can begin to internalize the musical idiom of the Middle Ages by listening, too.