Thomas Binkley

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As conductor, Binkley imaginatively wove instruments and practices of folk music into a rich tapestry of instrumental improvisation around a singer's lyric performance.
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Though he would later claim a burning childhood desire to become a dancer, a life of music beckoned to Thomas Binkley from an early age. He enjoyed playing folk music on his guitar, as well as trombone in a local band (an arm injury forced him to abandon the latter). He took lessons from lutenist Joseph Iadone and proceeded to study music at the University of Illinois under Dragan Plamenac and Claude Palisca. While there, he performed on lute and early woodwind instruments in the Collegium pioneered by George Hunter. After graduating with honors in 1954, Binkley pursued graduate work in musicology at the university and then at the University of Munich. The expatriate life suited him well at first and he founded the Munich-based performance ensemble Studio für Alte Musik in 1959 with Nigel Rogers, Sterling Jones, and Estonian singer Andrea von Ramm. The group, later known as the Studio für Frühen Musik, brought him to worldwide musical attention. Binkley made more than 40 recordings with the Studio für Frühen Musik, earning numerous European prizes, including the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik and the French Grand Prix du Disque; the ensemble also toured up to nine months out of the year. In 1972, Wulf Arlt asked them to transfer from Munich to Basle for residency at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. The ensemble disbanded in 1976 and Binkley returned to the States, first fulfilling a dream of homesteading in California and then teaching at Stanford University. In 1979, Indiana University offered (apparently at the behest of two students of Binkley's) to create an Early Music Institute under his directorship. He served in this capacity for 15 years until his January 1995 retirement, teaching a generation of early music performers, producing a further 45 recordings, establishing and acting as general editor for two series of scholarly publications, and creating the Thomas Binkley Early Music Recordings Archive. He began his own early music recording label (Focus Records, part of the EMI group), made wine, and gardened. The heart of Binkley's philosophy of performance was a marked distinction between the paper record of a piece of music and the sounding event. "The work is not the performance"; "The document [i.e. the musical score] is not the sound." Believing that, as with American jazz, medieval musics were notated as only scant mnemonic indicators of the musical sound, which was always different when enacted in performance, he sought a richer performance context than the reproduction of the mere notes on the page. Theoretical, rhetorical, and literary sources lent him such evidence. Binkley further admonished his singers to completely know their texts (which he was known for performing in full) and to memorize them in keeping with an oral tradition. Finally, he imaginatively wove the instruments and practices of folk music -- notoriously the traditions of Arabic music that the studio musicians encountered by accident while on tour in North Africa -- into a rich tapestry of instrumental improvisation around a singer's lyric performance.