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Saturday morning quotes 5.11: Aesthetics – part II

We continue our short side trip into the subjective realm of aesthetics as applied to the interpretation of early music.  In pursuing this subject, we risk nudging the noble pursuit of aesthetic inquiry into the dreaded minefield of the pompous and subjective classical music review.  We always take great pains to mention that early music has nothing to do with the modern marketing category of classical music—or it darn well should not.  Those who cram the vast and variegated repertory of early music into the chafing tuxedo of classical music do so for matters of categorical convenience or for blatant economic reasons.  But we state plainly that a millennium of music deserves several categories and should not be judged by the criteria used to evaluate music mostly originating in the 19th century.

It is not our goal to define what is good music or bad music, nor to judge what might be a good interpretation or a bad interpretation of historical music.  Nor do we wish to handle the topic of musical aesthetics with the white gloves essential to the ensemble of 19th-century evening dress.  Instead, we ask our readers to take a step back as we gain a bit of perspective by tapping into the topic of aesthetics as applied to visual arts and adapting some pertinent elements of analysis.

A quotable source that offers a concise and well-organized description is the article by Donald W. Crawford, “Aesthetics in Discipline-based Art Education,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 21, No.2, Summer 1987, pp. 227-239.  Crawford scribes a line that joins aesthetics and philosophy, describing aesthetics as “the philosophy of the beautiful”, as well as making the important distinction between philosophical reflection and researching facts.

“…Philosophy is a reflective or deliberative inquiry rather than a historical investigation or a series of scientific experiments aiming to acquire new facts…Philosophy, then, is not simply reflection but critical reflection.”

“Philosophical inquiry, being both reflective and critical, always begins by taking one step back from the phenomena it seeks to understand.  To take a simple example: I visit a local art gallery and look at a number of different sculptures, but I am continually drawn back to one in particular. Suppose at some point I notice what has happened; I become aware that my behavior indicates a preference. When I ask why this is the case, I am beginning to engage in philosophical reflection. In seeking to understand my own experience, to explain it to myself, to integrate it with other things I know about myself, I am engaged in critical reflection.”

“Aesthetics is that branch of philosophical activities which involves the critical reflection on our experience and evaluation of art. Critical reflection consists in part of conceptual analysis and the formulation of principles of interpretation, of critical reasoning, and of evaluation. Art-historical concepts such as style and innovation provide material for analysis, and art criticism affords examples of interpretation and evaluation.”

p. 228-229

We can easily glean useful information from this descriptive summary and adapt and apply the framework to historical music.  One experiences the same reaction to certain types, styles or pieces of music that Crawford does to sculpture, sparking a philosophical reflection and initiating a critical reflection.  That is, we experience these reactions if we care to go beyond simply registering a preference and thoughtfully examine the possible reasons for our preference.

“Socrates, the intellectual father of philosophy, maintained that the unexamined life is not worth living. Implicit in his claim is the view that our actions and attitudes are guided by our beliefs, our principles, and our values and that the rigorous, critical examination of these is an important part of what it is to be a human being. Socrates believed that self-knowledge is the highest type of knowledge, without which one can never be truly happy.”

p. 230

Crawford asks some important questions that, again, transfer directly to an interpretive musical context, and then draws a distinction between personal preference and objective standards.

“What makes one interpretation better than another? Is an understanding of the artist’s intentions either necessary or useful to interpret a work correctly? How do we decide between competing interpretations of a work?”

“A major concern of aestheticians is whether the evaluative judgments they make are legitimate claims to knowledge-as opposed to mere expressions of personal preference or reflections of contemporary opinion. Aestheticians ask whether critical judgments about art can be supported by sound reasons, whether there are objective standards or criteria for determining if a work of art is good.”

p. 233-234

And here we turn to a few interpretive examples of music composed by Bartolomeo Tromboncino (1470 – 1535), chosen because the music appears to be extremely simplistic if we only look at the notes that come down to us over the span of 500 years.  But Tromboncino set the beautifully complex and evocative poetry of Francesco Petrarca and Michaelangelo Buonarroti, and what appears simplistic comes to life if we examine the form, structure and context of the original modes of performance.

The first example is a project that self-consciously incorporates historical gestures into performance of Tromboncino’s music, presented in cooperation with Robert Toft, who proposes that gestures typical of historical oratory should be used in musical performance. The video example (link is the title of the piece) is a performance of “Come harò donque ardire“, text by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) and musical setting by Tromboncino, features Kate Macoboy with Robert Meunier, lute, in a video recorded at Arab Hall in Leighton House, London, 2014.

Kate Macoboy’s performance of the song is very effective, sung from memory and performed with historical gestures, two elements that help connect the listener with the emotional power of the text and its musical setting.  The singer’s delivery is warm and engaged, sung with a conventional, if restrained, production with a beautiful quality of tone and control of dynamic contrast. The lute accompaniment is accurate and subtle, if a bit aloof. And despite the fancy camera work that zooms in on the lute, one’s attention continues to be focused on the singer, her beautiful sound and her theatrical gestures.  While the gestures serve to heighten the emotional dimension of the song, they seem a bit studied and strike the eye as an external element rather than a natural mode of expression.  A method actor would only need to spend a little time with Italians to understand and incorporate the difference.

As for the more nuanced elements of this performance, the first thing one notices is the positioning of the lutenist, a little forward and to the singer’s right.  While many performers seem to choose this arrangement, it registers in the subconscious as “Singer and her Accompanist” rather than “Duo.”  The lute’s pegbox points toward the singer’s face and acts as a barrier to an effective connection, as though it were a wordless statement of “further off”.  My theater professor (long ago) had sharp and succinct words whenever he observed behavior that interfered with effective communication to the audience—Don’t do that.

Toft and the performers provide a great deal more descriptive detail that gives some insight into their intentions and their choices. But one senses that they are attempting to add legitimacy to what seems like simple music by applying external effects, rather than tapping into the more natural elements of performance that can be discovered only by absorbing essential information and allowing the gestures to surface spontaneously.

Our second example is a performance of “Zephyro spira e il bel tempo rimena“, text adapted from Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374) and musical setting by Tromboncino, featuring Andrea Alejandra Nicolás with Emilio Cervini, lute, in a live performance at the Concierto Museo Isaac Fernández Blanco, Buenos Aires, July 2010.

The duo of Andrea Alejandra Nicolás and Emilio Cervini offer a contrast to the more cerebral example of similar music by the same composer mentioned above.  The first thing we hear is Emilio Cervini’s introductory recercar that prepares our ears for what is to come, and melds seamlessly into the song.  Andrea Alejandra Nicolás sings with a rather natural production that is instantly engaging.  Singing from memory, she incorporates a great deal of gesture that appears so natural that it almost negates the need for a translation of the text, which is sung with a very charming Spanish accent.

Cervini’s lute accompaniment is at once supportive, improvisatory and very creative—adding appropriate melodic movement, playing a solo interlude and segueing into a triple-time accompanying passage as though it were the most natural thing.  It seems as though he is inventing the accompaniment on the spot, surely the most effective mode of interpretation. The duo’s performance may seem a bit rushed, but the song is delivered effectively with a youthful vigor and a spirit of improvisation that leaves one with a sense of satisfaction.

Summation to follow in our next installment.

Saturday morning quotes 5.10: Aesthetics – part I

Pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent. (Things are considered beautiful when their perception gives pleasure.)

– Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Summa Theologica

Aesthetic beauty is a term we frequently use to describe music and informed interpretive choices.  While aesthetic beauty is part and parcel of an artist’s training, its meaning is not so clear-cut when applied to something as temporally subjective as musical sound.  Musicians are typically left to their own devices to discover beauty in music, which really must be defined on an individual basis.  This is particularly true today, given that the world has been reduced to what may be seen on one’s phone and accessed with one’s thumbs: What was once described as objective beauty is now cynically considered trite.  But for those willing to put down their plastic screens for a moment, a quick peek at the past will at least lay the groundwork.

While the term “aesthetics” was first used by the 18th-century German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten, the concepts were described much earlier. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas proposed three objective features that may describe a thing that is beautiful; integritas (perfect wholeness), proportio (proportion), and claritas (splendor), elements that Umberto Eco defines as “formal criteria” of the beautiful. St. Thomas described harmony or proportion as best realized in music, and is credited with having written the hymns and prayers of the Office for Corpus Christi, including Pange Lingua, from which is drawn the well-known Tantum Ergo :

“Music is the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal, bursting forth in sound.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Eco’s “formal criteria” of the beautiful may be readily applied to the physical appearance of the lute, with its elegant proportions and design based on geometric principles.  But the same criteria may be found in the compositional structure of historical music as well as the form and meter of poetry.  Extending the conceptual framework, larger works such as Francesco Petrarca’s Rime sparse were conceived with an overarching formal structure in mind, as were his classical models including Horace’s Odes, and Virgil’s Eclogues.

This formal structural design is likewise found in collections of musical works, for example, John Dowland’s Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares figvred in Seaven Passionate Pauans (c. 1605).  When the music is broken into bits that are easily digestible as snack food by those with short attention spans, the formal structure that was designed with such care is undermined and rendered meaningless.

More to come.

Saturday morning quotes 5.9: Amateurs again

“Yea, so that thou haue any skill in [playing the lute] be not ashamed at the request of honest friends to shew thy cunning: but if thou chancest to get an habit of perfection, prophane not the Goddesse, with making thy selfe cheape for a sleight gaine.”

– John Dowland, Varietie of Lvte-lessons, 1610 (after Besard, 1603).

Having received feedback from a few amateur lutenists over what seemed an unquiet excess of bile emanating from this quarter, we revisit the topic to offer a clearer perspective.

First of all, we love amateur musicians and we count several amateur lute enthusiasts among our friends.  In many respects, amateur lutenists make the world wobble round for professional early music specialists involved in teaching, publishing and music-making.  Amateur lutenists also provide the primary source of income for some of our better luthiers, enabling them to eat regular meals as they indulge in and refine their craftwork.

People from all walks of life are drawn to the lute for a host of good reasons. The lute appeals to the artistic because of its aesthetic beauty and its graceful form.  The lute appeals to historians because of the abundance of written records describing its ubiquitous presence in the noble circles of early modern Europe.  The lute appeals to specialists in historic literature and poetry; for music and sweet poetry are indeed the sister and the brother.  The lute appeals to those with a scientific bent because of its unique design elements and its geometric proportions. The lute appeals to woodworkers because of the unusual challenges of its shape and construction.  The lute appeals to librarians and archivists because there was so very much historical music printed and scribbled for the instrument that wants to be organized and cataloged. The lute appeals to hoarders for the same reason—and they must have it all.

Most importantly, the lute appeals to sensitive musicians drawn by the quiet elegance and beauty of its sound, and because it is a “perfect” instrument—it is capable of producing at once, melody and harmony together.  In the right hands, the lute is capable of producing true polyphony with separate and distinct interweaving lines.  While in the lute revival’s recent past emphasis was placed upon hollow virtuosity, more refined ears today favor the playing of sensitive musicians who understand the music’s depth and the spaces between the notes.  Those who possess taste and judgement mark this to be the most important happy result of the lute’s inherent magnetism for the simple reason that sensitive and musical performers provide inspiring examples for all types of amateurs mentioned above, as made evident through the availability of recordings and through public concerts.

Public performance and commercial recording is the point at which the path forks for amateurs and professionals.  A dedicated professional musician working as a specialist in the field of early music today unfortunately faces nearly insurmountable financial hurdles just in order to survive.  And anyone who approaches playing the lute with an informed sensitivity, taste and judgement soon discovers that it takes a lifetime of committed work to play the instrument well, and constant practice to maintain a technique.  And any vocalist in possession of an informed sensitivity, taste and judgement who has attempted to sing appropriate repertory with lute accompaniment soon discovers that a generic modern technique simply will not do.

Early music is a very narrow niche market, and music for the lute represents a paper-thin slice of that market.  Within the confines of that thin slice, early music that features voice and lute must be measured in microns.  In today’s unfortunate environment of music as a vastly undervalued commodity, we see that nearly all professional musicians are clinging to the frayed threads of a once viable livelihood.  Making matters worse, we also live in age that has seen the dramatic opportunistic rise of the pretentious and competitive amateur.  You know the type.  Armed with generic skills in Photoshop or Garage Band, or alternatively armed with ample funds to pay others for an unnatural result, we see the same pattern affecting different areas of the arts.  Much to the detriment of the less assertive, if more talented and capable professional, this dynamic has a particularly toxic effect when competitiveness is coupled with increased selfie opportunities for the morbidly narcissistic.

I (RA) became a staunch defender of the fundamental right of a professional musician to make a living at his or her art in 1978 when a folk group I was performing with shared a concert program with Tracy Schwarz and his family.  Schwarz, best known for his long tenure with the legendary folk revival group, the New Lost City Ramblers, had very pointed remarks about amateurs performing public concerts for free: They were interfering with his ability to feed his family.  For the same reasons rehearsed above, Schwarz had no problem with amateur musicians indulging in a passionate love affair with music and in fact encouraged the same.  The tipping point is when amateurs play in public for free because, momentarily leaving aside questions of quality, it is plain and simple a matter of patently unfair competition.

As for quality, while an audience may be comprised of individuals who possess taste and judgement, any gathering of people tends toward the lowest common denominator.  This maxim is particularly true when “free” is factored into the equation.  A case in point is the absurd wholesale acceptance of low-fidelity mp3 format as the current standard for listening to music of all types.  While some individuals will notice the difference and opt for the better format, standards are subject to group norms, and large groups behave according to the laws of Brownian motion.  Good judgement will nearly always be deferred if the choice is between free streaming and\or downloading, and paying for a higher-quality format.

The same concept is put to the test when a concert audience is faced with a choice to attend a free lunchtime concert that hosts amateur musicians, or a higher-profile concert that features higher-quality music carefully prepared, packaged and presented by well-known professional musicians who perform for a fee.  Invariably, the free program is well attended while the other is often less so, depending upon the stature (or PR) of the artist.  Excepting pop-tinged performances, which aim for a different target, the current US market for early music reflects this unhappy phenomenon, and even affects performers who are—or should be—at the top of the heap.  The result is that even some top musicians end up playing the free lunchtime concerts in order remain remotely relevant, creating an ugly Catch-22 situation in which mere survival takes a back seat to actually earning a living.

“The dilettante and the amateur should, as a rule, stay out of paid positions, or at least they should not work gratuitously in those which should yield pay: and in those few cases where it seems fair and desirable for them to do any public work at salary they should stubbornly maintain a price and conditions which will aid professionals to hold the same ground.”

– Charles E. Watt, “A Square Deal for the Music Teacher: Let Us Have a Better Financial Status for the Professional Musician,” The Etude, Vol. 39, September 1921, p. 561.

I (RA) have met amateurs who may not be top-notch musicians but who are wonderful human beings.  I have met amateurs who may be capable musicians but who are also ids-on-a-stick in possession of oversized egos paired with a distinct lack of social skills. Although many teeter on the brink, only one particular amateur lutenist I have met falls squarely into the category of a blight upon the earth, which is a remarkably low statistic.  Mostly, I care not a whit whether a lutenist is an amateur, a semi-amateur, a semi-conductor, or semi-truck driver.  What matters is this: Are you performing in public and, if so, are you charging for your performance?  Or, as Dowland chastises, do you “prophane the Goddesse”?

Saturday morning quotes 5.8: A nut to crack

“But Gentlemen, once more I will make you promise, that if these Masterlike rules, and Scholerlike lessons, doe but any whit content you, I will come forth, With Cracke mee this Nut…wherein I will striue either (for euer) to winne your fauours, or starue in the dole of your disgrace.”

– Thomas Robinson, The Schoole of Mvsicke: Wherein is Tavght, the perfect Method, of Trve Fingering of the Lute, Pandora, Orpharion, and Viol de Gamba; with most infallible generall rules, both easie and Delightfull, London, 1603.

We return in a roundabout way to our ongoing theme of Rhetoric and education, touching the topic lightly with a rhetorical question: How great a role does Rhetoric play in 21st-century interpretation of music for voice and lute? To arrive at a qualified answer, today we tap into the writing of Robert Toft and his book Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England 1597-1622. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Toft has led a busy academic career, but has churned out some eminently useful writing just the same.  His important book, Aural Images of Lost Traditions: Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, is required reading for anyone and everyone who edits 16th-century vocal polyphony.  What is frequently and erroneously called musica ficta as applied to historical music is a simple matter for those of us with an understanding of 16th-century compositional practice tempered by an intimate working knowledge of the historical instrumental scoring notation known as tablature.  Questions of accidentals are resolved when one sees unmistakeable answers revealed in lute tablatures, which depict a clear locational map of the instrument’s fingerboard.  Tablatures also allow us to see interpretive differences that relate to general historical periods and regional tastes.

As for the less clear-cut questions of the interpretation of lute songs in performance, Toft engages in a speculative romp through a host of historical sources, presenting very enticing examples, generic though they may be.  All quotations are given in their original language with English translations.  Toft approaches the rediscovery of modes of interpretation using an analogy of concentric circles (p. 10).  His innermost circle contains the song, positioned as the kernel of the nut to crack.  Lacking specific information elucidating questions of phrasing, articulation, tempo, dynamics, tonal quality of the voice, Toft scribes a second concentric circle wherein dwells information gleaned from more general historical writings about music.  His third concentric circle encompasses historical writings about Rhetoric and spoken discourse. Toft then channels this aggregation of non-specific information from the outermost circles towards the kernel of song, innocently at rest in the center circle.

The fault in Toft’s mode of analysis lies in his premise that an extrovert, performance-centered oratorical approach is the interpretive goal.  Imagine Dowland’s reaction if we were to equate the pompous bluster of a lawyer, or the rantings of a purblind Puritan, with the singing of a quiet, delicate and intimate lute song.  Perhaps the tools of Rhetoric were seen as a foundation for understanding and not meant to be systematically applied externally, nor noticeably, to the interpretation of a lute song.  The approach Toft presents is akin to swinging a sledgehammer in order to crack the nut that contains the song.  A lute song is not a nut to crack, but rather more like a fresh fig with a yielding husk that responds to gentle coaxing.  Of course the sweet fig could instantly turn to a dripping mush in the untrained hands of a novice, or the insensitive hands of the tasteless.

We think the tools of Rhetoric are meant to provide a framework for our understanding of the world we inhabit, that we may approach the task at hand knowingly with care and grace.  We need no distracting external antics to guide us toward an effective performance because the interpretive information is there, inherent in the very nature of the music.  After gaining a foundational understanding and internalizing rhetorical devices, one need only respond to the cues from within the text and the tune.

The primary interpretive clue lies in the characteristics of the lute itself, which is and always has been celebrated for its subtlety.  If a voice is well-balanced to the volume and timbre of the lute, and one hears the interaction of polyphonic interplay, then the singer has achieved the first interpretive step.  Until the advent of the modern early music revival, it was well understood that the lute cannot abide the shouting we endure from the brash pipes of the loud singer.

The lute is a closet instrument that will suffer the company of but few hearers, and such as have a delicate ear; for the pearls are not to be cast before the swine.

…If we must incline to one side, the gentle and soft playing is to be preferred before others, so that you play neatly and in a little room or to please a small company (the lute not being fit to play in a hall before a multitude of people; there the violin is most fit).

– Mary Burwell’s lute teacher, circa 1670

The generous amount of historical information Toft quotes and translates in digested and summary form is very useful to the performer.  But a premise from which Toft proceeds, and one which we question, is that one need not alter a modern vocal technique to sing music for solo voice and lute.  This rather flies in the face of manifold examples of vocal characteristics found in the historical sources with which he is obviously familiar, and one suspects he is simply leaving the door open for potential modern converts to lute songs.  In his defense of the bel canto style, of which he a proponent, Toft writes, “the bel canto manner of delivery originates in and best suits smaller rooms (perhaps up to 600 – 800 seats).”  To be fair, Toft considers bel canto technique as an alternative to what he calls a “loud voice” that can be heard over a modern orchestra.  But one likes to point out that a lute performing in a 600-800 seat hall is participating in a most inauthentic mode of performance.

Further, the very idea that lute songs were mainly intended for public performance is simply inaccurate.  Sure, we have a few examples of masques and royal entertainments that included lute songs.  But the English song books printed between 1597 and 1622 were primarily meant for domestic use, a fact reinforced by the many surviving paintings from the era that depict intimate domestic music-making.

This raises the question of the need for the ill-fitting gesticulations that Toft champions.  Rather than presume that appropriate interpretive techniques point toward an extrovert oratorical delivery, it is much more likely that the educated, informed and sensitive singer-lutenist would have known and understood elecutio and pronunciatio, and would have proceeded from an internalized understanding.  For—we would like to point out—the lutenist was more often than not the singer, and therefore would not have been inclined to make fists and flail about in the manner of Il Duce while performing on an an instrument that rather demands one’s attention.

While these performances that incorporate gestures are a novelty, we find that anything that distracts from the combined and well-tuned dynamic of a song, in which singer and lutenist are playing as one, is simply that—a distraction.  Mainly, it seems the intense and overworked performances that incorporate gesture are an end unto themselves, and are simply an academic exercise.

I (RA) am reminded of a singer I was coaching who wanted to understand the appropriate choices for historical ornamentation as applied to “No more shall meads be decked with flowers”, a song setting by Nicholas Lanier.  I steered her toward the essay on singing in the Italian style, attributed to Lanier himself found in Playford’s An Introduction to the Skill of Musick (Seventh Edition: London, 1674).  The singer dutifully learned every example in the essay and incorporated all of them into her interpretation.  As one might imagine, the excessive ornaments obscured the pastoral character of the song and turned it into a circus act.  True in ornamentation and true in gesture, a tasteful restraint matters.

Since we mention “No more shall meads be decked with flowers”, we recently came across a previously unreleased recording of the song from our first recording session in 2005.  In fact, it was the very first song we recorded as a test for microphone balance, and you can now hear the result.

Saturday morning quotes 5.7: Two Princes and a Pope

All things are connected.  Please remember that maxim as you read ahead and wonder what today’s quotations have to do with early music.  Please keep in mind that today’s unsustainable business model is killing real professional musicians and artists and replacing them with well-financed amateurs.  Please read and heed, lest your choices of what concert to attend or which recording artist you may enjoy will be seriously limited and reduced to performances by part-time amateurs who can afford to play at their art, instead of performances by creative artists who produce expressive results because they live their art.

How did it come to this?

On his blog the Trichordist, David Lowery reports on the multifarious ways musicians are subjected to the ploys and schemes of tech companies who specialize in monetizing music and sidestepping the awkward business of paying artists.  In a recent post, Lowery points out the generational differences between what he calls the “Punk” generation and “Millennials.”  Lowery believes the Punk generation was willing to be confrontational in order to point out society’s errant ways, and Millennials are only interested in free stuff.

To be fair, the attitudes and defining cultural characteristics of Millennials reflect the norms established—or more likely not established—by their parents, who very well may have been of the Punk generation. Millennials want things to be free because at some crucial moment of educational opportunity regarding respect and honesty, their parents shrugged and said, “Whatever. Pirate what you like, just don’t get caught. And give me some of it too ’cause I’m still cooler than you think.”

Since the advent of the Media Age we have had more than a few generations raised in a culture of hyper-consumerism, banking on promoting envy and breeding discontent among those unable to afford the necessary “look” and the expensive toys and accessories. To make matters worse, in Millennials, we see a distinct absence of manners because their moms and dads were just too busy playing with their own toys and accessories to take the time to teach their children respect and common courtesy.

As a garnish to this bitter stew, we suffer from the fetid stench of the amoral and soulless new media, Google-Youtube and the hateful MyFace, barking to the world exactly what is the nature of reality and truth—and where you can download it for free. It’s no wonder no one wants to pay for music when we have young people with no manners eagerly doing whatever Google says. It’s all about examples.

Professional writer Alan Graham assures us that the music business is not the only area affected by an unsustainable business model.

“Musicians and songwriters have it tough these days, but ask any writer and they’ll tell you they aren’t surprised at their plight. Writers have been experiencing it for the past 15 years, and I expect if what happened to writing is any indication of how bad it can get, then musicians are in for some very lean times.”

“…Business models have ensured that we’ll never again get the best writers out there or the same quality reporting, but only those people who can churn out tons of disposable product that editors will then exploit with every clickable trick they can think of. That is until the machines start doing it even faster and cheaper…”

Professional musicians who read these words will perceive that the writing on the wall amounts to a collective obituary.

In the compact fiefdom of early music, we live in an unprotected microcosm that is highly reactive to current cultural norms and economic trends.  The serious early music professional pursuing a viable career today is like the harmless hummingbird, alert and darting here and there seeking sustenance and opportunity. Comparatively, the world of pop music rides like a Humvee taking a spin through the woods, smashing all the wildflowers and crushing the very life out of everything in its path. But even pop artists of today are seriously affected by the new business model. To elucidate, we check in with the first of our Princes.

“We made money [online] before piracy was real crazy…Nobody’s making money now except phone companies, Apple and Google…It’s like the gold rush out there. Or a carjacking. There’s no boundaries.”

“I personally can’t stand digital music. You’re getting sound in bits. It affects a different place in your brain. When you play it back, you can’t feel anything. We’re analogue people, not digital.”

Prince (the pop star)

Moving ahead to the words of our second Prince, we read noble observations on our new business model:

“…The irresistible power of ‘business as usual’ has so far defeated every attempt to ‘rewire’ our economic system in ways that will deliver what we so urgently need”.

“The challenge now is to go much further and much faster, progressively eliminating waste by developing a circular economy that mimics nature’s loops and cycles, rather than perpetuating our largely unsustainable and linear way of doing things…”

Prince Charles speaking at University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Finally, we quote Pope Francis from Laudato Si, his encyclical on climate change and the environment, Thursday 18 June 2015.

“Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.”

“The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces…”

“We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.”

It is heartening to know that Pope Francis, who occupies a position of some influence, agrees with our point of view.  Perhaps he may even consider restoring the position of lutenist to the papal household…

Jonathan Bekoff – May 8, 1959 – June 15, 2015

I have stories to tell about Jonathan Bekoff.

big_img24Before we met, I had unwittingly heard Jon’s nascent fiddle-playing on a tape recorded at the Glenville, WVA festival, circa 1980. The cassette tape is a now forgotten emblem of an exciting era of discovery, camaraderie and the sharing of arcana, and this one was recorded by a long-forgotten friend of the obscure and passed from hand to hand until it reached mine via Kerry Blech. The music on the tape was something quite special—a full 45-minute side of wonderfully spontaneous fiddle duets featuring the delightful playing of Pete Sutherland and a newbie fiddler identified only as “Jonathan Oakes.”

A favorite listening tape, I loaned it to Greg Canote just as he and his brother Jere were about to embark on a cross-country trip in an inadvisable old truck; a pilgrimage to the eastern festivals by a matched set of Californians itching to soak up the music in the mosquito-ridden, humidity-sodden atmosphere of the Southeast. Well, their cute old truck caught fire somewhere in the Rockies and, fortunately, the brothers escaped unscathed. But the treasured tape was toast. Fortunately for me, I have the gift of a mind’s ear that can still recall many details, and most of all the uncanny sense of interplay between the two fiddlers in that recording.

The year was 1982, and I had just moved to Corvallis, Oregon with my small family all in the name of higher education. On one of the many trips north to Seattle for yet another dance gig, Greg Canote, who had recently moved there with his brother, effused that a great young fiddler was living not far from Corvallis, and that I should meet him. Greg passed on his phone number, I called, we chatted, and the car-less Jon was very interested in meeting and making the three-hour drive with us to the Seattle Folklife Festival.

The first time we met was in the hushed halls of the Salem, Oregon public library, where we had arranged to rendezvous and drive north. I walked into the library, glanced to one side and noticed my former guitar hero, a rather largish and unmistakable John Fahey sitting at a table surrounded by paper clutter. I quietly decided to file that image away for later while attempting to locate an unknown face that must belong to a fiddler. Jon was slouching at a table, tattered tractor hat sitting atop a slightly hollow bespectacled face connected to a slender frame, the whole package engrossed in some improving book. After the formalities, Jon climbed into the back seat of the car next to my one-year old daughter, Gretchen, and away we went. I’m not sure we even had a chance to play music together while at Folklife, but we sure did in the ensuing few years.

As his story unfolded, it turned out that Jon had been living on an organic farm in the Willamette Valley with a group of non-specialist farmers who seem to have shimmered away when the going got tough. The tractor had broken down, the work had become overwhelming, who knows how rustic the living conditions were, and the only remaining farmers were Jon and his ex-girlfriend. An apparently awkward situation. Jon seemed at loose ends and I invited him to bivouac with us in Corvallis while he considered his options. He stayed with us for a few months camping in the back yard until he found a small apartment of his own. And since I had the temerity to begin school as a freshman at age 29, Jon warmed to the idea as a new beginning for himself as well.

The one constant was music. At the time, I was playing a load of dances with Tolly, playing a weekly restaurant gig with friends John and Sally, playing in a proto-lounge trio with Jeff Hino and Clyde Curley, and seriously rehearsing an early bluegrass brother duet act with old friend and homesick Texan, Robert Griffith. All this while carrying a full class load and spending every possible moment with the one-year old apple of my eye, Gretchen. In those days, I had energy to spare and, as it turns out, that’s exactly what was necessary to play tunes with Jon.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven—Jon and I played fiddle and banjo duets every chance we had for a solid two years. When he had time to spare, he sat in his small apartment with his tape recorder playing tunes just for the benefit of anyone who cared to listen and learn. This was my first hint of Jon’s knowledge of his own gift, and his firm commitment to share what he had with others.

Jon began teaching a fiddle course at the area community college, and he asked me to join him in the college recording studio to make some repertoire tapes for his flock of students, which I did gladly. I think we made three 90-minute tapes of tunes—which very well could have been only 90 minutes worth of three tunes without a small dose of reality check. I think I know where those tapes got to but I’ll probably never see them again.

Down the road, we were invited to old friend Mark McPherson’s house in the Portland area to record on some slightly better quality equipment. I’ll never forget that memorable session: I had a very bad cold and fever, but the tunes kept coming and I was incapable of batting them away. Most of the tunes I had never heard before. Jon would say, “You know this one,” before tearing into another keeper. After a moment of familiarity, Mark turned on the tape recorder and we played the tune for 5-10 minutes, just long enough to discover the really interesting bits. We each came away with a copy of the tape and Jon, who labeled it “Tunes from Heart of the Valley” promptly began sending it out across the Amerikee to the susceptible.

There are many stories that fill the gap of the ensuing 30 years during which time we kept in infrequent touch, checking in on the good times and the fresh hell and madness that caused yet another of life’s U-turns. There are also recordings of tunes, but those appear to be abundant elsewhere.

When I heard the recent sad news, I was just finishing Ian Zack’s biography of Reverend Gary Davis, Say No to the Devil. I found myself drawing parallels. The Reverend knew very well his phenomenal abilities as a guitarist and his worth as a musician. But he chose to dedicate his life to preaching the Gospel, and he chose to pass on his gifts to countless students via hours-long lessons for a pittance, all the while living in poverty. Jon had that same self-awareness, and chose to pass on his gifts at the expense of—perhaps in spite of—the many missed opportunities for advancing his station among the self-appointed big shots.

So many moments spent in Jon’s company live clearly etched in memory. The words here describe just a few early recollections of an amazing friend, companion of innumerable tunes, and a shining example of how one person lived a good life and called time on his own terms.

Saturday morning quotes 5.6: What’s in a name?

“What? in a names that which we call a Rose,
By any other word would smell as sweete…”

– Shakespeare, The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii, First Folio, 1623

In an attempt to uncover information about American luthier Robert Meadows, I stumbled across an enlightening discussion touching on the topic of monetary versus intrinsic value of musical instruments, a subjective matter with a seeping relevance that permeates our excessively brand-conscious world.

Meadows, who built some very fine lutes in the 1980s, appears to have focused his attention and skills on building violins.  A particular violinist who tried one of his instruments practically burst, gushing about the violin’s tone and overall quality, but just could not bring himself to pay the asking price simply because the maker’s name was not as familiar as some.  Amusingly, the violinist’s remarks alternate between effusing about the instrument—which he obviously covets—and carping about the price.  Words from Meadows, the maker, are woven into the discussion; appropriately respectful and restrained remarks rightly expressing confusion as to the violinist’s motives.

Of course this obsession with brand names is not a new concept.  Gioseffo Zarlino (1517 – 1590), author of the important treatise Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), described a particularly striking historical example.  Zarlino’s teacher, the famous Adriano Willaert (c.1490 – 1562), encountered the stigma of branding when singers in the Papal Chapel discovered that he was the composer of a piece that had been mistakenly attributed to Josquin:

“I shall now relate what I have heard said many times about the most excellent Adrian Willaert, namely, that a motet for six voices, Verbum bonum et suave, sung under the name of Josquin in the Papal Chapel in Rome almost every feast of Our Lady, was considered one of the most beautiful compositions sung in those days. When Willaert came from Flanders to Rome at the time of Leo X and found himself at the place where this motet was being sung, he saw that it was ascribed to Josquin. When he said that it was his own, as it really was, so great was the malignity or (to put it more mildly) the ignorance of the singers, that they never wanted to sing it again.”

Leaping across time and genre to personal experience, I recall a story related by the legendary Piedmont singer-guitarist, John Jackson. I was driving Jackson on tour, taking care of the details, attempting to keep him on schedule, and reveling in many hours of playing music with him in hotel rooms.  Jackson had a winning personality, a charming rural Virginian accent, and a disarming way with all.  While his press cast him as a rustic Virginia gravedigger, he was actually an astute businessman who confided that he owned two backhoes and drove a very comfortable Lincoln.  On tour, he publicly chided me for hiding my light under a bushel and kept asking me to join him on stage at the end of his concerts.  Although he liked my guitar, a 1940’s Martin 000-18, he decidedly preferred his large, sturdy, dependable, well-worn Gibson.

One evening, Jackson recounted a story about a young man who lived in his neighborhood who “liked to come around and play a bit.”  The budding guitarist showed up one day with a brand-new Martin D-28, a modern replica of their earlier models with lighter bracing and herringbone purfling around the edge of the soundboard.  Jackson immediately saw the real and potential faults in such a lightly-built instrument, but when he pointed them out the response was, “But John, it’s a Martin Herringbone.”  Soon thereafter the soundboard began to bulge and the neck began to warp and twist rendering the instrument nearly unplayable.  Still, the guitarist would brook no criticism saying, “But John, it’s a Martin Herringbone.”

The fantasy-based world of early music is certainly not immune to brand-consciousness within its hellishly small concentric circles.  It has been a longstanding convention for recording artists to name the instrument maker—and even string maker—on CD liner notes. Years ago when the early music revival was in its infancy, this convention had relevance by drawing deserved attention to the burgeoning craftsmen and women who were producing very fine replicas of old instruments, and working toward imitating the substance and character of old strings.  Such acknowledgement amounted to discreet advertising and helped support the budding careers of luthiers, enabling them to eat regular meals and refine their skills on the income realized through new orders (kudos to those luthiers who still regularly produce instruments on spec). But today this convention seems to have devolved into pointless boasting, banking on faux credibility gained by crowing that the recording musician owns an expensive and hard-to-get instrument built by a top luthier with a ten-year waiting list.

The fact is that many established instrument builders, not unlike the entrenched cadre of tenaciously-rooted and unyielding academics/musicians, are doing well enough at this point in time, and there needs to be a real opportunity all around for the sun to shine on a few new faces.  An egregious example that illustrates marginalization of musicians, and a particularly demeaning exercise in doublespeak: Even well-known musicians who dwell outside of the inner circle are deliberately kept firmly on the “fringe” at famous early music festivals, where they are invited to pay their own travel and lodging, find and rent their own venue, do all their own publicity, and pay a large sum for a miniscule advert in the festival brochure.  I don’t think so.  Did these people study con artistry with PT Barnum?  To all who inquire as to why we aren’t more famous, this is just the sort of rot we are up against in the US.

Early music festivals also figure among the scant opportunities for luthiers to display their wares—for a significant registration fee. There are many lesser-known instrument makers out there who build very fine instruments.  But their reputations will never have a chance to flourish without a legitimate opportunity to get their instruments out into the world.  Perhaps giving new builders recognition is the only valid argument today for liner notes acknowledging the instrument builder who, just like the lesser-known musician, is turning out a very high quality product but who is sadly marginalized simply by lacking name recognition.

Or perhaps it’s a moot point since CDs have rapidly become a thing of the past, and streaming with its ephemeral, context-less and valueless anonymity, the wave of the future.  But one important historical tradition today’s culture is blithely ignoring is that of the older and wiser specialists mentoring the young and promising, then stepping aside.  Perhaps some of early music’s more prominent musicians/academics and luthiers should consider this aspect of professionalism in scholarship and authenticity in craftwork and performance practice.  And pay heed to the wise words of the Reverend when he says, “You got to move.”


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