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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.”

Saturday morning quotes 5.5: Music matters #2

Musicians are—or can be—among our civilization’s more refined, creative and intelligent individuals.  We’re ruling out the attention-grabbing noisemakers and other anomalies like today’s ubiquitous Garage Band sample jockeys, Henry VIII, Ozzy Osborne (drug impaired, not really music), Richard Nixon (pianist, foul-mouthed pathological liar), Carlo Gesualdo (just plain psychotic), Ted Nugent (sorry Will, he’s a reactionary gun-toting moron), and others whose names and faces are notorious because they are or were mere performers or public personalities.

A performer does not necessarily have a deep and intimate relationship with the science and aesthetics of music, and not every sensitive and well-trained musician is necessarily a performer.  For music was considered a science and was grouped as such among the Seven Liberal Arts, the cornerstone of education for more than two thousand years.

To exemplify the natural extension of an historical training in rhetoric and a musical education, we draw upon the wisdom of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, known today as Quintilian (c.35 – 95 AD). His Institutio oratoria contains a systematic approach to teaching the art of rhetoric.  Neatly and systematically organized into twelve progressively-themed books, Quintilian outlines the importance of beginning education at an early age with a careful, focused and positive program of elementary training.

“…[For] we are by nature most tenacious of the things we learned when our minds were fresh…and the colors of wool to which their primitive whiteness was changed cannot be washed out.  And these very traits cling the more persistently, the worse they are.  For what is good is easily changed for the worse, but when will you ever change vices to virtues?  The child should not become accustomed therefore, even in infancy, to expressions which will have to be unlearned.”

Now stop and think about that for a moment.  For nearly 2,000 years we have had the clear advice from a writer and teacher that children should not be exposed to negative talk and imagery for the simple reason that children absorb what they see and hear in their surroundings, and it is difficult to expunge bad examples.  We have had at least four generations of children who have been exposed to commercial media that has become increasingly and graphically violent.  And advertisers, who rule the airways and internet, have tapped nefarious psychological specialists who know how to shape the message for the target.  These marketing psychologists have a great deal to answer for, and are in the same criminal league as physicians who supervise CIA torture programs.

Some would argue that not all are susceptible to training, particularly in music.  Quintilian wrote:

“For unfounded is the complaint that to very few persons is there granted the power of learning what is presented to them, but that most of them waste through their dullness of native mentality the effort and time spent on them.  For on the contrary you will find the majority [of children] facile in invention and quick to grasp an idea.”

Leaping ahead in time and turning toward a musical education, in our 2012 series of articles on Dowland’s training, we discussed the typical musical education experienced by a child of the merchant or craftsman class in Tudor England.

[Prior to the Reformation] “Education was generally free, so boys of the poorer classes had an opportunity of specialised training in music.”

– David G. T. Harris, “Musical Education in Tudor Times (1485-1603)”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 65th Sess. (1938 – 1939), pp. 109-139.

How does teaching of Rhetoric tie into the teaching of music?  Musical expression has always been equated with the rhetorical devices, and the study of music went hand in hand with the study of religion, literature and oratory.

“Two principles seem to have actuated the teaching of music in the Grammar Schools; to help diction for the reading of Latin and Greek texts, and to train pupils to sing the musical sections of the Church Services. Apparently music was not taught with a view to fit the pupil with a necessary social accomplishment.”

– Harris, p. 121.

We explore Quintilian’s methods in more detail in future posts.

Saturday morning quotes 5.4: Music matters

Being front-line witnesses to the epic tragedy of the crumbling of civilization as we knew it, we examine the problem from our unique perspective as specialists in the repertory and context of music for voice and lute from the 16th century.  Of course, thinking persons of every historical era expressed the same sentiment – that the world was going to hell in a handbasket.  But in many cases the observation was accurate and, for so many reasons, it would be difficult to dispute the premise today.

Our series of essays will outline but not dwell upon the unfortunate ongoing marginalization of music, and will offer observations and solutions based on ideas gleaned from historical sources.  We delve into our series by employing a time-honored method.

Music has been an important component of education in our culture for centuries and, optimally presented, may result in more balanced, engaged, intelligent, empathetic and civilized individuals. Increasingly disenfranchised youth have been abandoned by narcissistic parents and are subject to brutal cuts in spending for education by an ignorant and self-serving Congress.  A greater concentration on education in music, with a restored level of respect for its importance and adequate funding for its implementation, will mitigate the disenfranchisement of youth and produce more balanced, creative and empathetic persons. 

First, what defines a civilized society?

Civilized people must, I believe, satisfy the following criteria:

1) They respect human beings as individuals and are therefore always tolerant, gentle, courteous and amenable…They do not create scenes over a hammer or a mislaid eraser; they do not make you feel they are conferring a great benefit on you when they live with you, and they don’t make a scandal when they leave…

2) They have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats. Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye…

3) They respect other people’s property, and therefore pay their debts.

4) They are not devious, and they fear lies as they fear fire. They don’t tell lies even in the most trivial matters. To lie to someone is to insult them, and the liar is diminished in the eyes of the person he lies to. Civilized people don’t put on airs; they behave in the street as they would at home, they don’t show off to impress their juniors…

5) They don’t run themselves down in order to provoke the sympathy of others. They don’t play on other people’s heartstrings to be sighed over and cosseted…that sort of thing is just cheap striving for effects, it’s vulgar, old hat and false…

6) They are not vain. They don’t waste time with the fake jewellery of hobnobbing with celebrities, being permitted to shake the hand of a drunken [judicial orator], the exaggerated bonhomie of the first person they meet at the Salon, being the life and soul of the bar…True talent always sits in the shade, mingles with the crowd, avoids the limelight…

7) If they do possess talent, they value it…They take pride in it…they know they have a responsibility to exert a civilizing influence on [others] rather than aimlessly hanging out with them. And they are fastidious in their habits…

8) They work at developing their aesthetic sensibility…Civilized people don’t simply obey their baser instincts…they require mens sana in corpore sano [a sound mind in a sound body].

– Anton Chekhov, A Life in Letters, Translated by Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Penguin Books, London, 2004.

How does music fit into the schema of a civilized culture?

“The very world and the sky above us, according to the doctrine of philosophers, are said to bear in themselves the sound of music.  Music moves the affections of men, stimulates the emotions into a different mood…”

– Aurelian of Reome, Musica disciplina (c. 850)

Why should we bother to teach music universally to all students?

…[The teacher] shall commend the perfect understanding of music, declaring how necessary it is for the better attaining the knowledge of a public weal, which…is made of an order of estates and degrees, and by reason thereof containeth in it a perfect harmony…In this form may a wise and circumspect tutor adapt the pleasant science of music to a necessary and laudable purpose.

– Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490 – 1546), The Boke named the Governour (1531)

In our next post we begin with the clear and concise ideas of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, (c.35 – 95 AD) from his Institutio oratoria, adapting his discussion of the education of the young to the purpose of an effective musical education.

Saturday morning quotes 5.3: Eloquence

“I may say so, that some being of opinion that it troubles and disturbs the brains of children suddenly to wake them in the morning, and to snatch them violently and over-hastily from sleep (wherein they are much more profoundly involved than we), [my father] caused me to be wakened by the sound of some musical instrument, and was never unprovided of a musician for that purpose.”

– Essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne (1533 – 1592), Of the education of children, English translation by Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687)

As we examine the forgotten fragments that contributed to the education of musicians from the distant past, we encounter several words that have different connotations today.  Artificial was once a term of praise that described a thing that was full of artifice, but now describes something that has been synthesized in a laboratory.  Liberal once described generosity and was also applied to describe the studies comprising the trivium and quadrivium; areas of study intended to develop general intellectual capacities such as reason and judgment. Liberal is now used a a term of derision delivered by sneering pundits to describe one who supposedly supports increased government spending. Rhetoric is now used to describe pedantic chin music, but was once the study of the art of eloquent discourse, developed over the millennia as a means to educate the orator, and an important component of a musician’s education.

Eloquence is term that has retained its original meaning, and one we bandy about quite liberally in describing effective musical performance. Eloquence is derived from the Latin, e, a form of ex, meaning “out of,” and loqui, meaning “to speak.”  One who is eloquent possesses an understanding and command of language and has the ability to speak fluidly, gracefully and persuasively. In music, an eloquent performer embodies the meaning of the text and the character of the music, presenting the result in such a way as to move the emotions of the listener.  As in oratory, an eloquent musical style is simple, graceful, clear, concise and convincing.

An eloquent style requires an understanding and use of rhetorical devices, and for rhetorical devices to be effective, they must be understood by the audience.  This necessarily presumes that there exists an audience today who is comprised of connoisseurs who are themselves trained in rhetoric and therefore receptive to the modes of performance we so carefully prepare.  Of course, today’s audiences have been trained to react to loud flashbang performances delivered by performers who either do not understand nor possess an eloquent style, or who have resignedly molded their delivery to suit the lowest common denominator.

The solution lies in education.  We watch with dismay the erosion of standards in public behavior and it can be directly linked to a lower standard of education, which is more and more directed toward technical knowledge and professionalism.  We see this as a missed opportunity to develop the individual potential of our children – and our future.

“…Among children there is shining promise of many accomplishments; and when that dies out out as they grow older it is plain that it was not talent that failed but training.”

– Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Early Education.

In this, our fifth year of quotations, we will be tapping into several historical sources to present ideas to help form a curriculum for musical children, modern musicians, and for audiences in an attempt to restore an appreciation for musical eloquence.  A tough job but someone has to do it.

Saturday morning quotes 5.2: Bach on lute or guitar

Today’s post summarizes a few thoughts and reactions after spending two days auditing Nigel North’s masterclasses for guitarists interested in Bach’s music for lute.  Nigel has for many years expressed strong reservations as to whether Bach’s music works at all for the 18th-century baroque lute, given the constraints of its odd tuning of d-minor.  But as pure music, Bach’s so-called lute works are worth the effort to study and play, whether on the unruly lute or the more convenient modern guitar.

Bach’s writing for unaccompanied instruments possesses a unique strength of character, and is of uniform compositional integrity as pure music independent of the medium of performance.  Known to have deliberately composed in isolation and apart from the mechanical confines of an instrument, Bach transmitted his music directly from his imagination to the written notes scribbled on the page without consideration of the constraints of instrumental technique. But C. P. E. Bach wrote that his father fully understood the resources of  any particular instrument – and a lute was listed among his household possessions in a inventory upon the great composer’s death. Bach simply had the very highest standards, and expected no less than the very best of anyone who would perform his music.

“…Bach, you see, was music’s greatest non-conformist, and one of the supreme examples of that independence of the artistic conscience that stands quite outside the collective historical process.”

– Glenn Gould

“I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well.”

– Johann Sebastian Bach, from The New Bach Reader: A Life of J. S. Bach in Documents and Letters, Ed. by Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

The Bach-Gesellschaft published the known collected works of Bach beginning in 1851, with a goal of presenting authoritative editions produced by the best scholars of the time.  A volume of miscellaneous pieces for keyboard, edited by Alfred Dörffel and published in 1897, included the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat major, BWV 998, Suite in E minor, BWV 996, and the Suite in C minor, BWV 997 (Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, Band 45.1, Leipzig, Breitkopf und Härtel, 1897).  As scholarship evolved, the so-called lute works were assembled into a separate category and published as the Werke für Lauteninstrumente in the updated in The Neue Bach-Ausgabe, Series V, Volume 10 edited by Thomas Kohlhase, 1982.

As it turns out, the guitar, with its single strings and more convenient tuning, may be a better instrument for Bach’s “lute” music than the lute. Bach’s so-called lute works have been fodder for transcription and interpretation on a variety of instruments, the most common example being the modern guitar. It just may be possible that the 19th-century editors of Bach’s music were thinking of the lute-guitar when they described the pieces as meant for the lute. Hermann Hauser’s (1882 – 1952), early work produced examples of the lute-shaped Wandervögellaute, instruments that were tuned like a modern guitar.  Hauser went on to build fine examples of Spanish guitars and became well-known as a luthier commissioned to build instruments for famous guitarist, Andres Segovia (1893 – 1987), who was instrumental in transcribing Bach’s music for the guitar.

“Instead of labouring over perpetuating the idea that the so-called lute pieces of Bach are proper lute pieces I prefer to take the works for unaccompanied Violin or Cello and make them into new works for lute, keeping (as much as possible) to the original text, musical intention, phrasing and articulation, yet transforming them in a way particular to the lute so that they are satisfying to play and to hear.”

– Nigel North, from notes to Bach on the Lute, Linn Records

Nigel North makes his point with much eloquence in his series of recordings, Bach on the Lute Volumes 1 & 2 Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin BWV 1001-1006 (Linn Records CKD 013 and 029, 1994) and Volumes 3 & 4 Suites for solo cello BWV 1007-1012 (Linn Records CKD 049 and CKD 055, 1996). North gives us very beautiful renditions of the music and one is filled with admiration for every glorious detail.

There is ongoing speculation as to whether Bach played the lute at all.  Unfortunately, it must remain speculative.  But given Bach’s reputation for his skill on other stringed instruments, one can assume that if wished to play the lute, he did so.  Whether you choose to play the music on lute or guitar, you can find various editions of Bach’s so-called music for lute, including prints from the old Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe and facsimiles of some of the originals, online.

Saturday morning quotes 5.1: Too much information

After a slight pause to reboot, we begin our fifth year of quotations with a loosely-themed sampling.

“Our hunger for knowledge…can distract us or keep us engaged in a lifelong quest for deep learning and understanding.  Some learning enhances our lives, some is irrelevant and simply distracts us.”

– Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind, The Penguin Group, New York, 2014, p. 33.

Distraction indeed.  With a tremendous glut of information available on the internet it is now more challenging than ever to sort out the meaningful from the meaningless, making a focused pursuit of specific knowledge an exercise in organization, and requiring more time wasted in learning and troubleshooting search terms, software, keystrokes and menus.

In the not so distant past, knowledge was gained from visits to the library and reading books.  And wisdom was the result of testing knowledge through practical real-world experience. The epidemic of information overload began when television came on the scene:

“…I  believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky.  We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.”

– E. B. White, “Removal,” July, 1938, One Man’s Meat, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.

Television offered every household a portal through which to view the world at large, replacing domestic interactions – like making music – with a constant barrage of information and influence disguised as entertainment.  And entertainment disguised as news.  Television refined the act of targeted persuasion and set the tone for our currently over-commercialized view of the world.

“…The Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America…Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian.  It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously.  But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment.”

– Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Books, New York, 1985, pp. 139-141.

Of course, such ideas are not new.

“All liberties are interrelated and are equally dangerous. Freedom in music entails freedom to feel, freedom to feel means freedom to act, and freedom to act means the ruin of states.”

–  Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717 – 1783), La Liberté de la musique (1759), in Oeuvres de d’Alembert, v. 1, Slatkine, Geneva, 1967, p. 520.

Looking backwards just a few years, things were a little less complicated and music was not such a highly politicized medium. In describing the elements of good taste in harpsichord playing, François Couperin justly makes mention of les choses luthees (the things of the lute) as worthy of imitation.  But he goes further in requiring more than playing what is on the page.

“Just as there is a great distance between grammar and Eloquence, there is the same infinity between notated music and music played well…”

– François Couperin, L‘Art de toucher le clavecin, 1717

Freedom of expression in music was not bold and daring, it was expected.  As we look ahead to our fifth year of weekly quotations, the themes will touch on how musicians of the past were taught to use music as a natural means of expressive communication.


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