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Means & Ends: Transparency in performance

November 18, 2011

We have made several references on this blog to Bruce Haynes’ (1942 – 2011) excellent and thought-provoking book, The End of Early Music.  In very readable prose, Haynes traces the evolution of period performance and asks several questions about the goals of today’s performers of historical music, and also about the ‘authenticity’ of trying to recreate sounds we really have no way of imagining.  Using a nicely judged collection of early recordings as examples – including performances by 19th century performers – Haynes describes the development of the modern orchestral sound and points out the discarded artifacts that were identifiable links to music of the past.

But where our opinions diverge is in Haynes’ definition of ‘transparency’ in performance, and whether it is a characteristic of historical interpretation or a modern convention that is meant to remove the musician’s personality from the transmission of composer’s intent while on its merry path to the listener’s ear, which is Hayne’s contention.

We, of course, define and approach early music from entirely different backgrounds.  My approach is as an ‘ear’ musician familiar with many genres and styles of folk, pop, lounge, theatre, and other ‘functional’ music, eventually studying composition and dabbling in the required orchestral music, and finally arriving with familiar ease performing music for lute and voice from the 16th century.

On the other hand, Haynes is – musically speaking – from the other side of the tracks; probably trained in band and orchestral music (on instruments that play one note at a time), and developing a taste for and expertise in the orchestral music of the baroque and classical periods.  For that reason, a strong negative reaction to modern performance conventions, the 20th century conservatory attitude, and a healthy revulsion for the authoritarian conductor-personalities appears to be among his motivations for identifying and vilifying what he sees as barriers to (at least approaching) authenticity.  Fair enough.

To Haynes, ‘transparency’ is an undesirable trait imposed upon musicians by modern pedagogues and conductors who concentrate on the canon of ‘important’ works, and who see the musician as a mere vehicle for realizing the composer’s intent.  In his opinion, if the conductor just goes away and lets the musicians interact, they will probably come up with something better – and without the tiresome ritual of rehearsal, which is probably an inauthentic nuisance for which musicians of the past had no need.

I’m not buying it.  Baroque and classical orchestral music is admittedly not my turf, but we have to factor in the historical truth that orchestras of the late 17th – early 19th centuries were more or less static bodies of yeoman musicians.  They were keenly aware of the composer’s intent because the composer was probably among them, shouting orders and beating time.  They did not ‘jet set’ about the country – or the globe – playing with the pick-up assemblages of musicians who are the ‘regional’ baroque orchestras of today.  The orchestras of old naturally sorted out their collective approach to intonation, articulation and style because they played functional music on a daily basis with the same cast of characters.  Sorry, but (US) baroque orchestras of today that I have heard need all the rehearsal they can get, and most benefit from someone beating time for them.

My interpretation of ‘transparency’ in performing 16th century music has absolutely none of the composer’s-intent, orchestral-gulag, conductor-personality, curled-lip pedagogy baggage.  While there certainly were composers with elevated reputations, Josquin, Orlando, Francesco da Milano, it’s quite likely that no one cared one jot about the composer’s intent, but they were pleased as punch to revel in the composer’s skill.  They just wanted to sing and play the music, to participate in a sound world that was at once functional, moving and current.  It was largely participatory music, and transparency meant allowing the inspired character of the music to become manifest.

Interpretation of 16th century music by 21st century performers requires embracing transparency in this manner, but includes making choices that subsume the personality in favor of the desired overall effect of the power of the music.  This means making the choice to not swell on that high note, even though it really shows off your best register, and not let that wobble creep into a sustained note in order to cover up your lack of breath control.  Transparency means not playing at breakneck speeds that 16th century performers just would not have indulged in – because they had no place to hurry off to.  It means letting the music speak because, even if he or she was a really great person, it’s not about the composer – it’s about the effect.

  1. Steve Dollard permalink

    Coupled with the notion that modern man is constantly under a barrage of style, continually tugging at taste, authenticity, never being attainable, becomes ever more elusive. It comes a point where the musician must make a decision, with interpretation giving way to musicianship. I’m 100% sure that period performances were not all cookie cutter copies of each other, simply because of interpretation. Some convince, some not so much, that goes for back then as it is now. Simply put, we know what we hear.

  2. I am remiss in not discovering and pointing out that Bruce Haynes is no longer with us, having passed away in Montreal on May 17, 2011. As an admirer of his writing on early music, I respectfully offer my condolences to his family and close friends.


  3. Dan permalink

    Interesting topics- Loved the companion piece by Morrow, especially the last paragraph. As true today as when he wrote it.

    Actually, friction between composers and the performers has existed for as long as there has been a divide between performer and composer- we know of Palestrina’s impatience with choir members ornamenting his lines as if each one was a soloist & the need to put the brakes on the resulting chaos. (I believe he likened the anarchic noise to the howling heard in a Synagogue!) And then, Couperin and other French keyboard composers spelling out each and every ornament, and designating each spot for said ornaments on the printed page. “Behave and obey, robot!”

    Every time I sit down and play, even alone (especially when alone!) there is an “audience” in my brain severely critiquing my every move. They include all the teachers & early music seminar luminaries from my past, as well as the ghosts of every composer whose works I desecrate with utmost worshipful respect. But I ain’t stopping. Sometimes people who hear it like it.

    Other genres are subject to the same tension between “museum curator” performances and lively, “music happening now this instant in real life”. I’m thinking of a blues musician I once knew here in the S.F. bay area who seems to channel Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Bukka White, and others. But never himself. As note-perfectly correct, studied, and un-spontaneous as any average, typical classical recital performance.

    Just part of the human condition- Some Asian music traditions have preserved songs/compositions for over a thousand years- and that’s a good thing!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quote #26: Michael Morrow on ‘authenticity’ « Unquiet Thoughts
  2. Saturday morning quotes #40: More authenticity « Unquiet Thoughts
  3. Saturday morning quotes 7.2: Intentions | Unquiet Thoughts

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