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Saturday morning quotes #40: More authenticity

February 25, 2012

Authenticity is a concept that arises frequently in the field of performance of historical music.  More often than not, authentic modes of performance and historical performance practice give rise to questions and endless discussions that allow a certain class of person to thrive in the ivory tower.

But music lives or dies on the concert stage.

We have discussed this in the past, including sharing and arguing with the insights of the late Bruce Haynes, who was prompted to write about authenticity in The End of Early Music.  Haynes may have been inspired to address authenticity in reaction to some of the ideas initially postulated by Richard Taruskin, who wrote in Early Music:

Old instruments and old performance practices are in themselves of no aesthetic value.  The claim of self-evidence for the value of old instruments, like the claim of self-evidence for the virtue of adhering to a composer’s ‘intentions’, is really nothing but a mystique, and more often than one can tell, that is the only justification offered.  Consequently, though he is happily less in evidence than before, the naked emperor still parades through the halls where ‘authentic’ performances are heard.

– Richard Taruskin, from ‘The authenticity movement can become a positivistic purgatory, literalistic and dehumanizing’, Early Music, Vol. 12, No. 1, Feb., 1984, p. 7

To arrive at something approximating an historical sound, studying the surviving scribblings left behind by performers of old music and responding to the sounds produced by old instruments and reproductions of the same is the best we can do.

Or is it?

What about having the strength of character to tap into our own intuitive musicality and giving ourselves over to the music?  Isn’t that a common thread that connects us with performers of the past?  Is there a point at which merely playing the notes well, at times as though we can’t wait to be done with them, flies in the face of authenticity?

As a subject of academic research, authenticity in the performance of old music can be measured by a scholar’s apparent understanding of – and ability to convey – information found in historical source materials.  But in actual performance, it has to do with the performer’s insight; his ability to grasp a given form of art, embody both aesthetic and nature of that art, and communicate the result to an audience.  For advice and guidelines, we only have to examine the bountiful information provided by those best trained and equipped to deliver a convincing performance – actors:

“Why do we sacrifice so much energy to our art? Not in order to teach others but to learn with them what our existence, our organism, our personal and unrepeatable experience have to give us…in short, to fill the emptiness in us: to fulfill ourselves.”

“Art is a ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.”

“Aim always for authenticity.  You cannot play death because you have not experienced death.  But you can confront your fear when faced with death or suffering.”

Jerzy Grotowski, Statement of Principles

And we leave you with a link to one of the most authentic performers of any music of any genre from any period.

2 Comments
  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    Thank you for ending with Skip James, especially after listening to that other guy who “couldn’t wait to get through his notes” (but I have liked some of his other performances!) My wife came running into the room when Skip James came on. Certified authentic performance.

    Another guy who gets it:

    & this next one really addresses the point of “authenticity”:

    For “thumb under” Renaissance lute specialists, note George Benson’s use of the right thumb, hand position, and loose, relaxed wrist/arm in the first video. Imagine the results if he threw his index finger into it!

    I met Jody Fisher some years ago, great musician and teacher.

  2. Steve Dollard permalink

    This is a constant topic of discussion around my place when friends and I get together and pull out the instruments. Personally, I think true authenticity unattainable and at best can only be sought, but that said, it would be a sad day indeed if ‘modern’ ancient instruments and performance did not exist, I love it when I can wake up sheaves of old scribblings to bring a smile to someones face. For me, making good music has little to do with the naysayers from either camp and am reassured that that is the point of this test of time. Either it works or it doesn’t, simple.

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