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Saturday morning quotes 2.17: Hyperreality

September 15, 2012

As we sift through the (very general and absolutely not personal) information that summarizes visits to our blog, we see an interesting pattern.  The greatest number of our readers are not Americans.  This same pattern emerges in reports of our CD and mp3 sales.  Again, US sales are outstripped by our friends and listeners across the globe.

Why? Generally speaking, Americans today don’t seem to have time to concern themselves with historical music, art and aesthetic beauty.  Americans have less patience for what lies beneath the surface and have effectively been conditioned to consume things that are represented by the flashiest advertising.

This certainly applies to the packaging of historical music in the US.  Americans want to buy a mythology, and thus a merchandise-oriented experience.  Americans readily respond to advertising campaigns that convey the dreamy detachment one sees in a medieval painting rather than embrace a more physical – and truly more authentic – representation of musical sound.  True to form, the US ‘early music industry’ has invested a great deal of effort aimed at shaping the marketable image of early music.

We are not the first to point out this phenomenonUmberto Ecoprofessor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, published a collection of essays titled, Travels in Hyperreality (1986), in which the title essay describes the American passion for collecting bits of European history; a symptom of our collective need to create a reality that is, in the end, more influenced by the Disneyland aesthetic than by actual historical evidence.

Do people care about reality? The answer can be deduced from the fact that you can buy a used copy of Travels in Hyperreality for one cent through the online mega-corporation that will remain unnamed.   On the other hand, the book that helped to rewrite history with a bit of the swagger of the victor, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance, can be had in paperback for $60.00 used through the same outlet (we recommend inter-library loan).  We featured this book previously in four separate blog posts (#34: Inventing history ; #35: Inventing music II ; #36: Inventing music history Part III ; #37: Inventing attitude), but the upshot is that the book is largely a valentine to the proponents of the English cathedral sound, a sound that has come to define early music, particularly for the American market.

While reading and reacting to this book, we have come to appreciate the balanced point of view offered by one of today’s prominent exponents of the English cathedral sound, Donald Greig.  In an article published nearly two decades ago, Greig offered an insider’s perspective on many defining characteristics we hear in the sound of modern early music (“Sight-Readings: Notes on “A cappella” Performance Practice” : Donald Greig, Early Music, Vol. 23, No. 1, Flute Issue (Feb., 1995), pp. 124-148). We quote liberally:

Concerning the thesis that a ‘good’ performance of a particular form of music provides us with important clues as to its original performance, I contend that any similarities are mostly a happy coincidence, and that the particular skills of the British early music singer can prevent a full appreciation of the demands of the music and inhibit forms of expression yet to be explored. I suggest too that modern a cappella performance may tell us more about current cultural conditions than about the original performance.

Greig addresses the drawbacks of highly-trained professional singers generically applying their skills to historical repertory spanning many centuries.

The question remains, though, as to what are the effects of the reliance on sightreading in the performance of this repertory. The most obvious problem is that the repertory covered by these different groups is historically and geographically vast: ranging from 1100 to 1600, spread across several nations, split between sacred and secular, written for a variety of acoustics and occasions, it is, from any perspective, stunningly heterogeneous. And, as an obvious correlative, the original singers who performed this music could not share anything like the unities shared by the current group of British early-music singers.

Aware of the dogmatic advancement of a cappella performances of a music that survives without clearly defined vocal or instrumental performance specifications, Greig clearly observed some of the unfortunate side-effects.

Yet the success of the monopolization of this repertory through a cappella performance leads us to a homogenization of a period of music (and, of course, of the valorization of the term ‘early music’), a homogeneity made possible only by the success of a particular contemporary mode of performance.

And he concluded his article with a timely observation of how the medium has come to represent – and even supplant – the message.

The CD will be seen within a history of industrial design as the quintessential product of the 1980s-clean, shiny, a beautiful object in itself which creates a perfect, pure sound. It is the ultimate fetish object which allows the listener the ideal state of disavowal of the body of the performer. The particular ideology of sound of the 80s was one of purity and cleanliness, of static-free, interference-reduced, pristine brilliance. It is precisely this ideology which the English a cappella groups represent.

In conclusion, some of our readers come to this blog with an interest in the lute and its role in early music.  The observations above, about how the modern singing style has recast historical music, certainly apply to how modern lute-playing has reinvented history.  Lutenists in general – and certainly professional lutenists in particular – seem to embrace the vast body of surviving historical music  from 1500 – 1760 as essential repertory.  Likewise, the short attention span of audiences seems to have emerged as the primary criterion we consider when programming concerts and recordings.  Pacing of the music is generally accelerated more as a reflection of pace of modern life than the human pulse of the music.  Food for thought.


  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    Lotsa foods for many thoughts here- after 6 years in the classical dept. of a CD business as a retail clerk in major music store (on its way out of business) I can attest to the accuracy of your quotes from Donald Greig.

    Within the lute community itself there has also been a tendency towards an almost artificial perfection of sound- a disembodied beauty of seamless purity, nothing to suggest the buzzings of Capirola’s fretting & action descriptions, up to the incisive bite of thumb-out nearer the bridge- the 17th & 18th century style of RH lute technique that still only a handful of players employ but was of course universally & almost exclusively the rule historically.

    It’s not just the Americans- although we do indeed have Hollywood and are removed enough from Mother Europe to be more mythically inclined- but it is a universal human trait to favor the mythical/archetypal, (nicely & cleanly packaged for over the counter sales), over the actual past. Like going back to a house not seen since childhood, and being shocked at the smallness, non-shinyness, but yet seeing the myriad forgotten details of it all.

    As an archery student who practices “early” archery with the same passion but jaundiced eye as I have pursued the Early Music muse all my life, the same human- and at times peculiarly American- tendency to mythologize is also obvious. Just say “Robin Hood” (-and to be fair to our Eastern brethren “Arjuna”)

    Dan- Still lost in a dark wood.

    • Brilliant observations, astute comments and very well stated, as usual, Dan.

      I think the manufactured perfection people have come to expect in the recorded lute sound is quite removed from the human element, if one factors in reality as a measure of authenticity. People would much rather stay at home and listen to their CDs or mp3s, imagining an invented dreamscape that does not include the authentic reality of physical sound. This is no excuse for abandoning the quest to attain perfection in playing the lute well, but it would be nice if people turned off the canned music and listened to the real thing from time to time.

      Those of us fortunate enough to have heard some of the best players live know that clams will happen in concerts. I’ve had the rare experience of having heard one guy in particular nearly make the entire audience gasp and leap from their seats as the result of a very loud and obvious misalignment of fingers and strings. But he continued playing and I’m sure all was forgiven and forgotten by the end of the piece (Dowland’s Walsingham variations, if you must know).

      That reminds me of a story: When I was driving singer, guitarist and delightful human being, John Jackson, on tour, we were talking about the qualities of different guitars. He said there was a young man back home in Virginia who bought a very expensive Martin Herringbone D-28. John, ever polite, said he preferred his thumpy old Gibson, to which the young man commented, “But John, it’s a Herringbone.” After a short while, the sound became dull, the action became unplayable, and the bridge started pulling up. The young man still said, “But John, it’s a Herringbone.”

      The moral of the story: People seem to project certain qualities upon an object because of the agreed-upon mythologized iconic status of that object. Same is true for certain performers who have had very good PR. If we all agree that so-and-so is the best singer or player, then his or her faults, though they may be legion, are forgiven and even ignored. The down side is that everyone else is then compared to that mythological standard of perfection. The whole thing just makes me tired.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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