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Saturday morning quotes 3.4: It’s ironic

June 8, 2013

We often see the Renaissance defined as the period that followed the Middle Ages, a period that saw a rebirth of art and culture through the rise of humanism and of expansion of the middle class.  Of course this is an abundantly over-simplified definition, about which we have added a great deal of detail explaining the context for this rumored rise of a middle class, which really turns out to be the merchant class intent on emulating the nobility.  The period saw a certain spike in distribution of wealth, as a result of consolidation of the banking industry, and also an increase both in the ostentatious display of wealth and in documentation on every front through the technological breakthrough of the printing press.

The seemingly enormous amount of music that was published in the 16th century leads us to believe that there must have been little time for any activity at the time other than domestic music-making.  But since we are left to form our assumptions upon the crumbs of evidence that survive from that period, and since we are guided by modern historians who tend to present us with an idea of the chronological progression of sophistication in the development of human culture, we are left with an incomplete picture of the past.

Troubling to the anthropologist in me is [an] overriding concentration on historical development toward a later period, thus obscuring the “thing” itself (a piece of music, a style, a treatise, etc.) in favor of its place in a chronological sequence. What “lute music” actually was at a given time is likewise obscured. For, if one relies primarily on what survives in notation, the repertoire appears to consist only of what exists on paper. But music for lute was far more than that tiny tip of an enormous iceberg, the rest being built on what we cannot so readily see–oral tradition and improvisation. Indeed, much of the printed music for lute expressly pointed away from itself, being put forth as models for study and imitation. Our conclusions need to reflect how much of the repertory for lute at the time encompassed by this book was not static but ever moving–and not necessarily in the direction or according to the categories we may superimpose on it today.

Beth Bullard, “Review of Douglas Alton Smith. A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance”, Renaissance Quarterly, 22 Dec. 2003.

A major focus of the collected essays here on our blog is in the interpretation of 16th century music, leaning heavily upon the evidence of musical activity through surviving printed scores and descriptive texts from the period.  Since our concentration is in domestic music, we tend to view music of the period as a valued and integral domestic pastime, contextualized by what we see as a living tradition rather than an extrovert performance art.  One can see that this approach may be somewhat problematic in an era that almost maniacally places the highest value on the newest technology and the rapid transmission of information.

A hallmark of our age is irony, which, in excess, is really a diversionary tactic that vainly attempts to cover a lack of depth.

“Life in the Internet age has undoubtedly helped a certain ironic sensibility to flourish. An ethos can be disseminated quickly and widely through this medium. Our incapacity to deal with the things at hand is evident in our use of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology. Prioritizing what is remote over what is immediate, the virtual over the actual, we are absorbed in the public and private sphere by the little devices that take us elsewhere.”

“Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life. You will not find the slightest bit of irony in her behavior. She has not, so to speak, taken on the veil of irony. She likes what she likes and declares it without dissimulation. She is not particularly conscious of the scrutiny of others. She does not hide behind indirect language. The most pure nonironic models in life, however, are to be found in nature: animals and plants are exempt from irony, which exists only where the human dwells.”

Christy Wampole, Princeton University (NYT, November 17, 2012)

Of course, irony is not new. Socrates used an ironic naivete to point out the flaws of conventional wisdom. It’s when irony is tinged with a cynical cast and delivered with sarcasm that we arrive at the unpleasant standard that seems to be acceptable today.  We see irony as a defining characteristic in performance art of our age and probably one of the greatest barriers to the deep appreciation of historical ideals.  We humbly ask for a little less irony, a little more depth of appreciation, and that you now turn off your computer and play your own music.

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