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Saturday morning quotes 3.8: Play the lute

July 6, 2013

Our weekly posts nearly always have something to do with the appreciation of historical musical aesthetics as they collide with a cynical modern culture.  In earlier times, music was treated as a science that describes the integration of our loftier selves with the realities of the human condition within a framework of logic and proportion.  Today, music is a cheap and undervalued commodity that can be had for nothing, and is delivered through overvalued electronic gadgets.

Playing the lute is a particularly good example that points out just how that collision plays out.  The lute is truly a classic emblem that effectively depicts the aesthetic of the 16th century.  Quiet, subtle, and capable of conveying complex polyphony in the hands of a master, playing the lute well requires a deep understanding of the atomic structure of music, as well as a total commitment to the technical aspects of producing, sustaining and conveying the sounds to others.  For a listener to experience and appreciate lute music, it demands one’s full attention and a willingness to tune out extraneous noise while concentrating on the details of sound.  In other words, good luck with that.

Anthony Rooley, a champion of the lute and the aesthetics of early music, is keenly aware of the challenges involved when attempting to convey the many dimensions of  old music to a modern audience.  A video of a wonderful lecture-presentation titled ‘Music is nothing more than a Decoration of Silence’ (Marsilio Ficino, c.1485) can and should be viewed (about 30 minutes) for a very good example of how to describe historical lute music to a receptive modern audience.

Rooley’s monograph, Performance: Revealing the Orpheus Within, (Element Books, Shaftesbury, 1990), while venturing a bit into the realm of new-age vernacular, provides some interesting ideas of how to reach a modern audience – and why we bother:

“The true task of the performer is that of ‘soul-tickling’ – drawing the soul, via the means of the aural sense, out of the body, through the aperture of the ears, as though it were extended on subtle stalks,  A slightly odd image perhaps, but one which serves to illustrate the vast Renaissance literature on the need to unseat the soul trapped in the ‘muddy vesture of decay’ because otherwise the soul becomes locked in, and forgets its true home…”

The collision of a rich and nuanced historical aesthetic with the neobarbarism of the 21st century could produce a positive result if we are willing to turn off the gadgets and invest a little focused time in real and rewarding activities.  Learn to play the lute and you’ll begin to understand.

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