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Saturday morning quotes 4.6: Gatekeepers

June 21, 2014

Howard Armstrong: (After playing a tune) “How did you like that, Mr. Yank Rachell?”

Yank Rachell: “I didn’t like that very much.”

Howard Armstrong: “You don’t like me, do you?”

Yank Rachell: “No. I wouldn’t let you play in my backyard. I wouldn’t let you in my backyard…If you were hungry in the morning and I had one biscuit, I’d break it in two and eat both halves.”

This semi-playful exchange from the must-see film, Louie Bluie, is wrenched from context and quoted to accentuate the kind of relationship that can exist between musicians, some of whom dwell in the garden of opportunity while others stand outside that backyard gate, waiting for it to open a crack so they might wiggle inside with just one or two toes.

Gatekeepers are those who for mysterious reasons of fortune, money, position or privilege, have an inside connection that bestows on them the power or discretion to pass judgement upon colleagues and upstart competitors, occasionally opening the gate a little and allowing some to enter the realm of opportunity while excluding others.

There have always been gatekeepers in the arts, as illustrated in this quote from actor, F. Murray Abraham:

N: Your character is sort of the gatekeeper…Have you experienced anybody like that in your own life that you kind of could draw on?

FMA: My whole life, these people who’ve held the keys to the kingdom. I don’t have to do it anymore, but for most of my life it’s that. You come in, your heart’s on your sleeve and they just say, “No. No, you stink,” and you know you’re good. After a while you think, “Geez, am I really any good? Am I lying to myself?” It’s tough because nobody wants to buy your act. I mean, I’ve got some friends, good friends, with a lot of chops, can’t get a break; twenty, thirty, forty years’ experience.

– “F. Murray Abraham on Folk Music, Gatekeepers, and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS,”  By Kyle Anderson on December 21, 2013

At least in the US, the realm of early music is both defined and constrained by a few organizations and associated personalities who spend as much time engaged in exclusive activities as they do in outreach for new participants and audiences.  Unfortunately, the historically interesting, aurally arresting and emotionally engaging aspects of early music are seated in the back row and left to languish unseen and unheard while the organizations try out this or that flashy modern marketing technique to decorate the curtain behind which they operate the levers of an aging, creaky and failing machinery.

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

– Richard Taruskin,“The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990.

Sadly, audience interest in early music is diminishing at an alarming rate as the gatekeepers display the same spindly shrubbery while vigilantly guarding against perceived intruders who would only add health and color to an otherwise old and tired array.  Meanwhile, some of the more dedicated early music performers are out there building new nontraditional audiences and dedicated fans while dwelling comfortably outside the garden gate—not bitter, just sad.

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