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Saturday morning quotes 4.51: Class again

April 24, 2015

For the penultimate post of four full year’s worth of weekly Saturday quotes, we reflect a bit upon why we bother to continue what feels at times a fool’s errand.  We have faithfully posted items of interest—the results of our own reading and research—every week these past four years, not because we have the luxury of leisure and the financial resources to squander time and effort, but because we take seriously our responsibility of reminding readers of the vital importance of our connection with the aesthetics of old music.

“… He who does honor and reverence to music is commonly a man of worth, sound of soul, by nature loving things lofty, philosophy, the conduct of affairs of State, the tasks of war, and in brief, in all honorable offices he ever shows the sparks of his virtue.”

Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585)

While our quotations and contextual essays are always aimed at reinforcing the importance of preserving access to the aesthetics of early music as a source of quiet, calm, engaging and mindful meaning in our out-of-control modern lives, regular readers of our quotes will notice a few recurring themes that, when it comes down to it, pertain to access to real music performed by people who are involved for the right reasons.

Our focus is on small-scale music of the late 15th through the early 17th century, sacred and secular, that features the transparent and intricate combination of solo voice and lute.  Every source from the period tells us that the music should be performed in appropriate spaces with a quiet dignity and with emotional engagement, sung in a natural voice and balanced with the lute paying particular attention to the details of rhythmic phrasing.

With some dismay, we have to agree with Richard Taruskin’s premise that much of what is called “early music” today represents a late 20th century aesthetic.  This premise is increasingly confirmed by performers who now look back on their careers and admit that they chose to ignore performance practice from early sources in favor of their more conventional conservatory training: Many early music vocalists and instrumentalists, performers and teachers, have chosen modern ideas of volume and projection over historical sources that describe sensitivity and subtlety.

“The whole trouble with Early Music as a “movement”… is the way it has uncritically accepted the post-Romantic work concept and imposed it anachronistically on pre-Romantic repertories.  What is troubling, of course, is not the anachronism but the uncritical acceptance – and the imposition.  A movement that might, in the name of history, have shown the way back to a truly creative performance practice has only furthered the stifling of creativity in the name of normative controls.  Here Early Music actively colludes with the so-called “mainstream” it externally impugns.”

Richard Taruskin

We utterly reject the hype one sees when promoters of early music tap into modern sales gimmickry; claiming a close connection with faux high-art status of “classical” music, aiming for the same sort of deep-pocket audience, using fan mag techniques to focus on personalities and distracting modes of presentation, and titling both recordings and concert programs with fanciful strings of keywords with the bald-faced intention of increasing clicks for advertisers. Instead, we aim to introduce the aesthetics of early music, as described by surviving historical source materials, to modern audiences without gimmickry and in appropriate settings.

If one steps back and views the evolution of the revival of early music it has become highly commercialized and, just like any other commercial enterprise in the US, monopolized.  Sponsorship of academic institutions, conformity to feedback based on marketing research, musical choices that are modeled on modern classical music norms, and promotional materials aimed at the monied elite all emerge as characteristics of the more successful performers—in lieu of convincing performances of subtle historical music that challenges the listener to participate in a rare moment of quiet repose.

We see early music as something that transcends barriers and divisions of class. We find that young people with no money are interested in our music for the same reasons as the traditional classical audiences—to experience music that is quiet, textured, transparent and elegant. As a duo specializing in 16th-century music, we both managed to overcome the constraints of a class system that limits access to the arts to those from a financially-challenged background and found our own ways to discover and refine our musical abilities.  Yes, there is a definite class structure in the US, despite the utter absence of what can be considered refinement demonstrated by the elite, who seem hell-bent on promoting consumerism and ignorance.

“If the current level of ignorance and illiteracy persists, in about two or three hundred years a merchandising nostalgia for this era will occur and guess what music they’ll play! (They’ll still play it wrong, of course, and you won’t get any money for having written it, but what the hey?)”

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993)

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