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Saturday morning quotes 5.27: Worlds apart

November 21, 2015

“…A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world.  His faculties refer to natures out of him and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air.  He cannot live without a world.  Put Napoleon in an island prison, let his faculties find no men to act on, no Alps to climb, no stake to play for, and he would beat the air, and appear stupid.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, volume II, p. 36.

We frequently refer to the “world” of early music to establish a frame of reference and  contextualize the words and music that comprise our life’s work. The world of early music can be imagined as a structure—a medieval castle oozing with historical meaning; thick stone walls hung with rich tapestries, upright suits of armor standing sentinel in passageways, high-ceilinged rooms leading to a maze of yet more rooms, furnishings that signify refinement, learning and noble status, all enclosed by a watery moat.

But the integrity of the castle is very likely suffering the ravages of time, the stone walls moist and furry with damp, the tapestries faded and mildewed, the suits of armor rusted, dented and pierced from battle, the passageways close, dim and uninviting, the cultural accoutrements—likely stolen in the first place—emblematic of life, rank and position wrested from the hands and houses of defeated unknown men and women, and the moat can easily serve its original function to keep out uninvited guests.

Depending upon one’s perspective, the world of early music can be a multidimensional place of study and reflection where we discover how sounds of the past can soothe the soul, inspire a higher level of creative artistry using historical instruments and techniques; a place where an inclusive and meaningful exchange of ideas concerning the past can tell us how to solve problems of the present.  Or the world of early music can be maddeningly insular, inbred, self-referential and populated by cloistered academics, amateur status seekers, musical technicians and trust-fund types, all marching to the shrill whistles of the workshop faculties astride their unicorns while traversing a yellow-brick road invented by public relations specialists.

It was ever thus.  Fortunately for us, the world of early music intersects neatly with the other musical worlds we visit from time to time.  But all things are connected, and the cross-fertilization that ensues when the world of early music collides with the world of church music, for example, produces a happy result in both realms.  Early music concerts frequently include a Mass setting or motets sung completely out of context, allowing the performers to indulge in cute programming tricks.  Singing for a Mass, however, requires listening, responding, and a real-world level of responsibility and pragmatism not found in the concert hall.  Likewise, folk performers are expected to interact directly with their audiences, not stare fixedly at a music stand save for the occasional sharp look when someone’s phone chirrups.

The point is music, and music is not just a metaphor but a connective tissue that binds together the various worlds. Whether it’s renaissance lute duets or 19th-century Italian mandolin duets, it’s music played by people for people and musical involvement is what makes the difference.

“Thus architecture is called “frozen music” by De Staël and GoetheVitruvius thought an architect should be a musician.  “A Gothic church,” said Coleridge, “is a petrified religion.”  Michael Angelo maintained, that , to an architect, a knowledge of anatomy is essential.  In Haydn’s oratorios, the notes present to the imagination not only motions but colors also; as the green grass.  The law of harmonic sounds reappears in the harmonic colors.  The granite is differenced in its laws only by the more or less heat from the river that wears it away.  The river, as it flows, resembles the air that flows over it; the air resembles the light which traverses it with more subtile currents; the light resembles the heat which rides with it through Space.  Each creature is only a modification of the other; the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, volume I, p. 45.


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