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Saturday morning quotes 5.42: Clichés

March 5, 2016

“We need to have our cake and eat it, keep our finger on the pulse, take to the field, be in the spotlight, make the best of a bad job.  Once out of the tunnel, once the goose is cooked, nothing gets in our way, we keep our eyes peeled, a needle in the haystack, the tide turns, television takes the lion’s share and leaves just the crumbs, we’re getting back on track, listening figures have plummeted, give a strong signal, an ear to the ground, emerging in bad shape, at three hundred and sixty degrees, a nasty thorn in the side, the party’s over…”

Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016), Numero Zero, Translated by Richard Dixon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2015.

Clichés tend to surface as any fad or phenomenon peaks, declines and begins to wear out its welcome.  So it was for the Roman Empire.  So it was for rabid and merciless capitalism in the US.  So it has become for early music, a fad that gathered strength and momentum in the late 1960s and 1970s and probably peaked by the fin de siècle.  The medium of dissemination and transmission of early music was, strangely enough, the digital CD.

“The CD will be seen within a history of industrial design as the quintessential product of the 1980s-clean, shiny, a beautiful object in itself which creates a perfect, pure sound. It is the ultimate fetish object which allows the listener the ideal state of disavowal of the body of the performer. The particular ideology of sound of the 80s was one of purity and cleanliness, of static-free, interference-reduced, pristine brilliance. It is precisely this ideology which the English a cappella groups represent.”

Donald Greig, “Sight-Readings: Notes on “A cappella” Performance Practice”,  Early Music, Vol. 23, No. 1, Flute Issue (Feb., 1995), pp. 124-148.

The CD is now an emblem of days of yore, the days before the public was convinced that their activities, interests, knowledge, entertainment―their very lives―could be compressed into data to be accessed via a plastic phone that fits in your pocket, requires an expensive monthly payment, and works sometimes.  In the age of Google, the CD, the English choral sound in early music and the solo lute recital are now all passé.

While it is possible that an interest in early music in general and music for the lute in particular could be fostered and sustained, it turns out that the very organizations that are dedicated to promoting early music actually act to limit access and exposure.  At least in the US, these organizations are built upon cliquish connections and an unfortunately misguided idea of exclusivity, promoting the same artists that have been in the game for 30 years, with rare and occasional opportunities for a few students of those long-lived artists.  In essence, these organizations are nothing more than fan clubs.

At the beginning of the early music phenomenon, the stereotyped lutenist was a nerdish teen in a turtleneck or a crusty oldster who, like Arnold Dolmetsch, probably made his own instrument and plucked the poor thing with purpose, using a right-hand technique indistinguishable from that of Andres Segovia.  The next phase saw those nerdish teens mature and inform themselves just enough and, while keeping the turtleneck, they procured better instruments which were played with pointless velocity.  Then along came the marketers who turned a quote from a positive concert review into a tired cliché, which the susceptible audience bought for a while. To be fair, some of those long-lived artists ditched the turtleneck and managed to maintain a sense of discovery and enthusiasm for their music.

Now the stereotyped lutenist is anyone who can afford an instrument; mostly mature males with a comfortably safe retirement account, or young classical guitarists with the parentage and wherewithal to buy a lute and spend several years studying in Europe.  It is an unfortunate reality that today middle- or lower-income musicians who show promise will never have an opportunity to afford a lute and, more importantly, certainly never have the opportunity to spend the several years of study it takes to play the lute well.

The Lute Society (UK) has for many years maintained a rotating stock of lutes that may be hired, and some prominent luthiers have made it a point to make affordable higher quality instruments available especially for students.  The US lute society has recently warmed to the idea of obtaining and hiring instruments (which I proposed to an unresponsive board in 2000), and one wishes them well in this enterprise to enhance access to instruments.  But one hopes this gesture is accompanied by a sustained and nurturing approach to offering young students of all income brackets the time and attention it takes to develop not just mechanical technique, but a quiet, attentive mind necessary to understand and appreciate the instrument and its music.  Otherwise, it’s still a fan club.

  1. I have already noticed the fan club effect on the US scene. I believe the lute craze will not be for long (unfortunately) for the reasons you pointed out. Living in South America, distant form the Early Music centers, the lute and its repertoire remains as an unknown beast. Very few makers produce these instruments and even fewer do it right. The Universities (a safe place for a lutenist seeking employment at a Court) turned their backs to the Early Music potential students and getting a post with a lute in hand is out of sight. How is it possible to survive in such conditions? I’ve sold all my instruments and only use a borrowed 8 course for an occasional concert. it has been a very frustrating path…

  2. Thank you for your comments, Bruno. Yes, the lute scene in the US is no more than a fan club, and the same few players appear to have no intention of slowing down. But popular culture in the US is all about identifying the “stars” and idolizing them at the expense of all other normal working musicians. The sad thing is that the “stars” are not really very musical when you get beneath the flashy surface, and therein lies the problem. The Early Music PR people have trained the public to respond to personalities and flashy gimmicks instead of pointing out qualities like moving emotional depth and intelligent interpretive choices. And in the US, larger concert opportunities and airplay are deliberately restricted via a pernicious network of connections and gatekeepers who effectively work to keep out the competition. The only way you can penetrate the network is to be a young student of one of the “stars” and, even so, the limited audience is greying, going deaf, and dying out.

    I am sorry to hear that early music is not so popular in South America. And even sorrier to hear that you have sold your instruments – as I have had to do. But we have had success in working outside of the closed early music network – establishing our own audiences who are capable of recognizing the moving qualities of our music. It is very difficult establishing alternative audiences, but once enlightened people have the opportunity to hear the difference from the mainstream “approved” players, our audiences are steadfast, generous, loyal and growing in numbers. Meanwhile, we get used to living below the poverty level.

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