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Saturday morning quotes 5.52: The future

May 14, 2016

2bicycles+adrummerAs we write this, the 52nd post of our fifth full year of Saturday morning quotations, we look to  the future with a balance of cautious anticipation and hopeful speculation. Last week’s post offered a summary of highlights from the past year, so we think it’s only fitting to cap the year by examining the future according to a few specialists and offering our own insights as to what may come in the next twelvemonth.

While ours is a lute-centric point of view, we tend to consider our music and our approach in the larger context of early music.  Early music is by its very nature a re-creational art form; performances of old music based on a combination of intense study of source material with a highly developed empathetic response to historical texts and musical conventions.  In the not too distant past, modes of lute performance by revivalists were overly focused on matters of technique and mechanical aspects of the instruments themselves.  The future of lute performance lies in assuming the technical matters are internalized so we can go about the important business of tapping into the emotional depth of the music.

Ever since John Thomson convened a project in 1977 proposing to shape the future of early music in the UK, there has been an unusually well coordinated worldwide effort to define, standardize and mold the look, sound and presentation of early music.  Organizations were formed, objectives were established, syllabi were created, and student-teacher relationships emerged. What was once considered a counterculture movement, early music organizations increasingly evolved to resemble corporate models.

“In their concluding chapter (‘The future?’), Lawson and Stowell raise the spectre of an historically informed performance movement that has become over-confident of itself and its claims, in which attitudes towards underpinning research have become a little too casual and too willing to compromise in terms of the instruments used, or appropriate playing techniques. The pressure for compromise comes largely from commercial sources. When a big-name guest conductor bringing lucrative concert tours and recording contracts to a period band begins to make interpretative demands that fly in the face of historical evidence that the players know far better than he, what is a reasonable response? As the editors know very well, such compromises are nothing new. One can take an idealistic stand, following the late Bruce Haynes’s caution in The end of early music (New York, 2007) that historically informed performance is losing its ‘counter cultural’ rationale and with that, its ethical credentials; or one can compromise.”

– John Irving, “Performance through history”, review of The Cambridge history of musical performance, ed. Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), Early Music, Vol. xli, No. 1, p. 143.

With the help of specialist academic programs and large early music organizations, we have seen increased access to sources of music, to concert performances and many other benefits and efficiencies over the years.  But those of us who have studied organizational behavior understand full well that hierarchies are a natural result of any coordinated effort, and certain personality-types tend to eventually step in to take over the helm.  It seems that no matter how “counterculture” the original motives may have been, these certain personalities tend to offer stiff competition to egalitarian goals and objectives.

But we live in the (potentially accurate) Information Age; the age of Google and what has been called the disruption economy. Are large organizations still relevant?  Is it possible that we have taken a circuitous route via digital media and are returning to the counterculture roots of the early music movement?

“Google exemplifies and partly drives a huge shift in culture and the attitude to availability of materials.The world of information has progressed from libraries that had no internet access in 2000, to those same institutions planning a mere decade later to put their entire content online, including digital conversion of their catalogues. Online access to a library is now almost taken for granted…”

“If we create universal multi-user access to unique materials there is suddenly a point in being able to understand the notation and navigate around books that originated in a world with a very different mindset from ours. Instead of relying on one scholar’s interpretation of the materials exemplified in a modern edition, digitization and online delivery has democratized early music: we can access the original sources ourselves at any time, usually without cost, make our own edition or, better still, perform directly from the original sources, taking power from the editor and giving it back to the performer, bypassing the various tyrannies imposed on pre-barline music by modern notation, and exploring the process of negotiation that is an integral part of performing and understanding the works they contain.”

– Julia Craig-McFeely, “Digital Man and the desire for physical objects”, Early Music, Vol. xli, No. 1, p. 131-32.

However, access to the sources of music means absolutely nothing if those attempting to interpret arcane old notation have no understanding of its meaning, or lack an essential depth of understanding in historical modes of performance.  And it turns out the disruption economy approach is actually little more than a ploy on the part of the same old personality types using neo diversionary tactics to get around established norms and standards.

The cold hard truth is that, even among established interpreters of early music, we will never approach an understanding of original modes of performance until we specialize in one era of historical music, live without electricity and indoor plumbing, sing a polyphonic Mass with almost no rehearsal in an unheated choir loft, compose canons, practice and perform by candlelight.  Of course, research is important but until a performer fully understands the original context, it’s only playing some pretends.  Convincing performances demand that elusive combination of scholarly elbow grease and musical intuition, and to quote the venerable Mr. Johnson, “To do this, you got to know how.

“Among other things, forensic analysis has the capacity to challenge or demolish myths—in this case, the myth that a seemingly ingenious canon was technically hard to make. The situation brings to mind a series of conversations I once had about a piece of studio pottery I own, a large wheel-thrown earthenware bowl that is impressively wide-brimmed at the top but curves down to the tiniest of bases. I showed this beautiful bowl to an amateur potter and was surprised by her response: ‘pots like that are very hard to make’. This bowl had appealed to me for its form, not its difficulty, and her remark therefore changed my view of it. But then I showed it to a professional potter, this time
commenting that my lovely bowl must have been hard to make. ‘Not when you know how’, he said.”

“…If the Idea is to pass cleanly from composer’s conception to hearer’s comprehension in sound alone, we are dealing not so much with hard composing—quite easy, in fact, when you know how—but rather with some hard performing and some very hard listening.”

– John Milsom, “Hard composing; hard performing; hard listening”, Early Music, Vol. xli, No. 1, p. 108, p. 112.

For our next year of Saturday morning quotes, we will continue to draw upon wisdom old and not so old.  But we will also be demonstrating in more detail our process of research and assimilation of old music.  Stay tuned for our first podcast.

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