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Saturday morning quotes 6.2: Traditions

May 28, 2016

Studying the luteHaving had the benefit of a very long relationship with traditional music, learned by ear and through osmosis, it’s an interesting exercise to reflect on the similarities and differences of approach between historical folk and art music.  The two genres have existed side-by-side since forever, but the points of divergence appear to be more sharply defined the further a given musician-interpreter is removed from the source and function of the music in question.

It is a fairly safe bet that in the 21st century nearly all interpretations of Western historical folk and art music are re-creations, removed from the original sources and functions and thus the result of academic study—with the two exceptions of playing live traditional music for dancing and singing for the Latin Mass. Of course music of the 16th century must be studied from afar and by taking advantage of our cumulative knowledge of historical performance practice.  But study that is confined to the rigors of mechanical instrumental or vocal technique without a deeper understanding of the details of our ancestors’ lives will result in modern interpretations that are simply less human.

A major obstacle to effective interpretation of any music is the absence of empathy.  In the case of 16th-century music, empathy can only be cultivated through reading the words left behind, immersing ourselves in the anti-climactic details of the drudgery and desperation of daily life, absorbing the music with an understanding of pulse, cadence and musical phrasing.  Only then can we begin to apply instrumental or vocal technique toward an honest interpretation.


With historical folk music, we are fortunate to have remnants of certain traditions that were preserved through audio recordings, which may bring us much closer to the humanity of the music.  Like the deep insights and expertise of our best historical musicologists, the approach of those who recorded the remnants of historical fiddle music made a significant difference in our ability to understand and interpret lost traditions and the humanity of the music.

“One of the results of studying traditions primarily through items and without enough regard for the individuals who made them is that we, as folklorists, delude ourselves into thinking we come to know that tradition. Such an assumption is pretentious. At best, we may learn something of the normative patterns within a tradition — the “norm” or “average” — but we can know nothing about that tradition’s limits — if indeed it has limits. I use the term “limits” loosely, for we all know that folk life of all sorts continually shifts and adjusts and refuses to be plugged neatly into any sort of limiting pigeon hole. Flexible limits do exist though, at specific times and places in all traditions. Without boundaries, how do we know when any “traditional” form is no longer traditional and is, in fact, something else?”

“In order to understand more about a particular tradition’s limits, we must deliberately and knowingly seek out those people — again, past and present — who can help us determine them. It is for this reason that folklorists are drawn to the most innovative and creative participants within a given tradition. It is usually through these innovative few that we are able, with care and time, to determine the limits of acceptable artistic creativity possible within a tradition. The problem with concentrating on these individuals, though, is the danger of assigning traditional status to elements which, in fact, have gone beyond the realm of the traditional aesthetic. If this is done, our picture of the tradition as a whole will be skewed if not absolutely wrong.”

– Blanton Owen (1945-1998), Manco Sneed and the Indians

As interpreters of historical music for the lute, we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches with access to nearly 300 years worth of published scores and manuscript sources that we may peruse and perform.  But we skew our understanding when we choose only the best music by those who are accepted as the best historical composers.  This  “greatest hits” approach prevents a contextual understanding of historical music and is an obstacle to effective and empathetic interpretation.

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