Saturday morning quotes 6.7: Decline and fall
Time marches on and change is inevitable. In recent memory we have seen so many cherished mileposts bulldozed and converted to splinters as we see the well-drained walkable village path of our lives widened and paved over with impermeable macadam; converted to a smooth superhighway lined with looming big box stores.
Those of us deeply involved in early music have been so because it is more than just an idle curiosity. To the cognoscenti, the study and performance of early music can be a sanctuary in which we rekindle faint memories of a time when music served a function much greater than insubstantial entertainment. Early music has more dimension and depth because life in the past was lived in real time without the interference of today’s electronic distractions that tend to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our existence, preoccupying our little grey cells with insipid, manifold and diverse rituals of use.
Historically, music had power and meaning, symbolism and significance. Attaining a level of skill in music beyond competence signified that a person was likewise skilled in literary arts, physical science, mathematics, philosophy, and had a deep faith and abiding correspondence with the divine. Playing the lute well was likened to possessing a highly developed oratorical skill, and the endeavor required a great deal of time and personal commitment. A sensitive rendering of the better sort of music composed in the 16th century demanded a depth of understanding that went far deeper than mere technical skill. For instance, John Dowland had little patience for those who believed that musical skill began and ended with a deft hand: “let them remember that their skill lyeth not in their fingers endes” (“To the Reader“, Pilgrimes Solace, 1612).
Luthier Robert Lundberg (1948 – 2001) suggested that perhaps late 20th-century revivalists were drawn to early music because art music of our time is in crisis. We can’t agree more. In contrast to the music of Jacob Obrecht, for instance, with his intellectually satisfying strict canonic treatment employing clever musical themes, sensitively wrought with an emotionally pleasing melodic result, most modern art music is the musical equivalent of tossing a tin of paint against a wall and hoping for a meaningful result. But music reflects the tenor of the times, and it’s no wonder that most art music today represents the direct opposite of serene beauty, but rather tends toward unsettling cacophony and is uniformly draped with irony. Meanwhile, pop music gets dumb and dumber—autotuned mumblecore vocals set to a synthetic beat. Does this represent evolutionary progress? We think not.
Musical style as measured along the progression of time does not necessarily demonstrate a trend of refinement and sophistication. How can it possibly be so when music education today has been marginalized? And how can those who pursue music as a profession possibly aim for an ever higher level of artistry when tech companies have made it impossible for “content creators”to earn a living from recordings? The result is, unsurprisingly, a trajectory that adjusts artistic value downward toward the lowest common denominator.
Here in the US there is no denying the fact that the early music revival is in decline. This is so for a number of reasons that have to do with market economies and little to do with the music’s appeal. But a major factor is the “greying” of both performers and audience. In its nascent days, the early music revival was a phenomenon that provided subject matter for academics in search of a theme and a focus, enabled the less conventionally-minded conservatory musician an opportunity to specialize in what seemed like a growth industry, gave audiences alternative musical entertainment with a whiff of history about it, and it also provided amateur musicians possessing an interest in historical music—and possessing an ample budget for instruments—the opportunity to delve into interesting repertory, much of which was accessible to an amateur standard of play.
The decline of the early music revival in the US was unwittingly hastened by all the participants listed above happily indulging themselves in a “summer camp” mentality; self-absorbed professionals and hobbyists alike striving to keep the buzz of discovery alive as a monument to their youth, rather than creating a lasting legacy focused on nurturing a diverse population of fresh faces and forward-thinking adaptable personalities who would carry the torch. If we step back a moment, we can view the early music “industry” from a more generic organizational perspective, and those of us who have studied organizational behavior will recognize the signs of an organization in decline:
1.) The organization exhibits a lack of understanding the environmental and economic realities confronting it, or is in denial
2.) The management of the organization is arrogant with regard to its view of the world & assessment of its internal competencies. Ex: Icarus Paradox
3.) The organization has lost perspective with respect to customers, products, suppliers, and competitors
4.) Management and employees have an insular focus or preoccupation with internal processes, internal measurements, and politics
5.) The organization has lost its sense of urgency and lacks an attitude of self-determination
6.) The organization is relying on historical and poorly conceptualized or inappropriate business strategies and traditional management methods to address new & different challenges
7.) The organization has the propensity to repeat mistakes and fails to learn from past experiences
8.) The organization has low or slow innovation practices and is late to market with new products/services
9.) The organization has a tendency to recycle marginally performing managers
10.) The organization relies exclusively on internal talent as a source of leadership
The long-term solution to a waning interest in early music is certainly not the introduction of gimmicks. For instance, the Noble Lute (the Best of Instruments) has quite enough high-quality challenging historical repertory without subjecting it to cute tricks and other indignities in an attempt to broaden its appeal. Some new music for the lute, composed and performed by dedicated individuals who are both talented composers and convincing performers, has a unique appeal that places it in a class of its own. But having heard quite a bit of new music composed for the lute, is is easy to categorize the same into the following: 1) guitaristic music that doesn’t really take advantage of the lute’s tonal or aesthetic qualities, 2) weird atonal nonsense that is just plain embarrassing when foisted upon an instrument with a dignified and noble character (imagine a rendering of Queen Elizabeth I dressed in punky garb with tattoos and an asymmetrical hairstyle), and 3) music that works. Of the third category, music of diverse styles can work on the lute if it takes advantage of the instrument’s polyphonic capabilities, cross-string resonance, has clear and supple bass lines, and has a tuneful top-string melody.
But what of the long-term fate of early music? Will the revival survive? Or will early music be catalogued as a passing fancy among the broad mix of listening “content” made available by the tech giants? Can early music stand on its own as a genre once separated from the academic world (who is there to tell us it’s better than it sounds)?
If historical music is performed with informed skill and a sense of understanding of its context—and with a bit of panache—it can be just as effective as later, supposedly more expressive music. We never fail to point out to our audiences that people who happened to live in the early 16th century experienced many of the same physical and emotional responses we do today. As it turns out, the modern human condition isn’t really much different from that of the old ones; we just have different toys and different distractions. And simply because early representational art lacked dimension, the lack of conventional expressive markings in use today does in no way indicate that singers and instrumentalists performed deadpan and ignored the passion and meaning of the texts. Or ignored the rising and falling of musical phases. Or ignored the important dance-like rhythmic pulses. We like to imagine just what Black Bart Tromboncino (c. 1470 – 1535), a man not known for his temperate behavior, would have to say if he heard his rhythmically vital musical settings of passionate texts performed in a detached and bloodless “churchy” manner.
While we are not musical prudes who completely lack an appreciation for all modern sounds, our duo is committed to continue to research and perform old music without gimmicks. And, interestingly, our audiences appear to be steadily growing. We believe it takes a lifetime of specialization to do justice to a given genre of music from a particular era, and we’re not finished exploring the historically-appropriate expressive possibilities. In order to perform old music well, it must be performed like a composition created in the present moment, just like when it was new. The music deserves just that sort of approach.