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Saturday morning quotes 7.5: Conventions

June 27, 2018

13.jpg.CROP.original-originalWith apologies for the gap in time since our last post, we pick up a few steps beyond where we left off.  Still more physical frailties and medical interventions have acted to divert our focus, but we resume with a firm foothold on our main theme, early music and the lute.  We had to put aside our series on lute improvisation for a while, but the Lute Society has more than filled in the gap with excellent articles on improvising ornaments as well as counterpoint and improvisation in issue 125 of Lute News.  We intend to return to add our perspective on the subject at a later time.

As our readers know, the emergence and decline of the early music revival is a subject that profoundly affects the status of our primary focus, which is historical music for lute and voice and its relevance in the 21st century.  At the outset of the revival, musicians who were serious about performing early music in an informed manner were seen as eccentrics for applying historical techniques and concertizing using either authentic historical instruments or reproductions of the same.  The accepted concept of a progressive and linear development of technique and taste was the convention, and musicians who bothered to get out of line and excavate the dusty past were very unconventional.

Interestingly, early music adherents actually enjoyed the attention they received by bucking the norms of the classical music world.  Early music was the equivalent of a 21st-century disruption of the status quo, and being part of the movement was an act of radicalism.  Musicians who performed early music grew long hair and (eventually) put away their Victorian tuxedos and ball gowns in favor of a more relaxed presentation.  But as time marched on and early music specialists matured in age, an insidious creeping commercialism began to infect the early music movement.  The once radical and rather free-form amalgam of academics began to establish norms of their own, and it was not long before newsletters that circulated among academics and aficionados morphed into slick magazines stuffed with adverts aimed directly at both the neophyte musician hoping to obtain a foothold and a listening audience with amply stuffed wallets.  Early music became conventional.

At times eschewing unambiguous historical evidence, good taste and common sense, the new conventions of early music established just what was accepted performance practice, just when and where accepted performances occurred, and just who the accepted performers were.  Where once intellectual curiosity attracted performers and good music appealed to audiences, record labels, PR specialists and tightly controlled cliques of festival organizers worked to create a “fan club” environment to define the public face of early music.  Little did they realize that their methods would only hasten the decline of their product in an environment of ageing audiences and young people possessing a keen eye for hollow pretension.

As Richard Taruskin pointed out so convincingly early on, early music as it is performed today has very little to do with historical practice and aesthetics, and everything to do with modern performing conventions.  For instance, in a recording review featuring the Carmina burana, a legendary collection of 254 undated texts with hardly any musical interpretive indications, John Caldwell added a dose of reality:

“Some guesswork is of course inevitable: we simply do not know the answers to so many questions.  But the trouble with versions like these is that they seem  altogether too contrived: one just cannot imagine the necessary preparation for such sophisticated realizations taking place [historically].  Doubtless the scope for oral rehearsal was considerable in the Middle Ages, but the methods applied here to ‘In Gedeonis area’ and ‘Olim sudor Hercules’ strain credulity.”

– John Caldwell, Early Music Vol. XVI, No. 1. p. 127.

Through our writing in this forum, we have given clear evidence that several modern early music conventions are complete bollocks.  For example, a pitch standard of A=415 has nothing to do with historical baroque music, and we show that lute songs were almost never sung in public places with a projected voice.  Yet teachers who should know better continue to groom prospective students to follow in their own wayward footsteps down the path toward a thoroughly modern and, in the end, wholly unsatisfying convention.

Speaking of conventions, we are always asked by people who know our music and our research why we, as probably the most visible historical voice-lute duo in the US, aren’t on the performing roster of US lute conventions.  The answer is fairly simple.  Throughout our performing career we have never gone out of our way to court the narrowly defined audience that includes lute fanciers, choosing instead to let the merits of our music stand on their own.  It’s worked rather well for us and we have managed to draw many new audience members into the realm of early music.

And the fact is since we have stuck to performing according to historical principles, compared to today’s early music scene, we’re unconventional.

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