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Saturday morning quotes 7.24 What we see

April 13, 2019

baki-medici-102019 is well along its way and circumstances have prevented us from our typical 2018 year-end summation. We usually find the start of a new year energizing and we like to take stock and plot out a theme and direction for the coming calendar year.  This year offers so many challenges on so many fronts that we are still in the process of collecting our thoughts from last year, and we are generally stunned by the many significant events of 2018, personal and global, that have rewritten the rule-book describing how the world works, and that have forced us to recalibrate the direction of our music and our lives.

Specializing in deeply considered interpretations of early music, and dedicating our time and energy to offering the fruits of our labor to audiences who are sorely in need of the quiet elegance of historical music for voice and lute, is not exactly a remunerative endeavor.  Particularly when we do not operate with the sponsorship of an organization, an academic institution, a well-endowed board, nor a mom who sets up all our gigs.  Mignarda is quite unique in that we are the genuine article; a duo of like-minded musicians who have truly made significant inroads presenting early music to a large and diverse audience based entirely upon hard work and the strength of our music.  We do not buy publicity, we do not pay for concert or recording reviews, and we do not frantically solicit “likes” on social media.  This may seem a boastful statement but, in the environment of today’s music industry, one only need examine standard operating procedure for independent musicians to see that we are unique in our approach and in our measure of success.

Gloves off. As the years roll by, it has become abundantly clear that, at least in the US, independent musicians who specialize in early music are simply not recognized by the established organizational hierarchy unless they have a direct connection of some sort within the established organizations that maintain a stranglehold on access to the more prominent early music venues, festivals, the specialized radio airplay and well-financed record labels.  How did this come to be the norm?  The answer is that, like every other aspect of modern business practice, and indeed modern life, there are among us gatekeepers who carve out a market for their product and set to work advancing their careers by concentrating on successful commercial techniques of public relations.  To put it simply, propaganda.

The gatekeeper phenomenon is an enormous factor that affects all who dwell in or on the fringes of the academic world.  Many of us have had ample opportunity to observe the gatekeeper dynamic; the toxic hierarchy of tenured full professors with butts firmly planted in endowed chairs lording over associate and assistant professors who hope their masters will someday die or (less likely) retire so that the opportunity to compete for those positions might possibly open up.  Lurking meekly in the hallways are the adjunct lecturers who hope that by cheerfully accepting the worst teaching assignments meted out with anxiety-inducing uncertainty of scheduling, and with compensation ranking well below ultra-subpar wages, there might perhaps be a glimmer of hope that, like Pinocchio, someday they will become real people.

The sad truth is that full professors will never sacrifice their positions unless they possess a keen desire to spend their “golden years” experiencing a sanitized life outside the ivory tower.  Many cling to their hard-won positions as their only source of identity and relevance.  Associate and assistant professors face playing the sometimes interminably long game, waiting for the door to open a crack and secretly hoping to peer through that crack to see their career obstacles slumped over an heirloom desk, victim of a heart attack (if they ever possessed a heart).  Spending half their academic lives treading water in muted circumspection, they have ample opportunity to absorb the many nuances of the gatekeeper’s role, and then embrace that role with a set of learned survival skills and as a matter of normalcy.  Lecturers and adjuncts must simply face the fact that they will never advance in their careers without the help of a viable connection or with an enormous stroke of good luck.  Merely by participating in the exploitation game, they are typecast by their superiors, and no matter how effective or qualified they may be, breaking out of their assumed role is nearly impossible in the face of very stiff competition by the naively optimistic crowd of hopefuls who, like Penelope’s suitors, likely await an unhappy result.

The world of early music is conjointly linked to academe.  Unfortunately.  The hard fact is the early music industry (for that is what it has become) needed scholars to lay the groundwork and provide context for recreating ancient sounds, and we applaud the good work of so many capable researchers who have sacrificed hours, opportunity, and spinal posture combing through libraries and poring over manuscript sources, ultimately providing peers, performers and the public with a host of reasons why old music is worth the bother.  But in the process, academics transferred their hierarchical “business model” to what is for all intents and purposes a niche market of the classical music entertainment industry.

Make no mistake.  Classical music as available through recordings or in public performance does not exist solely for the cultural enrichment of the world.  Classical music is a segment of the entertainment industry, and performers, no matter how rigorously trained and how innocent their personal objectives may be, are cogs in that segment of the entertainment industry.  In order for music to reach listeners, promoters advance certain performers that appear in live performances at particular venues, and promoters advance recordings through a variety of means; recording contracts, explicit agreements for radio and internet airplay (21st-century payola), and solicited (and paid-for) reviews in industry publications and on digital download formats.

This is standard operating procedure in the entertainment industry, and the field of early music is no exception.

An ethical dilemma exists when one steps back and considers that academe and the for-profit music industry collaborate to promote an idealized—and at times deliberately inaccurate—representation of historical music.  Altering history is a very dangerous, if sadly all too common, method of controlling a given message, and this is the point at which the early music industry collides with the seedy back alleys of the propaganda machine.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

– Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928

Since you have read this far, you should pause for a moment and check out the book by Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928).  This short book is available in modern edition (complete with the many original typos) with a brilliant foreword by Mark Crispin Miller that sets the context.  In a nutshell, Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, was truly the architect of the modern science of propaganda through manipulating public perception, and he understood very well that the public could be sold any idea if packaged effectively.

Leaving aside the larger implications of Bernays’ definition of propaganda and its ramifications, as it pertains to the early music industry, propaganda is consciously employed to color the perception of how listeners have access to and how they embrace early music as a product.  Those who fail to understand this reality are subject to manipulation, which may be just fine for many listeners.  But those who care to peer behind the curtain will better understand how the market forces are manipulated by promoters, and they may clearly see how their choices are not in fact guided by serendipitous discovery.

Today more than ever before, “our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested”, in fact all information that enters our consciousness through electronic means has been specifically tailored either to pique our interest or fulfill a need or desire we have blithely expressed in an email or over the phone—or even at home muttering to oneself near one’s television.  This is not conjecture.  This is fact.  Early music promoters are embracing the same techniques as Amazon and Google and other organizations who know more about your tastes and habits than you can imagine.  You have been profiled and your interest in historical music has been duly noted, down to whether you prefer the soothing English cathedral choral sounds or the more cerebral (if jangly) sound of Bach’s music on the harpsichord.

The business end of early music affects all of us, whether listener or performer, and we can say without reservation that is why the story of Mignarda is so very unusual.  We created our own approach to historical music based upon our own diligent research that is equal to but separate from the academic/music industry publicity machine.  We consciously made our music available to a broad audience, secure in the premise that music performed in a direct manner and sung in a more period-appropriate natural voice would attract listeners who have not drunk the Kool-Aid of the academic/music industry publicity machine.

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson




One Comment
  1. Stuart McLuckie permalink

    Your description of academia exactly reflects the experience of three academics that I personally know here in the UK – two young academics on part-time/short contracts, overworked, underpaid. The third is old, highly-paid, tenured and indifferent to the problems facing young academics.

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