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Saturday morning quotes 7.40: Intertextuality

April 11, 2020


“…There are no innocent readers anymore.  Each overlays the text with his own perverse view.  A reader is the total of all he’s read, in addition to all the films and television he’s seen.  To the information supplied by the author, he’ll always add his own.  And that’s where the danger lies: an excess of references…”

– Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Club Dumas, p. 335.

We live in very interesting times that require advanced survival skills just to unravel basic essential information that lands on our digital doorstep every minute of every day.  The only certainty is that we simply cannot trust one shred of news without questioning the motive of the source.  Nor can we even trust ourselves to interpret information objectively without stepping back and questioning our own history, our influences and our perspective.  This all sounds a bit mad but, as previously mentioned, we live in very interesting times.

Intertextuality, in simplistic terms, is defined as the shaping of the meaning of a particular text by the reader’s conscious or unconscious reference to another text.  In practical terms, our interpretations will always be influenced by our own frame of reference.  And as our opening quotation states, the problem for a modern thinking person dwelling in the madness that is 2020 lies in our massive cumulative excess of references.

Those of us involved in early music are all influenced by our own unique experiences that have, for whatever reasons, caused us to consciously cast aside music of today to explore the rich treasure trove of historical music.  But as much as some scholars and performers would like us to believe otherwise, it is nearly impossible to cancel from our psyche the enormous storehouse of music to which each and every one of us has been exposed from childhood.  Most professional performers are conservatory trained, meaning they possess hard-won indelible muscle memory of all the technique that has been drilled into them in order to perform the accepted classical, romantic and modern masterworks.  Unlearning that modern technique and leaving it at the doorstep is the first order of business before one steps through the portal to embrace early music.

Despite the best of intentions. early music scholarship has also led us astray.  After nearly a century of hacking away at early vocal music singing the exact notes on the page as delivered to us by scholars and using a modern singing technique, we eventually are treated to the work of a few clear-thinking individuals who have “discovered” that one does not sing the music of Ockeghem with the same technique employed for the music of Offenbach.

“The modern classically trained voice cannot be used as the model for vocal sound, and the practice of performing exactly what is on the pageno matter how beautifully it is doneis simply incorrect as a reconstruction of the sounds of the past.”

– Timothy J. McGee, The Sound of Medieval Song: Ornamentation and Vocal Style according to the Treatises, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998, p. viii.

As Richard Taruskin so aptly pointed out many years ago, the early music movement did not re-discover old music as much as it imposed modern concepts and constructs on old repertory.  In short, the early music movement projected an approach that says more about modern researchers and performers and their collective influences than it does about the meaning and context of the original music.  How could it be otherwise?  The only path to understanding the context of early music is to attempt to approach and understand the lifestyle of our forebears; embrace 500 year-old technology like the printed page and read old books.  Not many takers for that time-consuming challenge today.

In more recent news, Bob Dylan released a song just a few weeks ago that has more to do with the proper aesthetic of early music than many of our modern pantomimes featuring old music staged for the modern attention span (-).  At nearly 17 minutes, the song is really an intimate setting of narrative poetry that tells the story of popular culture beginning in the latter part of the 20th century.  The narrative is rich in cultural references that describe a society molded and shaped by events that have landed us in the less-than-ideal pickle we are experiencing today: A society that has been deliberately turned into a consumer culture and deliberately fed a pack of lies by an unpleasant cabal of the corporate elite, the politicians they own, and their media mouthpieces.

“We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.”

– William Casey, Director of Central Intelligence, February, 1981, via former Reagan White House aide, Barbara Honegger

Bob Dylan has been the chronicler of an Age for the past 60 years, and judging “Murder Most Foul” by its popular appeal is missing the point. With Dylan, it’s always been about the lyrics and what lies beneath the surface. Sadly, even people who at one point in their lives may have memorized all the words to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” are now conforming to the idiotic standard of “too-long-didn’t-read.”  What does Dylan have to do with early music?  It takes the same sort of concentration to appreciate the lyrics of a seventeen-minute song as it does to appreciate a seven-minute rondeau by Busnoys.

Slow down and invest some time in unraveling the poetry and its meaning.


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