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Saturday morning quotes 8.1: The future is now

September 25, 2020

No, it is not the end for us, but after twenty-five years or so, the lute discussion list that has been generously maintained by lutenist Wayne Cripps is shutting down. Wayne is retiring and will no longer have access to the servers that host the discussion list, housed at Dartmouth College. One cannot help but observe how this seemingly routine event really marks the end of an era, both for the lute revival and in respect to modern modes of communication. It also draws attention to how the Age of the Internet has transitioned from a period of mutual discovery, alternative community-building, and the sharing of resources, to the present model where a variety of “social media” platforms employ deceptive data-scraping methods against a coöperative and naïve public.

There is a great deal of reflection on the topic of the future of the lute. This sort of discussion is particularly characteristic of the self-referential Boomer generation, which tends to believe that every event that occurred over the past sixty years has to do with their cohort group. On the topic of the lute revival that gathered steam during the 1970s, while it was certainly a large component of the the early music revival generally, it was a phenomenon that was driven mainly by classical guitarists who had an affinity for the segment of repertory for their instrument that was drawn from historical lute music and adapted for guitar.

Classical guitarists are mainly interested in solo music that can be studied in isolation, and are known for their tendency to obsess on details of mechanical instrumental technique. This tendency was a hallmark of the lute revival because the better lutenists were all former classical guitarists. According to articles and correspondence one can peruse in the American lute society’s newsletter archive, at some point in the late 1960s a division occurred between guitarists who were happy to apply their hard-won technique to the lute, and lutenists who insisted that the lute could only be played properly by discovering and emulating historical right-hand techniques for the instrument. There was as a result an acrimonious division between those who insisted upon “thumb-under” technique and those who were fine with a more generic approach.

The problem was that “thumb-under” technique was only appropriate for a segment of early 16th-century repertory, a time during which iconography shows that many players were also depicted as using a “thumb-out” technique that was very similar to the right-hand technique of the modern guitarist. Driving the argument further into the realm of absurdity, lutenists began inappropriately applying “thumb-under” technique to later music for baroque lute and theorbo, the repertory of which clearly demanded “thumb-out” technique, a truism reinforced by iconography, historical narrative, and plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face good sense.

To a professional musician outsider who already played several different stringed instruments, this division and dissension was all just plain silliness. If one cares about the result, one adapts technique for the instrument and the context of the music. End of story.

The fact is, the very idea that the lute revival is over is a trait attributed to what is called the Baby Boomer generation, also known as just plain Boomers. To me, a boomer is an archaic term that describes a drifter who went from one railroad job to another, a term dating to frontier days when the itinerant or the desperate followed boom camps. This type of boomer is memorialized in an old song that formed the basis of my musical education:

Riley Puckett (1894 – 1946)

And while we have your attention on this matter, we can announce that our alter-ego, Eulalie, will be releasing (hopefully October 2020) our CD of what we call “Heart-Songs & Country Blues”, music from the turn of the last century. Here are two pre-release recordings to whet your appetite.

Old & in the way (1880), and Baptist Shout (banjo solo, 1927)

OK, back to Boomers. The reason Boomers are so self-referential is because they have been the target of mass-marketing their entire lives, and have been taught that fulfilling personal desires, mainly through products, is the one true goal in life. This is no accident.

In 1928, President Herbert Hoover reinforced this notion when he told a group of advertisers and public relations specialists:

“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

As far back as 100 years ago, the advertising industry industry kicked into overdrive planting the seeds of envy, evident in this quotation by Paul Mazur, a banker with the now defunct Lehman Brothers, who authored the standard textbook on retail business, Principles of Organization Applied to Modern Retailing, Harper, New York, 1927. In an earlier article, Mazur laid out the strategy:

“We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

– Paul M. Mazur, “The logic of department-store organization”, Harvard Business Review, April, 1925, pp. 287-296.

The end of the lute list does not have to mean the end of the lute revival. But it is very important to take stock of who lutenists are as a community and strive to keep alive the spirit of discovery so that it may be passed on to the next few generations. This will not happen through social media platforms, which are only data-scraping tools that are deliberately contrived to deceive participants into revealing more personal information than they should for the sole purpose of monetizing every scrap of data.

Our contribution to keeping the spirit of discovery alive is to share a track from an upcoming album (December 2020) of English lute songs, strangely enough titled Unquiet Thoughts. The track we are previewing today is “The Sypres curten of the night” by Thomas Campion.

Campion is best remembered for his Observations in the Art of English Poesie (1602), but he also published masque music, a treatise on counterpoint, and four books of ayres for voice and lute. “The Sypres curten of the night” is from A Booke of Ayres (1601), a collaborative publication that also includes twenty-one songs by the more facile composer for the lute, Philip Rosseter.

Cypress is an ancient Hebrew word that describes the evergreen conifer belonging to the genus Cupressus. Cypress trees are evergreen conifers that achieve a height of around 80 feet tall, and present in an upright conical shape. The cypress tree is an ancient symbol of mourning, with references dating to ancient Greek and Roman times, and in Christian symbolism, the cypress is thought to be the tree used for the crucifixion.

In Campion’s poetry, the cypress acts as a curtain that separates the worlds of the quick and the dead. Drapery is also found in Classical Greek art as a symbol for mourning. In a typical display of Elizabethan wit, Campion (or Rosseter) weaves a direct musical quotation of the cantus of Dowland’s song, “My thoughts are winged with hopes” (First Booke of Songs, 1597) into the treble of the lute accompaniment. The irony would not have passed unnoticed by Dowland himself.

Our version in this recording is transposed from a rather shrill f-minor down a third to facilitate communication of the poetry, a practice which more likely approximates the original sound when we consider that the pitch standard was generally lower in 1601, and that voices always transposed to fit the tuning of the particular lute at its relative pitch.

The Sypres curten may be previewed here.

There is a great deal of reflection on the topic of the future of the lute. We would like to promote a sense of community around the instrument that has more to do with inviting newcomers and less to do with judging how well everyone measures up to some modern invented standard. That requires a sense of loyalty to the community.

Today, like nearly every aspect of life, loyalty is largely defined in a corporate sense rather than the loyalty of one human being to another (think non-disclosure agreements). Since the erosion of the cohesive family unit, a process that has taken its toll over the past century, loyalty in close relationships has also suffered. Since the dawn of the corporate culture, we have been encouraged (deliberately) to pursue our own interests above all other things, and we have been collectively programmed to believe that objects for sale in the marketplace will fill the void created by disintegrating relationships (retail therapy).

We urge all those interested in the lute revival to resist participating in the data-scraping platforms, and find ways to carry forward the spirit of collegiality established and maintained so many years by Wayne Cripps. Thank you Wayne.

To this already over-long and rambling post, actually beginning our eighth full year of Saturday quotes, we will add one more item. This past week saw the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In memoriam, we share a recent piece by our friend composer David Lamb, performed even more recently by our friend cellist Malina Rauschenfels, who is also a budding lutenist.

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