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Saturday morning quotes 8.16: So what?

May 15, 2021

One of the many paradoxes of modern life is that we must look to the past for examples of culture and to find a measure of quality that simply is not in evidence today. Current cultural examples share many characteristics with the wretched disposable plastic objects that litter our streets, clog our oceans and disrupt our lives, whether they be plastic bags, cracked automobile bodywork, or outdated smart phones—objects that have no lasting appeal simply because they have no enduring value. Just a few short decades ago, our understanding of history was through discovering and reading books, digesting information through the tactile experience of turning pages, organizing that digested information in our own minds as knowledge, testing our knowledge against real world experience, and eventually forming what once upon a time was universally valued as wisdom.

At present, most people access knowledge of the past in a form entirely filtered through modern technological means. Because of commercial considerations to do with search engine optimization, the less than ideal experience of the failings and foibles of technology has become a determinant factor in the quality of information, and a source such as Wikipedia acts as an algorithm-skewed conduit of history that we must accept is constantly revised by control freaks or the CIA. Think search engines or music playback devices that turn recorded or printed music into a select if soulless set of ones and zeros that can be retrieved on demand. Today, very few musicians visit libraries and fewer still have had the tactile experience of hand-copying old music, the only truly effective way to recreate historical performance practice in a manner that puts us in the shoes of our forebears. It is no wonder that shallow virtuosity in performance is valued today much more than depth of interpretation. We dwell in an age that is ruled by the lowest common denominator.

How do we rectify the rapidly declining interest in meaningful music of the past? We must encourage engagement with and involvement in historical music in terms that make sense to young people. That means honest and direct engagement because, despite the best efforts of willful PR specialists and gate-keeping public arts funding agencies, young people do not want your dumbed-down greatest hits presentations that only trivialize our rich cultural past. They know a scam when they see one because they’ve seen it all and more on Youtube. Young people of the 21st century possess a large and intricate set of life skills, they just have no structural framework of meaningful historical value to provide cultural context and act as a testing ground necessary to convert information to knowledge to wisdom.

That said, we must avoid steering new audiences toward a black-and-white or right-and-wrong concept of historical interpretation. To put it simplistically, we must avoid foisting “cancel-culture” judgements on the inexperienced innocents who may very well like what you don’t. Far too many people of a certain age who have acquired a passing acquaintance with music of the past love to describe to others just what is a correct interpretation of that music. Back off and let them discover what they like without imposing your outdated ideas of taste. And relax about the rigid high-brow Victorian Night at the Opera rules of conduct: Young people don’t understand or care about the unhistorical modern convention of no applause between movements, and they just won’t sit quietly for an entire concert with trousered phones. There are modern tales of young people attempting to attend the symphony only to be dramatically shushed for displays of normal behavior, an act that really is all about entitled persons exerting power.

“Perhaps it’s because of trying to keep classical music audiences living in the dark, in perpetual fear that they might not understand the secret and elite codes of long-term insiders, brainwashing core subscribers into an irrational hatred of anyone who dares to disrupt their peace-and-quiet even if accidentally, regimenting the experience with a coerced and inculcated rigidity that would be abhorrent to any composer worth his or her salt: This is how we have made classical music so awful.”

– Richard Dare, “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained

Of one thing we can be certain: early music as we know it will not survive. Just as well, since early music has become just another modern exercise in commercialization and slick PR. Young people can’t afford the ticket prices, let alone the instruments. But if we play our cards shrewdly, it is possible that an appreciation for music of the past will be rediscovered in the future—on someone else’s terms—and that appreciation may possibly be as rich for them as it was for us.

“‘Call me Early, mother dear, for I’m to be authentic today’: not really. Put a viol or a gut-strung Baroque violin in a modern player’s hands and you may still leave the human frailties of incompetence, dullness and insensitivity as a barrier to a true interpretative re-creation. But for the best artist, the historic instrument may be the best tool. Sheer experience, sheer work – not solitary, but in communion with listeners and other performers – evolves the style: it did evolve the style.”

– Arthur Jacobs, “Early Music and the Critic,” The Musical Times, Jul., 1982, Vol. 123, No. 1673, Early Music Issue (Jul., 1982), p. 466

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