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Saturday morning quotes 8.25: Points of interest

October 2, 2021

Our readers know we have a unique point of view that offers an alternative to the usual story promoted from inside the echo chamber of early music enthusiasts. Since we are independent and have no commercial nor institutional obligations, we can point out the obvious without worrying about offending gatekeepers or risking funding that was never going to come our way in the first place. But as thinking persons, we diligently take the time to inform ourselves without prejudice as to the source from within or without the commercial-institutional early music complex.

An essential source of information is Timothy McGee’s book, The Sound of Medieval Song: Ornamentation and Vocal Style according to the Treatises, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998.

“The primary goal of this book is the presentation to the scholarly world of an aspect of medieval music that is often ignored because it cannot be seen on the page…Although several excellent ensembles have been ornamenting medieval music for some time, following some of the theoretical information included here, most have not. The modern classically trained voice cannot be used as a model for the vocal sound, and the practice of performing exactly what is on the page—no matter how beautifully it is done—is simply incorrect as a reconstruction of the sounds of the past.
– p. viii

“It is incorrect to view the surviving written versions of much of the medieval repertory as dogmatic texts that were intended to be reproduced exactly as written. In performance each composition became a living creation precisely because the performer took on some of the role of a composer, adjusting each composition in a personal way. Many of the compositions preserved in manuscripts are either outlines to be filled in by the performer or records of an ornamental elaboration invented by a particular performer.”
– p. 4

Moving to another point, an incidental reality check with the status of the world of early music reveals what many of us knew all along: It is impossible to make a living as a professional musician specializing in early music without 1) commercial or institutional sponsorship, 2) a trust fund, 3) absolute dedication, and 4) flexibility. Since we have never come close to 1) and have not even the faintest trace of 2), we have rewarded our surfeit of 3) by embracing 4).

Having spent the better part of 18 years as a duo specializing in historical music for voice and lute, we can say without reservation it ain’t easy. When we hear rumors of young players giving up for good because early music is not commercially viable, we can only say welcome to the club. The age of a viable career in early music is thing of the past. Those who “made it” in the last decades of the 20th century were able to snatch that brass ring as the carousel made its circuit, and many of those players just trousered the brass ring as they continue to perform to this day instead of stepping back and allowing a new generation the opportunities they experienced themselves so long ago. Today, to be a dedicated performer of early music is to take a vow of poverty.

The entire music world has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, and early music has morphed from a cultish corner of the classical music market, to a brand in its own right. The real problems emerged when promoters aggressively over-commercialized the early music brand, forsaking the traditional dedicated audience who had an alternative bent and instead pandering to the well-heeled moneyed interests who can and will drop sacks of cash just for the philanthropic thrill of barely-earned prestige as visible patrons of the arts. In the absence of an audience of true believers, the effect of early music is instead gauged by flashy presentations and sideshows rather than whether the substance of the music can cause listeners to feel something, or whether it can bring a tear to the eye.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but another nail in the coffin for professional performers has been the aggressive participation of amateurs possessing large bankrolls, ample collections of expensive instruments, and oversized narcissistic personalities that fuel their desire to draw the public eye. As we have pointed out in these pages, amateurs have every right to share their music with their families and friends, but they should not elbow their way into the world of public performance—it only interferes with professional standards and degrades the public’s perception of musical quality.

“Yea, so that thou haue any skill in [playing the lute] be not ashamed at the request of honest friends to shew thy cunning: but if thou chancest to get an habit of perfection, prophane not the Goddesse, with making thy selfe cheape for a sleight gaine.”

– John Dowland, Varietie of Lvte-lessons, 1610 (after Besard, 1603).

“The dilettante and the amateur should, as a rule, stay out of paid positions, or at least they should not work gratuitously in those which should yield pay: and in those few cases where it seems fair and desirable for them to do any public work at salary they should stubbornly maintain a price and conditions which will aid professionals to hold the same ground.”

– Charles E. Watt, “A Square Deal for the Music Teacher: Let Us Have a Better Financial Status for the Professional Musician,” The Etude, Vol. 39, September 1921, p. 561.

We have reached the point where advancement of technology has undermined the very substance of art. The result is that self-promoting individuals can spend buckets of money employing technology in order to create an illusion of art, and thus technology has become the pointless end, rather than the means, by which both the quality and the substance of art has been utterly pixelated into meaningless data points.

And yet here we are and here we remain, adhering to the old ways that point toward the past.

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