Captain Hastings: Well, there she was, as you say, a glamorous young woman, and with a bit of a wig and a few bits of make-up she could transform herself into that dowdy hag of a nurse.
Hercule Poirot: Yes, it was indeed very well done, Hastings.
Captain Hastings: But… Well, I mean… If a woman can do that one way, she can do it the other.
Hercule Poirot: Oh, Hastings.
Captain Hastings: Well, I mean then where are you?
Hercule Poirot: At the beginning of wisdom, mon ami. Now, that also is something to celebrate, n’est-ce pas?
– Agatha Christie: Poirot, “The Million Dollar Bond Robbery” (1991)
Awareness is indeed the beginning of wisdom. In our consumer culture, shaping the message is the key to selling goods and ideas, and we are subjected to the manipulation of information at every turn—even in the world of early music. This seems incongruous given that early music is considered by many to be a pure and unadulterated art form that is cleansed of the superfluous packaging of more heavily-hyped classical repertory. An apt parallel may be that of paler but supposedly more healthful organic produce offered in contrast to apparently more robust and highly-polished fruit that is conventionally grown.
But awareness of how publicity shapes the message leads us toward the beginning of wisdom. Looking slightly beneath the surface, one learns that publicity cannot be trusted. For starters, any and every recording review from certain sources (sound the trumpets) is paid for by artists or their representatives. Quotes from these purchased positive reviews seem to find their way into other publicity materials, and there you are—a message that is based upon false pretense used to shape public perception of an artist’s worth.
One longs for the good old days when musicians were recognized for their ability to move the passions of the listener. But did those good old days ever exist? Probably not. While there may be a few honest, forthright, and egalitarian public relations specialists and/or artist representatives, the baser element has always been with us, slyly shaping perceptions of the worth of their clients while demanding high fees from concert producers in the pursuit of an ever greater percentage.
But what about those of us who eschew artist representation, who depend upon unsolicited recording reviews and who rely solely upon honest audience feedback? Well, I mean then where are you? I believe “under the bus” is the proper term for those who would offer competition to the better-financed artists. Early music publicists are cut from the same cloth as any other public relations specialist, and there is a tendency to stretch the truth when aggressive marketing enters the picture. And please don’t make the mistake of confusing public relations with journalistic reporting.
“The public relations practitioner is portrayed as a paid mouth and spin doctor intent on promoting his client’s interests at the price of truth. The journalist is portrayed as someone who neither distinguishes between fact and opinion nor lets the facts get in the way of spinning a good story. In terms of public perception of both professions perhaps those images are widespread which may explain why both journalists and public relations practitioners tend to be rated poorly in surveys of public esteem.”
“The naïve view that writers must be devoted to separating fact from opinion and telling the truth needs to be qualified. Fiction writers, such as poets or novelists, may be using a fabricated story to express a truth about the human condition. In that case we may concur with Coleridge’s comment – “That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. In order to gain the intrinsic value from a piece of writing we may need to turn off our empirical or common sense critical faculties.”
“In the case of both public relations and journalism the related notions of trust and truth are central to their professional activities. At a simple level most journalists require that the reader believes their story is true; most public relations practitioners aim to gain a primary public’s trust through a belief that what is said is true.”
“In the financial and commercial sector transparency is often given as a key prerequisite for gaining trust. In the fifteenth century merchants swearing an oath had to do so with their hands above board and in plain view so they could not cross their fingers.”
“For “hard” journalism and public relations transparency of the identity of the communicator is of paramount importance. That which matters from the perspective of the media user or public relations audience is the identity of the individual communicating. Audiences and publics should disregard “soft” communicators and judge the extent to which a message should be given credence from the perceived trustworthiness of the individual making the communication. This would preclude “soft” public relations practitioners hiding behind the “cleft stick” that they were simply advocates for their client’s cause and so avoiding moral responsibility for what was communicated. Public relations practitioners sometimes claim a parallel with diplomacy, that one is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country. It may be bad form to execute the herald or messenger but in a metaphorical sense to preserve the integrity of “hard” public relations it is a necessity.”
– “Public Relations and Journalism: Truth, Trust, Transparency and Integrity”, by Frank Davies, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, U.K. (PDF)
The “truth” as applies to early music lies in the performer’s adherence to historical principles in interpretation. Or at least it used to be so. Much of what is being passed off as an historical performance has as much verisimilitude as any modern production of a play by Shakespeare. Directors are forever altering the play—cutting, slashing and burning large blocks of script premised upon a lack of understanding of the original dramatic intentions or, more often, misguided perceptions of limited audience attention spans. The same is true of most concerts of early music. But publicists are paid to try to convince you otherwise. Attend and enjoy as a modern concert experience. But don’t believe the hype.
It’s been quite a while since we posted a short essay on recording the lute; in fact it was nearly six years ago, right around the time we initiated our series of weekly Saturday quotations. The post was not part of our regular Saturday series and readers continue to stumble across the essay as a summary of what is rather a multidimensional issue. Six years of performing live and recording have passed since the original post and we pause to consider those many dimensions. In the interim the entire field of making and distributing recordings has been turned on its head, and we revisit the topic with some additional insights and observations from a few different perspectives.
Since we 1) pride ourselves on having built our reputation as early music specialists from entirely outside of the conventional commercial mainstream world of early music, and 2) we work with a budget that frequently involves counting out pennies from our jar of loose change, we learned to record on a shoestring and have developed a working relationship with a handful of recording engineers, none of whom had previous experience with our particular sort of music.
Our first complete recording was engineered by Dean Baskerville, who at the time had just been honored for his work with pop singer Sheryl Crow, and he kindly sandwiched our project in between sessions with the band Everclear. Dean embraced the challenge of recording our music with enthusiasm and pragmatism. When Donna was carefully positioned in front of a very expensive microphone that Dean had chosen, her first words were “I’m probably the only singer in the world who has never dreamed of being a recording artist.” Dean successfully put her at ease and our very first test recording, a song chosen because of its range of lows and highs, turned out quite well.
We went on to record our first CD, Divine Amarillis in less than 10 hours time, including mixing, mastering and one single edit where we spliced a better complete second verse on one song. If you aren’t involved in recording, you might not understand—or care—that this is a bit minimalist. The end result was not exactly what we had hoped for but we had drained our meager finances by moving across the country and decided to just leave it the way it was.
A few years later (2009) the CD won an award for the best “classical” vocal recording on behalf of an organization called Just Plain Folks. We have no idea who entered the recording in their competition—in fact we kept deleting the notices telling us that we had won an award until they finally sent us a very direct personal message. What this experience told us was that our particular approach to music appealed to a very broad audience, and we have since taken it as a challenge to continue to reach that broad audience by categorizing and cataloguing our recordings of very transparent early music among many diverse non-early music genres. Judging by the number and diversity of people who contact us with kind words about our music, it has been a successful move.
We have since worked with a number of different engineers across the country and it has been a learning experience for us and for the engineers. The first thing we do when working with a new engineer is have them read an excellent article, “Recording the lute”, by John Taylor, published in the (UK) Lute News No. 62 (June 2002). Taylor has recorded some of our top lutenists and his observations translate as essential baseline information that every engineer should know before they even plug in a microphone. His first observation is that the lute “is impossible to play” and that playing the instrument is like constantly “walking on eggshells”. Taylor discusses optimal microphone placement and the different ways one can manage recording in a very resonant space. But the beauty of the instrument’s sound and the reinforcing synergy of the space can be completely undone if there is the least amount of background noise present.
Other perspectives from those involved in recording early music can often be quite applicable to the process of recording the lute, for instance Ralph Kirkpatrick’s detailed description of recording the clavichord. We can also learn from producers with experience in recording a broad range of early vocal and instrumental music. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood had this to say about recording a viol consort:
“Tempermental, fickle and bolshy, [viols] can simply refuse to come out and play. If the executor is tired or under strain, the viol like Fido will have the sixth sense to follow his master. The challenges for player and producer can therefore become compounded by ‘organic’ period instruments: the sound of a viol consort changes in minutes, the instruments affected by temperature, humidity and clammy or frozen hands. Early takes can be fresh and alive or under-nourished, even scratchy. There is no knowing how quickly the sound will settle and gel.”
– Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, “A question of balance”, Gramophone Early Music, Winter 1999/2000, pp. 48-49.
Anyone who has attempted to record the lute can draw an exact parallel from these words. The main difference is that the lute is even more difficult to manage because it’s even more lightly-built and the fingertips of both hands are involved in tone production at a microscopic level of detail. Freeman-Attwood also points out the differences between a live concert and the rigors of the recording process:
“Adrenalin flows in a live performance but often needs to be manufactured in a studio when the piece in question may already have been played six times in the past hour – without an audience – and still calls for a thrilling extra take at the crucial moment. Musicians can get tired, disillusioned, and plain difficult, like anyone else. Added to which studio nerve is quite different from the steel nerve a performer must wheel out for the exposed solo in a live broadcast. Here, it is all about setting the mind to do the job again and again: as if for the first time after it has gone wrong; then doing it again when someone questions the effectiveness of the articulation; not getting over-wrought when your best take is ruined by the Concorde; then yet again when the producer tells you it’s infinitesimally flat.”
– Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, p. 45.
In the Lute News article referenced above, John Taylor lays out for all to see the soiled linen of the world of lute recordings by pointing out that most recordings are spliced together from many takes, right down to individual notes if necessary. He estimates that the average lute recording has at least 200 edits, and that it is rumored that some recordings have up to 2000 edits.
Despite this very modern standard of manufactured perfection, we are committed to performing music that has genuine human emotional content. We are also committed to working with a minimum of technological interference, and our current recording projects are all completely live—meaning we perform each piece until it is right from start to finish. The resulting recording may not be absolutely perfect, but it is perfectly human.
Just as civilization has witnessed the decline and disappearance of once great historical cities and important cultural landmarks through plain ignorance or outright malicious machinations, such has also been the case with the understanding of the performance conventions of historical music. For centuries, trained singers fully knew how to sing their music with a complete understanding of the hexachord and its mutations, and how to spot where, when and why to apply implied sharps and flats. But not today.
With a millennium of notated music at our disposal we have a very modern luxury of dipping into all manner of historical music. But every genre of historical music possesses the common characteristic of an ever-changing and sometimes ambiguous set of stylistic conventions, many of which were never described and preserved for posterity. At the onset of the early music phenomenon, it was quite common to hear performances of 12th-century monophonic songs on the same concert program or recording as a chanson by Sermisy and a set of Elizabethan lute songs. While there seems to be a bit less of that among today’s professional early music performers, one is nevertheless still subjected to a significant slathering of the performer’s personal interpretive quirks; modernisms applied to a mix of chronologically and nationally diverse musical styles. Simply sight-reading old music will never result in a transparent, sensitive and empathetic rendering based on a deep understanding of important stylistic details of a particular era or genre.
This is particularly true of vocal ensembles. One finds an attitude among trained singers that since they can manage to read the notes on the page, they merely require a good full-score edition with the proper marks and they can sing anything that comes their way. But with most early music, modern editions can vary wildly in quality and accuracy—and in the proper notation of accidentals. What many modern musicians (maddeningly) call musica ficta actually refers to the editorial application of information that was omitted from the original source material—omitted because historical singers conventionally knew when and how accidentals were applied. And they were required to use their ears since they typically sang from individual part-books rather than a full score.
“Late-medieval notation operates on linear planes, symptomised by the persistent use of notation in separate parts for vocal polyphony, a presentation which is not designed for simultaneous visual control by one musician. This linear quality obviously applies to mensural notation, with its dependence on contextual evaluation, and I now believe it to be equally valid for the notation of pitch. In late-medieval terms, as already stated, a note may be identified in isolation as a semibreve; F, but the actual sounding pitch of the F in relation to other sounding pitches is as dependent on context as is the precise duration of the semibreve. The context dependency operates in two ways: visually, from the individual notated part (i.e., what the singer would do in monophony or expect to do in polyphony unless forced to do otherwise); and aurally, from the process of listening and adjusting to simultaneities that may require the singer to do something other than scrutiny of his own part would have led him to expect.”
“What singers of the time did instead of depending on visual grasp of the musical entity was to make music by applying their knowledge of contrapuntal simultaneities, acceptable sounds, to the incompletely prescriptive notation. No notation has ever been fully prescriptive, and the success of a notation depends in different ways on the kind of musical equipment to be presumed for those who realise it. Late-medieval singers were in a very real sense collaborators with the composer in making the music happen—realising it—within the limits of his intentions. Those limits included the possibility of different realisations, of different actual sounds at some but perhaps not all places which are underprescribed by our standards—as indeed they do for many later repertories demanding initiatives from the performer.”
– Margaret Bent, “Diatonic ‘Ficta’” Early Music History vol. 4, 1984, p. 14.
Singing early music requires more than modern sight-singing skills, and showing up and reading your part, however accurately, is simply not good enough if singers wish to sing music of the 15th and 16th centuries without committing musical barbarisms. A basic understanding of the hexachord and how hexachords overlap is fundamental. And finding a trusted editor is essential, because it takes a significant degree of compositional understanding to accurately place those little sharps and flats in parentheses above the notes.
And those little notes are not optional. The reason they are in parentheses is because a conscientious musicologist attempted to create an interpretive score that provides intelligent singers the necessary information while following proper editorial procedures. That is to say the editor is not adding arbitrary information to the original source but instead clarifying what has been left out—because historical singers didn’t need it.
We have mentioned this subject before here and here, but it is surprising how frequently the matter becomes a topic of discussion and debate. One despairs. Singing early music without a proper understanding is the aural equivalent of the unfortunate restorations of historically significant art and architecture we have seen of late.
Lutenists familiar with vocal polyphony have a much greater insight into proper application of accidentals because historical tablatures clearly mark their use. It seems apparent that the only ones who really understand the application of sharps and flats in vocal polyphony today are lutenists who sing.
THE IDES OF MARCH
Just as, amid cabals of his treacherous court,
Suspecting each rich curtain of a knife,
A king broods heavily,
Even so, aware that flesh and bone are restless
With secret news and undefined intention,
Sits on his shaking throne my winter soul.
– H. C. Long, Poetry, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Dec., 1915), p. 133.
Ever since Shakespeare came up with the effective dramatic construct of the Soothsayer with “a tongue shriller than all the musicke” (The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Act I, scene ii), the Ides of March have had an uneasy and ill-fitting association with portending doom. The Ides of March signified something quite different historically, before the season became tainted by Roman political machinations.
It turns out that the Ides of March originally marked the festival of the Roman deity, Anna Perenna—not to be confused with Anna Karenina, yet another tale of treachery and retribution. March, the month of Mars, was the beginning of the old Roman year, and the festival of Anna Perenna fell on the occurrence of the first full moon of the year, the Ides of March. As per Ovid, the festival was celebrated at the grove of the goddess and was renowned for much licentious merry-making involving libations and lechery.
And as for the murder of Caesar, scholars across the ages have attempted to unravel the crime:
“On the Ides of March the plebs celebrated the Annae festum geniale Perennae (corresponding to the chief day of the Hindu Holi) near the banks of the Tiber (Ovid, Fasti iii. 523-42, 675-96). Rome was, therefore, empty of the lower classes. Is this why the nobles chose the day for the assassination of Julius Caesar?”
– C. M. Mulvany, The Classical Review, Vol. 19, No. 6 (Jul., 1905), p. 305
The current time of the year means something altogether different to adherents of the Christian religion, festivals of old Roman deities having become quite passé. But as singers everywhere prepare for the rigors of Holy Week and a jubilant Easter, we slip in a slightly bawdy nod to the Roman festival with a song by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c .1513 – 1556) who, like all thinking people of the 16th century, led a more integrated life and tempered his enormous output of sacred music with the occasional frivolity.
“We need to have our cake and eat it, keep our finger on the pulse, take to the field, be in the spotlight, make the best of a bad job. Once out of the tunnel, once the goose is cooked, nothing gets in our way, we keep our eyes peeled, a needle in the haystack, the tide turns, television takes the lion’s share and leaves just the crumbs, we’re getting back on track, listening figures have plummeted, give a strong signal, an ear to the ground, emerging in bad shape, at three hundred and sixty degrees, a nasty thorn in the side, the party’s over…”
– Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016), Numero Zero, Translated by Richard Dixon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2015.
Clichés tend to surface as any fad or phenomenon peaks, declines and begins to wear out its welcome. So it was for the Roman Empire. So it was for rabid and merciless capitalism in the US. So it has become for early music, a fad that gathered strength and momentum in the late 1960s and 1970s and probably peaked by the fin de siècle. The medium of dissemination and transmission of early music was, strangely enough, the digital CD.
“The CD will be seen within a history of industrial design as the quintessential product of the 1980s-clean, shiny, a beautiful object in itself which creates a perfect, pure sound. It is the ultimate fetish object which allows the listener the ideal state of disavowal of the body of the performer. The particular ideology of sound of the 80s was one of purity and cleanliness, of static-free, interference-reduced, pristine brilliance. It is precisely this ideology which the English a cappella groups represent.”
– Donald Greig, “Sight-Readings: Notes on “A cappella” Performance Practice”, Early Music, Vol. 23, No. 1, Flute Issue (Feb., 1995), pp. 124-148.
The CD is now an emblem of days of yore, the days before the public was convinced that their activities, interests, knowledge, entertainment―their very lives―could be compressed into data to be accessed via a plastic phone that fits in your pocket, requires an expensive monthly payment, and works sometimes. In the age of Google, the CD, the English choral sound in early music and the solo lute recital are now all passé.
While it is possible that an interest in early music in general and music for the lute in particular could be fostered and sustained, it turns out that the very organizations that are dedicated to promoting early music actually act to limit access and exposure. At least in the US, these organizations are built upon cliquish connections and an unfortunately misguided idea of exclusivity, promoting the same artists that have been in the game for 30 years, with rare and occasional opportunities for a few students of those long-lived artists. In essence, these organizations are nothing more than fan clubs.
At the beginning of the early music phenomenon, the stereotyped lutenist was a nerdish teen in a turtleneck or a crusty oldster who, like Arnold Dolmetsch, probably made his own instrument and plucked the poor thing with purpose, using a right-hand technique indistinguishable from that of Andres Segovia. The next phase saw those nerdish teens mature and inform themselves just enough and, while keeping the turtleneck, they procured better instruments which were played with pointless velocity. Then along came the marketers who turned a quote from a positive concert review into a tired cliché, which the susceptible audience bought for a while. To be fair, some of those long-lived artists ditched the turtleneck and managed to maintain a sense of discovery and enthusiasm for their music.
Now the stereotyped lutenist is anyone who can afford an instrument; mostly mature males with a comfortably safe retirement account, or young classical guitarists with the parentage and wherewithal to buy a lute and spend several years studying in Europe. It is an unfortunate reality that today middle- or lower-income musicians who show promise will never have an opportunity to afford a lute and, more importantly, certainly never have the opportunity to spend the several years of study it takes to play the lute well.
The Lute Society (UK) has for many years maintained a rotating stock of lutes that may be hired, and some prominent luthiers have made it a point to make affordable higher quality instruments available especially for students. The US lute society has recently warmed to the idea of obtaining and hiring instruments (which I proposed to an unresponsive board in 2000), and one wishes them well in this enterprise to enhance access to instruments. But one hopes this gesture is accompanied by a sustained and nurturing approach to offering young students of all income brackets the time and attention it takes to develop not just mechanical technique, but a quiet, attentive mind necessary to understand and appreciate the instrument and its music. Otherwise, it’s still a fan club.
The ancient symbolism of Fortune’s Wheel, randomly turned at the capricious whim of the goddess Fortuna, strikes us as much more appropriate to describe life’s ups and downs than the less reality-based myth that honest hard work always results in success. Today more than ever, a successful career is really the result of having been born in happy circumstances, or otherwise the serendipitous result of having stumbled upon the right connections. Plain and simple.
The idea of blind luck guided by the fickle hand of the goddess Fortuna applies to all but is particularly applicable to those who choose to dwell in the (increasingly absurd) political realm. William Baldwin alluded to the phenomenon in his preface to the Mirror for Magistrates (1559), a collection of poems:
“…whiche might be as a myrrour for all men as well noble as others, to shewe the slyppery deceytes of the wauering lady, and the due rewarde of all kinde of vices.”
But we get ahead of ourselves. The idea of Fortune’s Wheel is as old as the origins of the wheel itself, and dates to the earliest surviving records of a civilized culture, as demonstrated in David M. Robinson, “The Wheel of Fortune”, Classical Philology, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct., 1946), pp. 207-216.
“Whoever first conceived the idea of the wheel―whether in Babylonia, where solid wheels were known as early as 3000 B.C. and wheels with axles as early as 1600 B.C., or in Egypt, where actual wooden wheels with bronze rims have been found as early as the fifteenth century B.C. and from the fourteenth century in Tutenkhamon’s tomb―made a wonderful invention. It assisted the progress of civilization and the means of transportation. But, even if the wheel was known before the Greeks, the metaphor of the Wheel of Fortune, I believe, began with the Greeks.”
– Robinson, p. 207
Leaping ahead in time to the age of Shakespeare, we read that the theme of the Wheel of Fortune applied to those who would rule was a common concept, as quoted from Raymond Chapman, “The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare’s Historical Plays”, The Review of English Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1950), pp. 1-7.
“The uncertainty of kingly state is sometimes described in medieval literature by the Latin formula, regnabo, regno, regnavi, sum sine regno. It is impossible to determine whether these words arose from the Fortune-theme or had an independent beginning, but by the end of the Middle Ages the two were inseparable. The four states of the king correspond to the four positions on the Wheel of Fortune―rising, ruling, falling, and cast off. It is often maintained by medieval writers that the act of getting on the Wheel at all is voluntary, and that those who aspire to greatness expose themselves wilfully to the vicissitudes of Fortune. This view is developed by Boccaccio, who describes how he saw in a dream men climbing a wheel with the words ‘I reign,’ while others, falling, cried ‘I am without reign’.”
– Chapman, p. 2
More specific to the plays of Shakespeare, Chapman identified many textual references to the ever-turning position of the wheel, particularly in the history plays.
“Fortune raises men to the seat of kingship or casts them down from her ever-turning Wheel. This conception of a relentless alternation of rise and fall is clearly susceptible of extended dramatic treatment. It is the pattern which lies beneath Shakespeare’s history-plays, particularly as a linking theme of the great tetralogy. Throughout Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, he had the regnabo formula in mind. As well as direct references to Fortune, there are metaphors of rising and falling to describe the changing luck of the chief protagonists.”
– Chapman, p. 3
Fortune’s Wheel is a familiar theme in poetry throughout the ages, and thus pervasive in musical settings. “Fortuna desperata”, an anonymous song (some attribute to Busnoys) composed around 1470, was extremely popular in its original three-voice format, but was also fodder for quotation, expansion, decoration and arrangement, including a handful of mass settings by luminaries including Obrecht and Josquin. Arrangements are found as late as 1560, surprising in an era when musical tastes were in rapid transition.
An excellent anthology of versions of “Fortuna desperata” is Fortuna desperata: Thirty-Six Settings of an Italian Song. Edited by Honey Meconi. (Recent Researches in the Music of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, 37.) Middleton, Wisc.: A-R Editions, Inc., 2001. Meconi believes the musical qualities of the piece, nominally in the lydian mode, ensured its ninety-year lifespan, and that the reason it lived on was because the “superius and tenor are each well-constructed and memorable, and [were adaptable due to] the beguiling melodic and rhythmic simplicity of their lines” (p. xvi).
Apart from the musical qualities of the song, the textual theme of the ever-turning wheel of Fortuna still resonates with all thinking persons capable of self-reflection. For those interested in the historical symbolism, a worthwhile and enlightening discussion can be found in the 2012 dissertation by Mary Lauren Buckley, Fortuna desperata: a study of symbolism.
We have mentioned the theme of Fortune’s Wheel in the distant past in relation to our CD, La Rota Fortuna, a recorded tribute in honor of the 500th anniversary of Francesco Spinacino’s 1507 book of lute music, the very first published music for the lute. The recording features vocal versions of several pieces Spinacino arranged for lute solo and duet, providing some insight into the popular music of the time. Judging by reports of streams and downloads, the most popular track on the CD is our heartfelt and rhythmically supple rendition of “Fortuna desperata”, which may be heard here.
With time flying, as it must, with events reported instantaneously by the ubiquitous 24-hour news outlets, as they will, we are offered a microscopically-detailed view of the ripening and eventual demise of many cultural icons. Surely this is due to a serious overabundance of cultural icons dwelling in a seriously overpopulated world, but there you have it. Individual readers might be mourning the recent loss of their own favorite actor, writer, pop star, or real musician, but among our most cherished cultural icons, Umberto Eco occupied a very prominent position.
Umberto Eco was appointed Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna in 1975, having previously made a particular study of medieval aesthetics as later published in his Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1986). Aside from his many collections of essays, other favorite novels by Eco include The Name of the Rose (1980), Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and, more recently, The Prague Cemetery (2011). As an indication of his universal popularity, even Eco may have found a bit of twisted pleasure in the fact that all of the above books may be had today for one cent each.
We have quoted Umberto Eco on more than one occasion and, when it comes down to a summation of the reason we bother to publish this blog, there is absolutely nothing that can be said that Eco did not state more eloquently.
“…It would hardly be a waste of time if sometimes even the most advanced students in the cognitive sciences were to pay a visit to their ancestors. It is frequently claimed in American philosophy departments that, in order to be a philosopher, it is not necessary to revisit the history of philosophy. It is like the claim that one can become a painter without having ever seen a single work by Raphael, or a writer without having ever read the classics. Such things are theoretically possible; but the ‘primitive’ artist, condemned to an ignorance of the past, is always recognizable as such and rightly labeled as naïf. It is only when we consider past projects revealed as utopian or as failures that we are apprised of the dangers and possibilities for failure for our allegedly new projects. The study of the deeds of our ancestors is thus more than an antiquarian pastime, it is an immunological precaution.”
― Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language
While we don’t necessarily agree with all of his viewpoints, Umberto Eco captured the essence of our age and he will be missed.
“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”
― Umberto Eco