Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tradition and Renewal

All our institutions are constantly in a process of decay: politicians becoming more corrupt, schools getting worse and worse, bridges corroding, highways degrading and on and on. But civilization is like a house; it has to be maintained. You need to repaint from time to time, do a thorough cleaning in the spring, replace that water heater, maybe replace the whole roof every twenty years. So alongside the processes of entropy go the processes of growth and renewal.

The state of classical music is often bemoaned as being worse all the time. As the Globe and Mail said the other day:
The support structure for classical music is fast disappearing: Record stores, by and large, no longer exist; newspapers have reduced their coverage of the arts (among other things) in response to cataclysmic changes in that industry; schools abandoned music education a decade ago; the CBC basically stopped recording concerts as it changed formats; and, social media has made marketing all cultural products a new ball game.
As well as this there is another, more fundamental decay going on: the ossification and corruption of traditions. This includes a whole host of performing traditions. In their first generation, new ideas of performance are refreshing and striking. But after a few generations of slightly less-creative artists doing much the same thing, these traditions become less and less alive and more and more moribund. I am thinking of things like a particular kind of rubato, or timbre, or way of handling a phrase or dynamic inflection.

Now here is the interesting part: when a genuinely new generation of creative artists come along, wanting to break with the past, the usual strategy is to announce just that: a new approach that breaks with the past. But what if that ideology, the ideology of modernism in the 20th century, had been flogged to death? But what if you still had a new approach? You might claim that what you are really doing is returning to the traditional, or historic, values. And this is the Early Music, Authentic Instruments, Historically Informed Performance movement. It takes a genuinely new approach to some traditional repertoire by going back to what was initially claimed to be historic precedent.

But now that mask can be conveniently set aside and artists can simply say that, inspired partly by an examination of historic documents and traditions, they are actually coming up with some new approaches to the repertoire. Because, like everything else, the old or "current" approaches are getting pretty threadbare.

This is all inspired by my finally listening to Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 1991 Beethoven cycle which is truly refreshing. Even though he is known as a founding member of the Early Music movement, these performances are, except for the natural trumpets, on modern instruments, but with a sensibility quite different from that of the 19th or earlier 20th century one. Here is a brief clip of him rehearsing the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven.

UPDATE: I think my favorite quote in that clip is when he says that we always find beauty on the edge of catastrophe.

When I am done listening to the whole set I will do a Retro Record Review of the discs, but in the meantime, have a listen:


Shantanu said...

You are a romantic, Bryan!

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a scary thought! What kind of romantic do you think I am and why do you think so?

Shantanu said...

Why is it scary? I think it gives you a better vision on how things can be made better. Anyway, it was only a vague impression I get every time I read a post - maybe the statement is too sweeping to be true!

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, I see. In that sense perhaps all musicians are romantics. I thought you might have meant that I am a Romantic in the historic sense: having some kind of relationship with the Romantic music of the 19th century. In that sense I think of myself as more of a Classicist.

So in the sense you meant, thanks!