Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Depths and Dimness of Music History

I was tempted to title this "Why does all ancient music sound like Carl Orff" but while catchy, it's not quite accurate. This deserves a longer post, but I wanted to put up a few thoughts as an introduction. Here is the problem: what did the music of previous times sound like? This is partly an historical problem and partly a notational problem. Historians tend to disagree even about recent events such as the American Civil War or even the Kennedy assassination. Imagine how much disagreement there could be about ancient Babylonian music.

Music is an ephemeral art--or it was until recording technology was invented little more than 100 years ago. As soon as a piece is performed, it vanishes into the air. For much of human history music was created and played spontaneously. In a few places the need developed to put something down as an aid to memory. Perhaps the priests wanted to be sure they got the hymn correct so the god would not be displeased. This might be the reason that the Hurrian Songs were preserved in cuneiform. Thanks to Jon Silpayamanant for the suggestion. But what are the odds that anything scholars have come up with bears any resemblance to the actual music? It is even a bit of a speculation that what we have is a musical score:
It was the unsystematic succession of the interval names, their location below apparently lyric texts, and the regular interpolation of numerals that led to the conclusion that these were notated musical compositions. 
But the sound of a piece of music can vary immensely even if it is a piece from the recent past. Imagine you had a simple song chart for "My Way". You might perform it this way:

Or this way:

Both ways are "My Way".

It was only in the 19th century that musicians started thinking about the music of the past. Before then, a particularly diligent composer like J. S. Bach might collect and study scores of his predecessors going back a couple of generations, but most music heard was very recent. The exception is folk music, which can be much older. So in the 19th century scholars started digging around in old libraries and unearthed scores going back a long way indeed. The Catholic Church had been preserving chants going back a millenium, but scholars discovered much, much more.

After a while, performers wanted to explore this music as well and in the 20th century a few pioneers started trying to revive Baroque and Renaissance music. At first they played it just the way they would play any music. But then the realization dawned that this music was performed very differently than Brahms, say, or Elgar. In the 1960s and 70s the Early Music Movement was born and we started hearing a whole new spectrum of musical sounds:

I have to end here, but I will post more later...


Jon Silpayamanant said...

Ancient Greek Music--brings back memories of Music History courses and the various recordings of the tunes we listened to. It is such a fascinating topic--early music!

I think that's one of the reasons I enjoy doing so much of the world music I do, if only because then I get to play tons of "early music"--just not necessarily the early music of the Baroque or Renaissance (or earlier) that we are used to in Western Culture.

My undergraduate thesis was actually focusing on the topic of the ethics of early music performance and how an understanding of that repertoire and the composers from that period can profoundly show us the provincial nature of the canon of Western Art, as well as the standard ways of referring to it, very much shape how we view music outside of that canon!

Obviously, we can never re-create that music as it might have been performed--but at the same time, we really cn't even re-create the classical music canonical works as they were performed--at best we used the traditions we grew up learning as a template for re-presenting the works of all these composers that none of us knew personally. And we assume that is enough for our purposes!

Bryan Townsend said...

Jon, the topic of your undergraduate thesis sounds very ideological to me! There is a sense in which it is true, of course, but it is also begging the question.

I'm putting up part 2 this morning in which I bring up the critique of the Early Music Movement by Richard Taruskin.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

I admit it was very ideological and my thesis adviser took issue with some of it as I recall.

The interesting thing is, I unknowingly had restated so many things that many Chinese thinkers had already said about ethics and the ethical functions of our roles in various disciplines. Which was strange as I was actually approaching it from a very Western Philosophical standpoint as I was very heavily immersed in philosophy courses during that time (I think I spend a couple years sitting in on more philosophy courses over my whole undergraduate career than was actually required of Philosophy majors!).

For me, I think the questioning sharpened my focus as it wasn't long after that that I took a very different route in my own music making and education--hence the world music direction and all the issues with ideas of 'crossover' that it entailed.

The other thing, however, that shaped my sense of my role as a performer was my complete immersion in the experimental music traditions. By my senior year and for a few years after that I came to know and perform so many of those works written by, for example, Partch, Cage, Stokhausen, Nam June Paik and other fluxus artists. I was always very supportive of the student composers and would voratiously perform any new works anyone would ask of me.

By then I had pretty much know that a career in, say, a Symphony orchestra just wasn't for me as I didn't want to spend the rest of my life locked into the relatively narrow canon that those kinds of organizations typical perform--especially as I was beginning to understand how there were so many other canons of music in other traditions with, as we've been discussing, incredibly rich traditions to be discovered!