Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Depths and Dimness, part 2

One of the things I wanted to get to yesterday, but could only hint at, is how much our view of the past is influenced by the fact that it is our view, from our perspective. I was outraged the first time I encountered Richard Taruskin's brilliant discussion of the Early Music Movement and particularly the concept of 'authenticity' that was so important. He pointed out, against considerable protest and resistance, that the values of modernism: crisp execution within strict tempi, for example, were precisely the values that were supposedly the 'authentic' ones of early music performance. Why? Well, because it was musicians from the same generation that were both creating modern music and re-creating Baroque music.

This brings me back to my sardonic remark of yesterday: "why does all ancient music sound like Carl Orff?"
 Well, it doesn't, of course, but any musician/scholar of today is going to be unconsciously looking to come up with something that sounds 'ancient' and since there are no models, then the primitivism of Orff will inevitably lurk in the back of one's mind. Ancient music notation is so vague and confusing that it is like a Rorschach inkblot upon which we can project whatever is on our minds. Here is the Orff piece:

At the root of both modernism and the search for ancient music are the same aesthetic values. As Taruskin points out, early music performance is precisely 'authentic' if it does reflect our aesthetic values. How else could it be?

But still, the urge to hear, to understand music that is far from us, like capturing an image of a moon of Saturn in a flyby, never quite leaves us. But we will only be affected by the music if we do somehow share aesthetic values with it. Often, like the music by Carl Orff, we will be merely projecting our aesthetic values on music that may not share them... The book to read is the collection of essays Text and Act by Richard Taruskin.


Jon Silpayamanant said...

Very nice--I don't think I'd read Taruskin's book (though had obviously come across his viewpoint elsewhere).

Sometimes I feel like our attempt at re-creating the past musics as being a bit anachronistic, which was something I discussed in my undergrad thesis. We use our current musical values to inform our sense of how we thought past musicians and composers would have viewed their music.

The same thing happen with the Soviet program in creating all these variant 'standardized' art traditions in the satellite countries (Central Asia, Balkans). Some of those countries didn't have an art music tradition, but the idea of having one was so important for the idea of a 'mdern nation' that we find that in, say, Bulgaria the folk music became institutionalized or in Azerbaijan the creation of a hybrid Mugham/Classical music aesthetic.

In China, after the rush to create symphony orchestras to play the "Revolutionary People's Symphonies and Opera" the country eventually modeled traditional music ensembles in a full symphonic ideal and we now have hundreds of traditional Chinese Orchestras with batteries of erhus, pipas, and other traditional instruments.

I think that as long as we understand that these are modern interpretations of what we might think could be done, then that is fine--but if we think that the only value lies solely in creating the sense that this is the only way it should be done, then we have a problem. It's really the descriptivist vs prescriptivist idea we see in language. Where the prescriptivists believe and act as if their formalistic and privileged way of using language is the only one of value (sometimes with the conceit that this is the only way "civilized" people use language).

Anonymous said...

I agree with the view that recreating the past is an illusion at best. All those 19th c restorations of stained-glass windows that looked perfectly authentic at the time now look so... 19th c. And as Joshua Rifkin pointed out, we're blessed not to have recordings of Bach's Passions in Thomaskirche, because it must have sounded pretty bad. (Bach's own diaries tell us so: "one third of my musicians are competent; one third can't play a thing; and one third never show up.")

But in his desire to be contrarian, I think Taruskin may have missed the point. Forget authenticity, the acronym is HIP, for historically informed performance, and what's wrong with that? We know for a fact that the baroque repertoire requires special training to be done right. Bach may be one of the most plastic composers (I enjoy his Chaconne in Dm more on the guitar than on the violin), but all the great Bach conductors need to immerse themselves in Lutheran theology to do it right (that's what being "historically informed" also means.) Karajan does Brahms better than anyone but his plodding Brahmsian St Matthew Passion is an inferior product. Why? Because Karajan never bothered to become a Bach scholar (which would be a lifelong project, which is why no one I know has ever conducted both Bach and Brahms properly).

Also, there's the sheer fun of different sounds. The viola di gamba is truly one of the great instruments and listening to it send shivers down my spine. I think variety is a great thing and, for that alone, HIP HIP HOORAY!