Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Private vs Public

There are a lot of different ways to categorize music. The one that seems to get the most discussion these days is classical vs popular. Other ways are 'high' vs 'low' or 'clear' vs 'obscure', both of these distinctions coming from the Middle Ages. Or even 'chamber' vs 'orchestral' or 'vocal' vs 'instrumental'.

Yet another way that is not talked about very much is private vs public. There are some kinds of music that are specifically designed to be enjoyed just by the performer or the performer and a very few others. This kind of division tends to cut across most of the others. Here, for example, is Masimba Matyatya from Zimbabwe playing the traditional instrument of the region, the mbira or 'thumb piano' and singing.

There are several rough equivalents in Western music. In non-classical genres there is the folk-singer. Though  certainly popularized and played for large audiences, the roots of it are a single performer with a guitar who needs no audience or just a very few. Here are a couple of examples. First some blues by Robert Johnson from 1937:

Then Woody Guthrie with "The House of the Rising Sun":

We can use this one to show the difference between the 'private' version and the 'public' version because later on Eric Burden and the Animals did a rock version suitable for large audiences and this is the one most people know:

First of all, more performers are involved. You can't call it 'private' music if there are five performers and a big audience. But with just one performer, he might be playing just for himself with a couple of others listening in. Lots of cultures have this kind of music. Here is an example from Japan:

The classical Western tradition is not short of examples either. They begin with the beginning of secular music and the troubadours of Acquitaine in the 12th century. A lot of modern performances are very puffed up with a whole lot of instruments and singers even though in the original manuscripts all we have is a single line of melody. Here is a simple version, played on the oud, of a song by Bernart de Ventadorn:

The lute has a host of examples where the feeling of the music is of the performer musing to himself, with perhaps a couple of others listening. Here is some John Dowland, for example:

It is entirely possible that John Dowland, one of the greatest lutenists of the Renaissance, never played for more than five or ten people together at one time in his whole career. The public recital didn't even exist yet and he would have played just for small groups of the nobility in their homes. The same situation applied to the French lutenist Denis Gaultier:

This post is just going on and on, isn't it? I think what I will do is stop here and continue the thought in another post where I will take up keyboard instruments and move toward more recent times. I'll leave you with this thought: the common quality of all this music is that it has a meditative quality, the performer is musing to himself, musically...

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