Saturday, August 25, 2012

Brave New World

Between my first and second years as an undergraduate music major I took a summer Early Music course in which I studied and played the lute. To do this I had to cut off my right hand fingernails temporarily, because the lute is not traditionally played with nails as the classical guitar is. It was a fascinating course and the things I learned about sonority on the lute shape my playing of lute music on guitar to this day. One afternoon, as it was a lovely sunny day, I took my borrowed lute out into the quadrangle to do a bit of practice. One older fellow--possibly a professor of English--paused to chat and commented that the remarkably fragile lute must have only a precarious existence in the brutal modern world. Or something to that effect! I don't recall his exact words. Lutes are quite fragile, in truth. Here is a picture of an instrument somewhat like the one I was playing:

As you can see it has an awful lot of strings, which would originally have been made of gut, and a complicated pegbox that sticks out. One lutenist I know had a terrible accident when an elevator door closed on the neck and pegbox of his instrument.

I am reminded of this summer of lute-playing by all the recent stories about instruments being confiscated for non-payment of truly prodigious taxes, instruments being put into the baggage compartment even when a seat was purchased for them and, my favorite, all the instruments of a symphony orchestra being locked up because the customs agents were on strike! I put up a post on this here. Possibly because of an awful lot of publicity, the instruments of the Sao Paulo Symphony have now been released. But the Guarnerius violin is still being held for ransom.

All this gets me thinking about historical trends. This does seem to be a brutal time for classical musicians. It is a strange sort of irony that our modern, compassionate, tolerant, democratic society treats classical musicians far, far, far worse than they were treated in the most autocratic societies of the ancien rĂ©gime. There may be a lesson here if one recalls the fate of the harpsichords during the French Revolution, which purported to bring enlightenment to society: many ended up as firewood. Mind you, one couldn't expect much else from the sort of people who would say "Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest." (Attributed to Denis Diderot and others.)

The process of rationalizing society, which certainly took its first significant steps during the French Revolution, has continued to this day. In the 1880s Bismarck instituted a whole series of social welfare programs that were a model for all modern societies. As the state grows and takes responsibility for more and more of the lives of the citizens, it also intrudes more and more into those lives. However we may feel about this, there are some disquieting consequences. One tiny consequence is having an impact on classical musicians. In a looser world, where agents of the state can make exceptions and use their own common sense, classical musicians can slip through the cracks. Twenty and thirty years ago I commonly smuggled my guitar on the plane with me (even though the airline check-in staff fervently denied it, it fit quite well in the overhead bin in most planes). But now, when things have gotten very efficient indeed and when the ever-finer net of regulation contains everyone, they cannot. The modern state cannot abide any exceptions, not even for things that are termed 'good' like classical music. The customs and immigration officers are autocrats with quasi-military powers and will make no exceptions for mere artists. The hunger of the state for more and more tax revenue knows no bounds and therefore no exceptions. 

Imagine what is going through a touring artist's mind these days. What airlines is it safe to take? Which customs agents can be trusted not to confiscate my violin? Do I have all the proper documentation? Is it really worth it to go on this tour? In my mind is the image of giant grinding machine that grinds everything to the same, fine powder. Perhaps this powder is then used to manufacture all those wonderful things we need in our brave new world. But we seem to be grinding up rather a lot of things that we will miss. I'm not sure that classical music has much of a place in the modern, rationalized state.

Here is that lute piece I was practicing back when I was a student:

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