Sorry for the radio silence. I’ve been far too busy procrastinating, learning music, attending concerts, going to bars and parties, learning to drink beer, locking myself out of my apartment and breaking my computer to maintain any form of consistent blogging.
Okay, I also got a fancy new smartphone and have spent far too much time playing Angry Birds. But hey. Pigs deserve to die.
I realise that I’ve spent a fairly lengthy amount of time chronicling the absurdity of my life here in The Hague, but have not really detailed what it was that prompted me to move halfway across the world and behave like a twit in the first place. So I am going to try and form some coherent explanation of my views on early music.
Disclaimer: I reserve the right to modify, change or contradict my views in the future. I also reserve the right to play Devil’s Advocate in discussions for the sake of it, or disagree with the following opinions if voiced by someone that I dislike.
As a general principle, early music can be loosely defined as music from the Classical era and earlier. The final boundaries are a little blurred, as some people will include early Romantic repertoire in the scope of early music, some will argue that it ends with the end of the Baroque period. But generally, if the instruments were noticeably different to those used in modern times, then early music movement will have a foothold.
Of course, much of this repertoire never truly disappeared from performance. Some of it, like the music of J.S Bach may have gone temporarily out of fashion, but still had a presence in the collective musical consciousness. The defining difference in the early music movement of the late 20th century from the approach of earlier modern musicians is that of historical performance practice. This is the practice of researching the instruments, playing technique, musical conception and performance contexts of the time at which the work was first written and trying to apply the extrapolated information to our current performances to communicate as close as possible the musical intentions of the composer.
This ideal of course is impossible to achieve. The information that survives cannot encompass everything associated with musical performance, and the further back in history you go, the fewer sources survive. And naturally, until time travel or resurrection become routine activities, we will never know exactly what any composer truly intended, or how any musician truly performed, as all sources are of course liable to be inaccurate, biased or incomplete at the time of recording, and subject to interpretation in the current time.
This enables many accusations of irrelevance to be levelled at the movement, which is also often regarded as a refuge for lesser musicians incapable of attaining the standards required by traditional ensembles. The ideal of recreating past musical traditions also gives much for early music purists to latch on to as defining points of difference. A performance is often judged not by its impact, but on its adherence to prescriptive notions about performance technique. Because everyone knows that if you perform Baroque music with vibrato, you’re not only a bad musician, but a bad person.
I absolutely believe in the relevance of historical research in informing the performance practice of modern musicians. The relationship between composer, performer and notation was radically different before the end of the 18th century. The relationship between notation and musical practice was also radically different from today, often what was notated was a sketch or basic outline of the piece which enabled the performers to ornament and adapt a piece to make it their own, and different each time it was performed. By trying to understand how music was conceived of in the past, we are able to discover new things in the music that would not have been immediately apparent to us if we looked at it solely from the perspective of the current tradition.
However, I don’t believe that historical accuracy is an acceptable goal in itself. I hate to be that girl at the party pointing out everyone’s ridiculous behaviour, but Bach is dead. He’s gone, along with everyone else from the 18th century. What’s going to happen if we achieve the impossible and play the music exactly according to the intention and conventions of the time? Will we be awarded 500 points and twenty gold stars? Will we become morally better people? And if we don’t achieve the ideal, or choose to ignore a prescription from a source, what happens then? Does Mozart die? Oh wait, that’s already happened…
No matter how much we may wish it were otherwise, we live, perform and are products of our current time. And I truly believe that the early music movement reflects much more about the late 20th century than it does about the time in which the music was written. Speaking for myself, as much I listen to and like the music of the late Classical and onwards canon (Beethoven and friends), I feel swamped by the lush orchestral sound. It’s everywhere. It’s pretty much the standard mode of classical-ish musical expression in our world. It’s not only in art music, but pop, rock, jazz and musicals, in our movie scores, on our televisions, in advertisements, in our elevators, everywhere. And overexposure means it looses all impact.
Modernism came up with a huge number of musical styles that sought to provide alternatives to this dominant sound. However, speaking for myself again, I find it very difficult to connect with a lot of the music that seeks to break with tradition. Too often whilst listening to aleatory, serial or electronic music I feel a gaping chasm between the composer and me as an audience member. I think many composers are obsessed challenging concepts about what music is, what instruments are, attempting to translate abstract philosophical ideas into sound. But I know for myself, while on occasion this can be intellectually stimulating, I often feel that the composers are writing with contempt for me as an audience member, and with the belief that the more incomprehensible the work is, the more profound it must be.
So for me, early music offers an alternative to walls of sound and walls of perceived pretension. When I hear historically informed performances, I get to hear instruments that while totally ancient, for my ears offer a new and different sound and colour. I get to hear musicians exploring techniques and abilities of their instruments beyond what is generally expected in standard classical repertoire. I get to hear new textures and structures, new relationships between musical elements. I get to listen in a way that is refreshing, and to music that I connect with and find beautiful.
Whether the way I as a performer studying historically informed performance practice will understand and perform the music of previous times exactly as it was intended to be performed is I think kind of beside the point. I’m not performing for dead audiences in times gone by; I’m performing for current audiences with modern ears who are searching for something that isn’t offered by the plethora of other musical styles out there at the moment. Studying the way music was thought about and performed in other ages not only gives insight into that music, but gives us space from out own time which then allows us to step back a bit from our prevailing traditions and regard ourselves and our playing with a little more objectivity. We will never be able to recreate music as it was performed in the past. But by attempting to do so we end up creating a new genre, a new style that hopefully fulfils some of the needs and desires of performers and audiences alike that prompted the exploration of old music and styles in the first place.
A guest lecturer here in The Hague the other week was talking about the three goals of rhetoric: to please, to teach and to move. That is what as a performer I intend to do, with historically informed performance practice being one of the tools I can use. And whether Bach would offer me his dead seal of approval or not is pretty irrelevant.