Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cult of the Past

Classical music is a very backwards art form, culturally. Perhaps this is a reason that the classical music world has such a hard time recruiting young people these days. The worship of men that have been dead for hundreds of years and the dwelling on their music must seem alien to the majority of people. This sort of 'anti-progressive' attitude has been building for a long time. At one time, classical music was the popular music, at least for the upper classes. This is probably a true statement into the late 1800's. But at the same time as classical music was forward leaning, fast developing and hugely popular, introspection began. This sort of intellectual nostalgia probably started with Mozart and his classical era contemporaries looking back at scores of Bach and Handel for inspiration. This set a precedent--almost every composer since has looked back to Bach in one form or another.

Not that looking back to Bach is such a bad thing, he's one of the greatest composers ever. But looking back intensely creates a tradition-based form of music that becomes very inflexible. Perhaps one of the best ways to demonstrate this effect is to listen to recordings of baroque music before 'period performance' or 'historically informed performance' was developed. The music from the 1700's was literally played the with the same approach as it were composed in 1870 or latter. This might not sound too bad, how different could the approach be, it's all classical. Merely listening to such recordings will answer that question. They make baroque music seem boring, dull, insipid, simple and first and foremost inferior to later music. Nothing could be further from the musical truth.

A giant irony is the fact that the savior of this retrograde is a movement that looks to the past even more intensely and further back than most 'ordinary' classical musicians. In effect they look back harder in order to start to look forward. In this way they have created a new sense of discovery in music. The contemporary composer is still caught in an undervaluing era, but classical music has shown it can look forward, even if it is done through a backwards glance.

For the first time is many years one can say, 'I was alive when that was happening in classical music.' Not a small detail or a particular composer, but something big. A new movement, a new way of looking at things. The movement goes by many names, most recently Historically Informed Performance, or HIP.

HIP might sound dry, like a music historian's lecture sprinkled with musical soundbites, but it is not. The idea has perhaps been in any intellectual musician's head for hundreds of years: 'How was this work by this composer originally preformed?' But it began as a movement of sorts, with practices and practitioners, perhaps in the 1960's. It gained steam very slowly, such that only now are we in a heyday of the movement. It began with dissatisfaction with the results of performances of baroque music--people who knew baroque music was better and more exciting than what it sounded like in modern hands, especially Bach and Handel (Lesser known baroque composers especially Italians were not yet seen as worthy equals to the Germanic Bach and Handel who's musical style more resembled modern styles).

The beginning of the quest for HIP goes back to the question of what a particular piece originally sounded like and what the composer intended it sound like. But the real nexus of HIP was to start from scratch to research old instruments and find how they differed from modern ones. Once the original hardware was in place musicians could move on to more complex matters.

What the HIP researches found was striking. First the hardware: baroque instruments sound fantastic, and I would argue have a superior depth of tone and color. The early HIP performers were more or less handcuffed by their new instruments. They were quieter, darker, and hard to play in the way musicians had been taught their whole lives. Whether explicitly or not, many early HIP's began to feel like they were working against inferior instruments which they were compelled to use dogmatically for historical accuracy. It took a long time to get totally over that hump and play the old instruments on their terms alone. As it turns out they are just as capable as modern ones with one disadvantage that must be kept in mind; they are not as loud. We are now to a point of virtuosity, intellectual understanding and expressive connection with HIP instruments that a Vivaldi Violin concerto played by the same violinist on an old and new instrument will sound better on the old one stylistically, expressively and tonally. Even in the hands of an expert of Baroque interpretation, the works sound better on the original instruments. HIP performers have gotten that good.

The second striking discovery was just how good and prolific Baroque music is. Now that we are on top of the HIP movement every composer of the Baroque seems better, including Bach and Handel. But the composers who've benefited most from HIP have been the Italians, particularly Antonio Vivaldi. Before HIP no one understood how to preform in the Italian manner. Such composers trusted the preformer more, as was their musical culture. Improvisation and the creativity of the performers played an important role in bringing the music to life. Expressive extremes were encouraged (but not necessarily ordered). Objectively, the role of the musician is smaller under Bach's approach. Baroque music of all sorts began to be considered on equal footing with music of other periods.

The third striking discovery is the most forward-looking; what musicians can learn from HIP and baroque music in general. HIP is so widely accepted and popular now that many violinists are experts at it while also being 'modern' violinists (this is still quite rare on other instruments). This is true of some of the best violin talent of our times.Violinists such as Viktoria Mullova and Giuliano Carmignola 'have it both ways.'

Most generally what the classical music world has learned from HIP is flexibility and open-mindedness. Not all great music must be from the time of Mozart to Tchaikovsky played by a huge symphony orchestra filling a giant hall. Great music is played by forces great and small playing things written in many eras. A new liberating level of expressivity has become the norm. HIP has taught musicians not to be slaves to composers but collaborators with them. Baroque composers expected improvisation from performers and different results on different occasions. Most baroque scores leave many expressive details blank, allowing the performers to fill them in. Later composers began to spoon feed musicians with markings which explained every detail of performance. This practice in turn led to a handcuffing of the performers that over time led to a lesser flexibility and creativity in performance among musicians. HIP has effected even musicians not interested in baroque repertoire, because it has created a new independent sensitivity and open mindedness among performers in classical music in general. In a sense working, preforming musicians are taking back music, making it there own more, because of HIP and what it has taught us.

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