Playing with History YET again
Musical Director John Butt revisits the historical approach to musical performance
Musical Director John Butt revisits the historical approach to musical performance
Anyone who tries to write within the field of critical musicology has to attempt to engage with a range of potential readerships. First, and most obvious is the field of fellow scholars and critics who develop a range of topics that are in part generated by ongoing debates and the perceived needs of the academic field at any one time. Secondly, one has to try and address readers who do not necessarily belong to academic institutions but who in some way share the concerns at hand – these could be interested members of the public, together with promoters and commentators on the music industry. In the case of performance studies and the historical performance movement, there are also going to be interested practitioners, those who actually work in the field even if by no means all also belong to the academic community. It perhaps goes without saying that it is impossible to satisfy all three communities (and doubtless others besides) equally well all the time.
When I wrote Playing with History, which appeared in 2002 after a gestation period of nearly ten years, it was perhaps inevitable that there were going to be some wildly different reactions. Many within the academic field saw it as part of an ongoing debate about both the cultural and epistemological value of historical performance, and they could engage with at least some aspects of its approach. Those who came from the broader community of the classical musical industry could find it extremely timely in the ways in which it tried to link historical performance to the broader cultural trends in music and historical culture during the postwar era.
Others found it either incomprehensible or entirely objectionable (one suspects really only the former). They felt that it was written in a language that appealed only to a narrow and self-serving academic community. I can certainly understand this point – who is not frustrated by the way a so-called ‘discourse’ develops around any particular subject, introducing words that seem almost to become identity badges, and which might appear either exclusionary or absurdly self-important to those outside the field? On the other hand, the idea that language and discourse are entirely stable and transparent to a universal continuum of underlying thoughts is surely a foundationalist myth – you have to join a conversation in order to understand it fully and the distanced observer can entirely miss the way ideas and thoughts are generated in the very act of discussing them.
Finally, on this point, part of my intention in writing this book was to make the tone and level of argument as compatible as I could with the general intellectual conversation across the arts and humanities. It is quite striking that it is often only commentators in the music field who find some of the language alien – and this is an interesting reflection on the way music has often tended to be discussed by its devotees. In short, music as often taught in higher education over the last century or so has often developed its own system of rules and theoretical discourse. It may be that such is the technical knowledge and skill required to talk about the harmonic and analytical aspects of western music that this has often crowded out any direct communication with other areas of academia. On the other hand, it is perhaps not overly cynical to suggest that when the discourse of musicology did actually begin to adopt the language and cultural concerns of the other arts and humanities during the so-called ‘new musicology’ boom of the 1980s and 90s, the discussion and indeed knowledge of musical-technical elements declined almost in direct proportion.
The third community of readers – that of the practitioners – is in some ways the most interesting. There is no doubt that some practitioners found much of interest in this book, particularly regarding the motivations for historical performance and the ways in which there might be productive contradictions between different forms of evidence and applied techniques. On the other hand, some of the most trenchant objections to this book came directly from the community of scholar-performers: where was the useful advice that I could surely offer on improving the state of historical performance? Why had I turned my back on the unqualified belief in the truths that history has to offer in the enhancement of performance? (the moral imperative to follow the dictates of positive evidence and the inference of a composer’s intentions continues to be very strong, often betraying a very specific ideology of classical music culture). Why did I try and absorb and work through the critique of a figure as obnoxious as Richard Taruskin? Why was this book more concerned with words and irritating debates than with the ‘music itself’, surely the central subject of any true musician’s concerns? These sorts of critiques showed most clearly that the book had indeed addressed a significant issue even if it had signally failed in bringing about any change to the situation. The issue was not so much about whether one should decide to do historical performance or so-called ‘modern’ performance, but about whether the concerns of classical music should be discussed in relation to the world around it and the cultures that sustain it.
In other words, perhaps uniquely among the arts, there was still a very strong – let’s call it ‘romantic’ – tendency to see classical music as entirely autonomous, a form of artistic truth that is separate from the messy concerns of the world around it. If this form of religion has the virtue of fervor in preserving its faith, it also has a fatal weakness in its failure to engage both with the debates and with the cultural free-for-all of the contemporary world. This surely heightens the danger of classical music becoming entirely irrelevant and marginalized within a rapidly changing political and economic environment.
The importance of making a case for preserving the culture of classical music has risen considerably since I was writing back in 2002, and it is on this issue that much of my subsequent work has centred, most importantly the relation of art music to the broader imperatives of modernity.
As I have often tried to stress, I wrote this book as a spirited defence of historical performance, not as a dry academic dissection (well, not too dry, I hope!). As one reviewer put it, I’d created a huge amount of hot air, but at least I came down on the right side in the end! Behind much of my motivation was the attempt to identify ways in which historical performance could help to regenerate a music culture that is constantly under threat. One principle I tried to adopt, loosely derived from Nietzsche, was that history and historical thought are worthwhile to the degree that they serve life – in other words, when historical performance revivifies both the performance and consumption of western music. Following Taruskin, I have always been at pains to suggest that the scholarly correctness of the editor is not to be transposed directly to performance practice, even if it is one of a range of necessary conditions of historical study, and that the performance and reception of music must surely relate to more complex historical and aesthetic concerns than compliance with instructions.
So, what has happened since 2002? Have I managed to instigate a more productive and multi-faceted engagement with both the music and performance of the past? Almost certainly not, at least directly, although there has been a general increase in performers who are more self-reflective in relation to their motivations, limitations of knowledge, and degree of artistic freedom. There was even a British orchestra that bought a copy of this book for every member of the band during a particular patch of work. I’m not sure that it gave them any interesting insights whatsoever, but it was clear that the performers did become keener to develop their own ideas and to consolidate their own positions as a result of this semi-enforced study.
There has also been a sense in which many musicians, whether trained in conservatoires or universities, have begun to develop a broader sense of the cultural environment in which they live and work. This comes partly from the general trend towards interdisciplinary study in academia, one which is certainly very productive in what seemed to be – until very recently – an increasingly pluralistic world. (nevertheless, interdisciplinarity is a direction that I might – perhaps unhelpfully – also relate to the management-orientation of neo-liberal economic thinking, by which mergers and partnerships make better monetary sense than the isolated so-called ‘silos’ of knowledge and expertise). By the same token, there has been a general move in conservatory thinking towards making musicians more flexible in their outlooks and more attuned to a world in which a secure place in the factory of musical culture (traditionally the symphony orchestra) is no longer guaranteed for life. Such institutions have moreover to prove to their funders and overseers that their alumni are actually employable and can succeed in a range of valuable careers, even beyond music – in other words, all skills need to be to some extent ‘transferable’. I cannot pretend to have had any direct influence on the culture of classical music performance, but at least feel vindicated in the view that most issues of music and performance do indeed relate quite vitally to the supporting systems of knowledge, practice and finance, and that we ignore the developments here at our peril.
Perhaps the most important development since 2002 has been the sheer expansion of the HIP movement. But any considerations of expansion have to come with a disclaimer – namely, that the recording industry that so sustained the movement from the 1970s to 1990s has declined quite precipitously. Such decline has affected most forms of music – stretching well beyond the classical – and it relates to several issues: changes in purchasing trends, saturation of the market, developments in digital media, and, most strikingly, the move towards streaming platforms. It is no longer really possible to generate any significant income from recording, although this still has a very significant part to play in acting as a calling card for musicians expanding their career in live performance. It would be naïve to suggest that live performance in any classical field is easier than it was in 2002, particularly in the wake of recession and changes of financial priority, but there are arguably a broader range of performance venues and opportunities, even if singly these are no longer able to pay that much. Therefore, it is possible for musicians to make a reasonable living, but often only through an enormous amount of travelling, piling on performances with an astonishing range of groups and often, at least in Europe, in an astonishing range of countries. The interchangeability of musicians in European groups can be quite striking, bringing with it the risk of over standardization, superficiality and uniformity. But it might equally be true that musicians relish working in different environments and with different stylistic parameters. The need to pack in more work has undoubtedly led to an increase in expertise and fluency on the part of a large number of the performers concerned. The number of active groups with a membership that is nearly entirely stable – e.g. Philharmonia Baroque in California and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century in the Netherlands – are perhaps the exception rather than the rule. It is also clearly evident that there are areas of the world where HIP is making inroads for the first time: regions of southern and particularly eastern Europe, and most strikingly, the far east, where Japanese practice, already rich in the early 1990s, has become virtually an indispensable presence in the world of historical performance.
“Just as one might blend historical styles and adopt the patina of a particular period in architecture – and indeed musical composition – why should one not take a similarly eclectic approach to performance?”
On the other hand, given that the total historical reconstruction of any performance is an illusion, one should perhaps not dismiss the pick and mix approach entirely out of hand. Just as one might blend historical styles and adopt the patina of a particular period in architecture – and indeed musical composition – why should one not take a similarly eclectic approach to performance?
Perhaps the crucial issue here is that the sense of engagement and immersion in style and practice that historical performance might bring is entirely diluted if the approach is too casual. But while some of the performers concerned may be ‘lazy’ in their uncritical historical appropriations, it is not necessarily the case that they are going to be equally superficial in every aspect of performance. If we are to think of HIP as a general tool towards a more engaged and immersive performance activity – rather than as an imperative only towards correctness – this automatically opens up the possibility that other tools might serve equally well. Moreover, ideas and historical knowledge inevitably take a while to ‘bed-in’ particularly for performers who might well be playing four centuries-worth of music, from across several geographical areas. And it might take even longer for audiences and critics to appreciate new additions from older styles. Just as I suggested for the changing character of intellectual discourse, it may well be that musical performance itself has a discursive nature that requires the communal development of a new language of expression and gesture.
But one of the things that the expansion of HIP, and the various risks of dilution and trivialization that might seem to come with this, has led to is a ‘new fundamentalism’. In other words, a return to first principles and the call to question all aspects of performance that cannot be historically justified. This also brings with it the assumption that documented or even likely historical practices are automatically better than those that result from guesswork or artistic imagination. Like so many other types of fundamentalism, this one is greatly enhanced by the new possibilities afforded by the web, by which private groups can share information and discuss various historical findings. Of course, the advent of the new media, greatly expanded even since 2002, does open up the potential for a ‘democratization’ of historical performance. The number of historical sources now available on the web is truly astounding. No longer is the necessary knowledge communicated only by salaried experts in expensive journals, but people from a wide range of backgrounds can now share small parcels of knowledge that can be subject to instant scrutiny and discussion. Experimentation through practice and discussions of first principles can now be undertaken on a scale, and with a degree of inclusiveness, that has never been possible before. But it always seems to be the case that greater democratization also brings the possibility of better organized cohorts of local oppression and fundamentalism. The internet facilitates the zealots, those who it has itself partly created, who might set up ‘shaming sites’ with photographs of performers who claim to follow historical practice but who violate the current state of knowledge in one way or another: typical areas might relate to positioning of string instruments, vocal – almost always female – vibrato, issues of string tension and, most egregious of all, those little holes that allow brass players to ‘cheat’ with their pitching and tone production.
If I were still writing from my viewpoint of fifteen years ago I would perhaps be in a better position to judge whether the actual ‘sound’ of historical performance has subsequently changed, whether its practices have become more or less standardized, whether or not there is something more ‘vital’ about historical performance today than was the case in the 1990s. However, given that my practitioner side has taken over considerably from my academic activity during the interim, I am unable to form much of an objective judgment of the state of performance today. Indeed, it would probably be much harder for me to write a book like Playing with History today, since I am simply too deeply immersed in many of the sorts of issues that it attempts to analyse. I should also admit that I now have both the luxury and the curse of a considerable number of performance opportunities, which means that I cannot be equally ‘historically informed’ in each and every one. I have to work most obviously under the immediate imperative of producing the best possible performance I can, so far as the vast range of circumstances allow, so history and her courtiers often have to scramble for the back seat. Perhaps the best I can do at this stage is to sketch out at least some of the aims I have as a performer in today’s culture, and the degree to which these are influenced by my profile as someone who tries to think about the role and function of performance both historically and in contemporary culture. It’s difficult to know how far these aims are typical of historically informed performers today, but I assume that they must be to some extent.
“My approach has often been to try and find ways in which any limitations that historical evidence might imply actually become opportunities for expression or new forms of experience.”
From a more theoretical standpoint I was particularly attracted to Frederic Jameson’s notion of the state of postmodernity as the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, by which the increasingly seamless flow of capital, globalization and the neo-liberal free-market imperatives contributed to a sort of cultural disorientation and historical deafness. In many respects it was becoming increasingly difficult to separate the virtual from the real, the genuine and authentic from the simulacrum. Therefore, an increased interest in history and details of the past became for many a compensation for the loss of local, community and family histories. The apparent ‘sameness’ of the globalized, fully-capitalized world thus lay behind some quite extreme expression of identity politics or fundamentalism. Jameson makes the perceptive observation that Christian fundamentalism, while marking its adherents’ desire to return to the early years of the first millennium, is actually a new phenomenon since it takes place against the backdrop of a fully modernized world, one that is considerably more distanced from the first century than similar movements in the 17th or even 18th centuries. If this notion of religious fundamentalism as essentially a new phenomenon is correct, then it suggests that other movements concerned with restoring aspects of the past – not least HIP itself – are not only just influenced by modern sensibilities: they actually HAVE to be a modern movement.
Obviously, like any theoretical approach, Jameson’s is only useful to the degree that it illuminates something of the phenomena at hand – it is a tool rather than anything factual or verifiable. To my mind it helps bring together various cultural and historical factors that conspired to make HIP so prevalent and indeed so successful in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Obviously, if HIP is indeed a form of compensation, the fulfilling of a particular need during a period of uncertainty and cultural pluralism, coupled with bland standardization, this could be seen as a devaluing of the movement as a whole. But it would surely be a mistake to consider an attitude born of historical circumstances to be necessarily negative – indeed, I could almost suggest that in this light the HIP movement really does become a form of ‘authenticity’, an historical necessity in its own right.