Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Claiming Authority

As an Early Musician, I have come across numerous philosophies (or pseudo-philosophies) relating to performance. I'm not saying there should be a consensus, but I am troubled that many tacitly assume their reasoning is generally-accepted since there is no real medium for collective discussion on the broader HIP movement. Of those who do make their thoughts known, the most visible opinions on early music performance usually make a bold claim. 'Authenticity', 'correctness', or whatever they call it, is often touted by performers and their agents.

Within the framework of a post-secondary institution, authority matters. Assignments are graded, recitals judged, and an instrumental tutor's word is law. Performances sanctioned by schools like the Schola are often a culmination or continuation of research conducted by faculty and usually aspire to recreate the conditions of a previous performance in the interests of education. I don't question the relevance of these experiments, as there is often much to be learnt from them, but consider the goals of a performance in the context of professional life. Is a recreation paramount, even if it generates something incomprehensible?

Bruce Haynes, in The End of Early Music, a particular favorite of mine, states that "interesting results [are produced from] the attempt to be historically accurate, that is, authentic." On one level I accept that statement, but it's quite a stretch from "interesting results" to "inspired performance" (semantics, maybe). Do the merits of a performance not lie somewhere in the act itself rather than in its conditions? I agree that the movement should have a large 'process-based' component, i.e. the pursuit of better understanding the music and its context, the exploration of period-specific instruments, etc. but how far do we go?

The act of claiming authority immediately instills resistance, not only because it is healthy to question those who do it, but because the requirements to reenact a performance are endless (nor would it even be possible to know if it was a success!). Furthermore it is inviting scrutiny on a performance at a level which has little to do with its very nature.

My worry is that the attitude which brings forth this invocation of privilege is an artifact from our institutional life. There is a danger that it could be perpetuated among future generations of early musicians, especially those who are raised within the movement, if there is no real medium to discuss these questions before minds are made up. It's a dilemma which is possibly a product of being immersed in early music, but I think it's worth considering.

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