Monday, November 21, 2016


Early music, the movement, has a diverse community. There are those who are drawn to it as an activity, some who dedicate their lives to research, others to teaching, more still who hope to make their living performing. But what motivates that third group? In Basel, a place which has traditionally been at the forefront of the movement, philosophies of performance are by no means unified, a fault which has many consequences for performers and audiences alike.

I have met many who have not formed their own philosophy, but two are present - those who wish to recreate a work (or performance), and those who wish to translate one. A school is an excellent venue for an attempt at an ideal and there is no doubt that the Schola's dedication to the research of performance practice benefits from these sorts of endeavours. But it is very easy for one's own vision to be clouded when stepping into professional life. This focus on the idyllic is, all-too often, adopted as a false creed ('authenticity', etc.) used to claim some form of authority. 

The truth is that there are so many factors in order to recreate a performance which are out of our control. We would be lead down a rabbit hole - the 'correct' instrument, 'correct' technique, 'correct' posture, 'correct' pronunciation, 'correct' room, 'correct' attire, etc. In fact, a recreative performance is an exclusive activity, demanding that every component to the performance can come under scrutiny (by those 'in the know') whether or not it holds any value to the music-making. And if the performance failed to move the audience despite its strict adherence to 'correctness', it must have been because they weren't from the 17th century. You know how I feel about that. Furthermore, if we are essentially reenacting a performance, what is the purpose of it?

Aspiring towards translative performance differs in crucially from a recreative one in that it is an inclusive activity - or, at least, I envision it as one. Translating a work for a modern audience is, in fact, what most early musicians do, whatever their intentions, yet the claim of authority is often mistakenly upheld. In accepting that we perform for a 21st Century audience we liberate ourselves from that snowball effect mentioned above. Think about it. A translator, like a 'curator' (I use this term only for lack of a better word), requires a deep understanding of the original language if he or she is to be faithful to it. They must understand its grammar, its pronunciation, its idioms, but most importantly the spirit of what is being said. In capturing the spirit, a whole new repertoire is unlocked for those who would otherwise be unable to access it.

I must contend that there is no balance between recreative and translative activities. Translative activities incorporate all of the necessary training, equipment, and contextual awareness that recreative ones do but accept that The Performance stands as paramount to the endeavour.

Though curiosity is a tool to draw audiences in, it can't be the sole motivator, otherwise retaining them would be extremely difficult - doubly so for repeat performances.

After reading this, ask yourself what your intentions are with early music, whether as listener or performer. As a listener, do you want to listen to performance duplicated even if it means you don't understand it or are unmoved by it? Do you accept as a performer that, despite your best efforts and intentions, no performance can recreate a previous one? I can do my best to argue my point, but it is You who must decide for yourself.


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