I’m slowly recovering from a really fun gig last night as part of West End Baroque. I now have even more admiration for Alexander Reinagle, and his introduction of the fortepiano to American opera orchestra pits. Why? Well, it’s quite dark in the Drake, and I was using ForScore on my iPad so that I didn’t need to have lights to read the scores. The piano has black naturals, and in the half-light, in my peripheral vision, the keyboard was just a sea of indistinguishable black. I’m not quite sure how I managed to get my right note average up to an acceptable level, until I started using the stand lights that Alison had brought along – pointing at the keyboard instead of at the parts.
note the Star Trek playing cards propping up the piano legs
I particularly enjoyed playing Niel Gow’s The Flaggon as a piano solo, just going round and round it until I thought the audience’s attention was starting to wane (although some later told me I should have kept going longer). That’s what comes of playing a gig so soon after hearing Philip Glass playing Music in 12 Parts in its entirety last weekend. But after playing quite a lot of notes myself last night, the tune that is stuck in my head is Thomas Calvert of Kelso’s Downshire Camperdown Quick Step. Come along to our fiddle band gigs to hear it again …
Listening to the radio in the car this morning I heard the great version of Lord Macdonald’s Reel recorded in 1986 by Aly Bain & Lee Cremo, chosen by Lady Claire Macdonald for its ‘inherent Scottishness’. Oddly enough, it’s the same tune that the Höökensemblen recorded on their first album of music from 17c and 18c Swedish manuscripts, where it’s called ‘Englische’. Ha!
I was at TradTalk on Saturday, where I’d been asked to kick the day off with a toned-down reprise of a deliberately combative talk I recently gave in Newcastle about ‘The problem with “traditional”’. I thought it was a bit of a brassneck to tell a group of people I really admire who call themselves traditional artists that ‘traditional’ doesn’t really mean anything anymore, but I got away with it, and it was a fascinating day.
Definitions of traditional music (especially the famous one from 1952) date from a time when classical music was considered the norm for theory and cultural policy. When you don’t have to differentiate everything from classical practice, which is itself a bit of an outlier and quite unusual, you soon find that everything is traditional: is there any art that isn’t to some extent dependent on inherited characteristics or practices? And the problem with defining only some art as ‘traditional’ is that all traditions change, so pretty soon something that’s outside your definition is going to find its way in, and vice versa. This may not be a big deal until you start using the term ‘traditional’ as part of your national cultural policy, or you suddenly find yourself on the wrong side of the borderline, whichever that wrong side may be.
I’ve never found the exercise of defining things or practices particularly interesting of itself; I only really get engaged when the defined things start to interact with one another. I mentioned this to my more philosophical colleague Martin Parker Dixon, and he told me that rather than sticking with Aristotle’s ‘individuated substances’, I was moving towards the Buddhist philosophy of ‘dependent co-arising’ or Pratītyasamutpāda. Similarly in higher education, disciplinarity purity is becoming an outmoded concept, in favour of the encouragement of porous boundaries. Occasionally I get asked what kind of music I’m involved in, and I usually mumble something about being a keyboard player and being interested in lots of different things. But putting it in terms of the interaction between two individuated substances, where I often work is in the relationship between historical and traditional ways of looking at the past.
Anyhow, precisely as I was standing up at TradTalk spouting forth on this subject, Radio 3’s CD Review was featuring our new album Purcell’s Revenge, and in her review, Anna Picard had quite a visceral reaction against it. It’s always exciting when someone reacts strongly to your work either way; I think relatively few artists would prefer what they do to function as wallpaper. You can hear her reaction here at about 2h13’40. To me, the most fascinating part of what she says is this: ‘Heard separately, the different components in this disc which unites early music specialists, folk music performers … I would like each of these elements separately, but somehow bolting them together just makes me feel really quite distressed’. This is a much more revealing reaction than ‘and I really don’t like the constituent parts either’ would have been. She earlier says ‘I’m worried that this disc has unearthed a deeply buried ultra-conservative streak in my tastes’.
I don’t take pleasure in distressing people, but this admirably honest response to our record says some very useful things. (I’m big enough not to take offence at ‘bolted together’!) Specialism in itself is very important. If you want to get really very good at something, you have to figure out precisely what it is you have an aptitude for and sufficient interest in, and that can often turn out to be a very specialist area indeed. I spent a couple of decades working mostly as a continuo player on harpsichord and organ when such beings were still quite rare, albeit one who might spend the morning before a gig writing and recording music for TV. The difficulty with having a specialism is that you can then fall into the trap of assuming that you can only collaborate with people who share it. When you do collaborate in this way, this can of course be uniquely rewarding and valuable, but it’s not the only way to work. Keeping everything in ghettos as ‘individuated substances’ is not good for art or for society.
In music, have we become so habituated to operating only in specialist zones, that when we reach out across those now-porous boundaries, some of the audience actually find it distressing? At the TradTalk discussion on building a life and career while earning a living as an artist, porous boundaries were very much in evidence, as it’s becoming ever more difficult to earn a living as a specialist musician: in the present economic climate this will probably continue to be the case. For early music folks, the days of well-paid CD recording sessions every day are well and truly over, and in traditional music in Scotland, there’s a fast-growing community of talented and knowledgeable young musicians chasing gigging opportunities which are not growing much, if at all. Is it time for multiple or changing specialisms to be the norm? I certainly wouldn’t want everyone to end up in a grey mush of having much the same set of skills: think how dull that would be.
But after the experience of Saturday, I’m now finding it much easier to think about our forthcoming fiddle band project – we start rehearsing four weeks today! I was getting anxious about how the various specialists were going to communicate, or not: can we combine traditional music, historically-informed practice, source studies, dancing, and make it all comprehensible (and enjoyable) as an experience for an audience? It’s only taken a little practical experience of porous boundaries in action, including a bit of stepdancing with Mairi Campbell at TradTalk, and everything seems easier, and less distressing.
P.S. There’s a website redesign on the way. The gallery stopped working: that’s why there’s no behind-the-scenes Purcell photos up yet …
The Edinburgh International Festival launched its programme this morning, and it looks rather good. I was curious to see what music would be included at this stage, as the classical music programme was launched separately some time ago. Sure enough, The Hub is going to be an amplified music venue, long overdue as part of the festival. It’s a wonderful space, but to be honest a difficult venue for acoustic music, so I really hope they can make it work.
But I am rather perplexed at the separating out of classical music from the rest. Yes, its audience wants a list of performers and a list of pieces rather than an account of the experience, and the core classical European festival audience books its diaries up months in advance. However, the implication (hinted at here) is that other kinds of music have more in common with the rest of the arts world, and therefore, unlike their precious classical cousins, they can exist in the same performance spaces, and be promoted and discussed at the same time.
To be honest, I agree. The classical music world and its way of doing things can at times seem utterly disjointed from other forms of culture, and to an extent irrelevant to them. I moan about this a great deal. But separating it and its audiences further from the rest of the arts is no way to do anything about it.
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