Contemporary early music: the presence of the past

 

Reading Bruce Haynes’ The End of Early Music, an excellent exploration of the performance movement generally referred to as the ‘early music movement’ or HIP (Historically Informed Performance), a couple of things struck me as relevant for contemporary composition:

I’m beginning to realize that, just as all concert music – even that of last night’s New music concert – is music of the past. Whether we use the style of three hundred years ago or the style of ten years ago, or ten days, it is some kind of tradition we are using; the only difference is the age of the tradition. A style ten years old has to be self-consciously learned exactly like a style of three hundred years ago. The issue, it seems, is a matter of how far back you feel like going.

This underlines the relative meaning that should be given to the concept of  ‘contemporaneity’.

Also Haynes talks about ‘period composing’, what some HIP performers occasionally do, like the performer/composer in pre-19C times. This is a practice naturally resulting from improvisation as part of HIP practice. He describes a theoretical possibility of a style copy which, in the same time, is original:

…. a copy, not based on any specific original, that is so stylistically consistent that experts cannot discover anachronisms or inconsistencies in it; a correctly attributed ‘fake’.

This gives something to ponder about. What are, nowadays, contemporary composers really doing? Referring to the style copy, Haynes goes on:

The particular work is quite original, but the vessel in which it is contained, that is, both the genre and the style, is fixed and constant – new wine in old bottles. This is the way Baroque composers composed their pieces: within the conditions of a shared convention. And this runs directly into a diametrically opposed starting point of New music. Most modern composers are involved in inventing a system, a style as it were, for every new piece. Actually writing the notes can be less interesting than developing the new medium. New and unique bottles, wine unspecified.

Is period composition ‘mimicry’, ‘parody’, ‘plagiarism’? And if so, can period performance not also be accused of these things? To which extent is present-day ‘regular’ performance style of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, etc. also a form of HIP? Why would period performing be allright but period composing not? Haynes calls the taboo on period composing ‘chronocentrism’: composing should be exclusively in modern style, whatever that means.

This throws-up the question of whether reflecting ‘the present’ should be an imperative for contemporary music. To begin with, ‘the present’ includes the existence of ALL music of which scores are available. Concert audiences frequenting performances of the ‘canonic’ repertoire are not listening ‘periodically’ but aesthetically and psychologically. The availability of so many different musical traditions, both Western and non-Western traditions, create the situation of musical pluralism, consisting of different musical traditions next to each other. In such a situation, ‘pastness’ seems to be irrelevant: everything finds itself within the continuum of direct presence.

For contemporary composers, it seems that there is much to learn from the HIP movement. The liberation from court and church as commisioning institutions and the development of the composer as an independent artist, is an improvement which provided the opportunity for infinite exploration of creative fantasy, as the 19th century shows. But eventually, contemporary composition destroyed itself in splintered isolation and irrelevance, due to many different factors as emerged in the 20th century.

Haynes offers a couple of examples of present-day period composition, written by two German woodwind players, Winfried Michel and Matthias Maute. Audio samples of these pieces can be found on www.oup.com/us/earlymusic – but can only be listened to when in the possession of a copy of the book (which is fair enough). Also he mentions the existence of a guild of ‘composers of the contemporary Baroque revival’ to be found at www.voxsaeculorum.com

Of the three samples Haynes mentions in the book, I only found the third (track 72) convincing in artistic terms; the other two are, in my opinion, mediocre at most, and as boring as so much run-of-the-mill Baroque compositions by second- or third-rate composers of the period proper.

Bruce Haynes: The End of Early Music; a Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century

Oxford University Press 2007

John Borstlap / 2013

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