A commonly heard derision made towards period instruments and historically informed performance is, “Where will it all end?! With Bruckner? With Bartok?!” The fact that Philippe Herreweghe, among others, has made several compelling recordings of Bruckner’s symphonies and masses on instruments of late-19th Century specifications, interpreted in a style gleaned as possible from historic treatises, criticism, and recordings notwithstanding, the response can easily be, “You ain’t heard nothing, yet!” The mistake of many “Traditionalists” (for lack of a better term, as their traditions are no more or less traditional than are those of period specialists or radical reinterpreters) is to see historical performance as a phenomenon unto itself, rather than as yet another function of the current normative postmodern – insofar as postmodernism can be normative – paradigm. Gone are the days of positivist claims to objective progress in an art consumed with conservation of masterpieces. Today, little is too old-fashioned to be revived. Styles don’t go out of fashion, but are reappropriated in a new context, by virtue of creating a new statement, ensuring a new relevance. Without a universal, common language, truth value and authenticity are determined not by the object appraised, but by the conviction and consistency with which it is presented. This holds no less true for popular idioms than of Renaissance motets.
Where the difference lies is in the attitude of commoditization that dominates popular musics. They are the stuff of the now, with practice less unstandardized and uninstitutionalized than classical music, with its conservatories and well established ethos of conservation of things past. It’s no great leap to go from inherited performance traditions on 19th Century repertoire to exploring forgotten and misunderstood methods and repertories of the few centuries before that. What of Prohibition- and Depression-era blues, a genre often left unnotated, the documentary material being principally on shellac. This would seem an immense advantage, to have access to the authors’ own renditions of their work. Without the critical distance of a score, however, it becomes all too tempting and easy to resort to the replication of form, without internalizing and redefining. This is the cardinal sin for historical performers: parody, to deny one’s self and one’s surroundings by replacing in an imagined place and time, the equivalent of a badly done Renaissance fair. If Kitsch is defined as the expression of something pro forma, or with its signifiers through vagueness or lack of specificity reduced to meaninglessness (think of Vesti la giubba – an aria sung by a cuckold while contemplating jealous murder – as the soundtrack to a pasta sauce commercial featuring a happy family, with no intended irony), then the avoidance of Kitsch must be a primary concern for the revivalist.
A way to avoid this is to call upon the “period ear” (the musical analogue of the “period eye”) to identify the signifiers embedded in a work, in its gestures and formulae; decipher them according to their commonly accepted meaning at the time the work was written; translate those meanings through the filter of one’s own experiences and identity, personalizing the material; and then express those meanings as is relevant to the performer through the medium of the music and text in a way consistent and idiomatic to the chosen style of performance. This is all well and good, but how does someone come to embark upon such an expedition, especially in a genre of music with little preexisting infrastructure and support for such inquiry? Read the results of an interview with Mara Kaye of Ida Blue in part two of this article to learn how she and her collaborators did it!