Sunday, September 28, 2008


Walking through a street festival in a Frankfurt neighborhood this afternoon, I passed by a group of men (four Germans, one American) playing New Orleans Jazz in a respectable imitation of the earliest recorded examples. They were very serious students of the repertoire and style, and had very carefully collected instruments that were either originals or copies of instruments that would have been played in that era. Although performing at a high level, these musicians were not doing it for the pay, but as a passionate hobby, amateurs in the best sense of the word. Chatting with one of them, it was made clear to me that their interest was in a historically specific and closed repertoire and, indeed, he had complaints about the "inauthentic" performing style of contemporary New Orleans musicians.

This group — and there must be many hundreds just like it around the world — was engaging in a micromusical practice, and one similar in ways and means to that found in groups engaged with many other repertoires. These may be defined in terms of style, locality, ethnicity*, or historicity. In the 70s and 80s, I had contacts with the early music scene (which some even identified as a "movement") which, while having a substantial professional element, was dominated by amateurs, and amateurs and professional alike these shared the intense committment shown by the the musicians I met today in creating an "authentic" reconstruction of a regional and historical style and repertoire, pointedly distinct from contemporary art music. The conservation and persistence of the historical, "classical", concert music repertoire, the interest in historical musics, and the interest in folk and popular western musics as well as non-western repertoire all represent, in western musical life, challenges to a pre-eminent status of contemporary art music. (Interestingly, here in Germany, there are groups devoted to overtone and minimal music which, inspired by examples from contemporary music (including Stockhausen and Terry Riley), have themselves become conservators.)

In a musical environment in which so many micromusics (and some not-so micros, like popular commercial music) are sustained, a contemporary art music no longer associated with the media and instruments of social, economic and political power and authority can only thrive — that is to say, not be reduced to simply another micromusic — through an assertion of independence from the constraints found in micromusics which tend to, indeed may often be defined by, an essential conservatism. On the one hand, this assertion can take the form of absolute freedom with regard to referencing or borrowing from all of these repertoires, cheerfully ignoring the most carefully constructed boundaries of musical conduct. On the other hand, the independence is manifest in an incommensurability with existing musical materials and practices.
* It can even be a historically falsified ethnicity, as was the case in the Barbershop singing movement, which for many years denied origins of the style in African-American communities.

1 comment:

Paul H. Muller said...

The comparison has often been made with painting. There are some groups who keep the candle of impressionism or post-impressionism burning, but for the most part conservation in the visual arts is frowned upon. Music seems to be a captive to its past to a much greater extent than the other arts.

Good Dixieland music is still great stuff. I am planning a trip to Germany in April to hear a Bach Passion on Good Friday at the Marktplatz Kirche in Hannover. Perhpas without the conservators this music would not be performed.

But new music sometimes seems confined to a sort of ghetto until it is seen as worthy.

And I wonder why this is so.