Thursday, March 09, 2006

Still at home in the 19th Century

John Quiggin of Crooked Timber has a nice item about the relative youth of much that we accept as "traditional", with some striking (excuse the pun) examples. It's really quite true for music as well -- very little from before the 19th century has remained a continuous part of "the tradition" (earlier musics had to be rediscovered, or were adapted to later performance practices), and a lot of the issues that musicians confront today -- the modern piano in equal temperament, the romantic orchestra and the instrumental technology that it represents, operatic vocal technique etc. -- are issues associated with 19th century innovations and conventions. And the phenomenon is not only a European and American one: the Court Music repertoire and practice of Central Java, for example, is a colonial-era style, and the trinity of great classical composers of Carnatic music (Tyagaraja, Muthiswami Dikshitar, and Syami Sastri) were, in their prime, contemporaries of the European romantic composers.

Practically everywhere you turn, walls appear (delineated by what? the Enlightenment? Colonization? Nationalism? Modernism? Secularlism? Capitalism? the Industrial Revolution?), before which memories become vague, and after which explositions of invention took place, explosions from which, apparently, we have not yet recovered.

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