Authenticity & Relevance

One can never escape questions of relevance. Writing generally in 1999, and in 2000, the topic bubbled to the fore. Discussing Ockeghem or Obrecht, it is a theme of relation, a quivering semi-permanent bridge to the past. Is such a bridge real, is it even worthwhile, is it relevant? Do I waste my time? The word "relevance" is in those four titles, but it permeates the rest. I do this why? I must, or at one time, I needed it. Now? Again, apparently.

One can never escape questions of relevance. People ask what I do. Mainly I work with music. I administrate; that is what I say. What is the relevance of that? We have too many administrators, of course, until we do not manage. I spend time with children. I sometimes talk about music, and I sometimes do not. I talk about reading & math, and people immediately see the relevance. It is good that I work with these children to learn the basics of education, everyone can agree. What if I present a discussion on the early history of music? What is the relevance of that? Children can have a chance to think about a different topic, one maybe without right answers.

One can never escape questions of relevance. Answers are very relevant, easy ones especially so. We demand answers! And if the answers are a complicated string of interrelated maybes and washed away empty spaces? Someone will substitute the easier answer. It is only practical, and right, I suppose. We can reduce the middle ages to a few paragraphs, the whats & whys, a few simple impulses. This is what was done, and now I am doing it, and so I am justified! I am expressing myself, and I am justified, because this is how it was done. What a relief.

In the field of historically-something music, we rarely find music-making without rhetoric. Perhaps the rhetoric is not simultaneous, but it is usually implied. We can have the good rhetoric, the complicated stuff which implies so many divergences & possibilities. We can have the bad rhetoric, the unresearched gibberish that screams first of all, "I'm just as good as you!" And maybe it really is, because what is to justify about expression? Our imagination is fired by the past — for whatever reason — and we create some music right here, right now. How can it be wrong? The rhetoric can be wrong, the facts can be wrong, they can be very wrong, but the expression?

It is time to bring back the notion of the authentic performance, a label partially eradicated by the historically-something-something. Well-researched discussions of earlier ideas & expressions are wonderful; I enjoy them very much myself. (I enjoy them because they so often contain such great "new" ideas which I can learn from the past and apply today, I might add.) They are not musical expression, and I will put it as succinctly as this: Expression is authentic. It does not matter why. Relevance is not in the why.

Authentic performance is a very appropriate goal for medieval music here in 2006. We are perhaps past the point where performers are overly tempted to substitute 20th century musical traits for medieval traits; most components of music have at least been discussed in those terms, although it is certainly true that areas such as vocal technique remain stubbornly tied to modern conceptions. The ideas are at least out there, bouncing around, slowly finding their ways into the means of new interpreters. So the technique is there, not accomplished, but available. Where do I see the biggest failing today? Simply put, in the basic mood of recordings... they often seem too tight, too tentative, scared. How many performers are really letting loose?

Authentic performance is about making the music your own. Do not be afraid, take possession, and feel the basic ecstasy of expression, your expression. It is easy to say, but it seems, not so easy to do. Forget the past, because the music is there for you right now.

One can never escape questions of relevance — until one actually does escape them, that is. Art which explodes in the mind is instantly relevant. Why is that? Is the bridge real? What could be more real? What could be more real?

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Todd M. McComb