The power of recording

We can hardly do anything but applaud the existence of recordings. Not only do they let us quickly find a connection to an unknown work which might otherwise necessitate days of study, but they allow us to quietly ponder a wide array of music at a distance. The latter is especially important today, with the number of individual traditions available to us. Likely the number & availability are bound up together, and I am not one to lament this diversity. If we had a single primary strand of tradition, as we did in the early 19th century, I can hardly imagine what it might be. Somehow, I expect it would involve losing much of interest. Fundamentally, were it not for recordings, there is no way I would recognize as much music as I do. Between concerts & scores, with the difficulties involved in both, I could be exposed to perhaps half in the most gross sense. It would be a different mental image to be sure, hovering between the fleeting and the barely accessible. On the latter, one can hardly perform exegesis from score on more than a handful of works in a year, if any diversity is involved. Sometimes I ponder in amazement how something as complex as a CD could become far more familiar and convenient.

The recording shifts the locus of musical activity, and can change the medium dramatically, as per a previous column. The long-term effects of this can barely be perceived, but likewise the frequent lament as to the state of classical music cannot be correct. It is more likely a transfiguration, perhaps not for the better in every way, but certainly not a death. It might be illustrative to look at its birth, in the era of Mozart & Beethoven... in a time when music both sought a simpler dramatic contour, and saw its potential paying audience increase substantially. This fortuitous combination is precisely why that era achieved historical primacy. The interaction between the aims of the new generation of trained composers and the aspirations of the middle class produced a great deal of energy, which kept up a feedback loop for as long as these two remained more or less in step. Inevitably they fell out of step, and much of the interaction unwound. Inevitably, I say, and I do mean it emphatically. Such a thing is as much coincidence as anything, and likewise not something which can happen often. There were apparently vaguely similar phenomena in both the 13th & 16th centuries, where the first is barely perceptible and the latter is a potential future topic. It was the closeness of this interaction in the 19th century and the strength of the resulting feedback which kept the "classical coincidence" going for as long as it did. Of course, we also had an increased reproduction & documentation capacity.

The latter is certainly telling, or so I imagine, and we have even higher capacity today. Perhaps that means we are establishing a new orthodoxy, and it may only be a matter of denial to say that we aren't. Certainly the mass media is a phenomenon of impressive scope. But we'll continue the denial here, as there isn't much else to do.... If we are forming a new core for art music, I certainly don't see it with any clarity. We could look at my remarks on 13th, 16th & 19th centuries and conclude that something will happen in the early 22nd. I wouldn't make too much of it, although I suppose it could prove true.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

In an earlier column, I spoke about how the random chance of what is first chosen for recording can strongly affect subsequent interpretation. Of course, this effect is particularly prominent with early music, where the repertory has existed for centuries, yet is often being put before the modern public for the first time. As chance would have it, a particularly striking example came to my attention. The English group Henry's Eight is releasing a second album of sacred music by the Franco-Flemish polyphonist Nicolas Gombert on the Hyperion label. Their first disc is not bad, although a bit tentative in its phrasing and overly bland in its choice of ficta (the unwritten accidentals of this music). For some reason, the English choirs often perform this music very blandly, perhaps to compensate for the rather vacuous quality of their own music during the period, but I should not speak too badly of Henry's Eight since I do like their recording devoted to Robert White. And perhaps they have taken a less tentative approach this time, which is believable, although I am sure they retain the bland sound. That sound is especially popular with the typical American listener, who seemingly views this as dull background music.

It is probably ridiculous to talk about a recording before hearing it, but I shall. This is illustrative of my basic ambivalence whenever a new recording of Franco-Flemish polyphony appears, and I feel the need to state it as a sort of exorcism. This is my favorite repertory, yet so few interpretations are fully satisfying, largely because it takes a long time to really get inside this music, to balance its cogency against its impressive thematic development. So while I am happy to see the attention given to e.g. Gombert, and do not begrudge the performers doing as they like, I worry that one interpretation filling a vacuum will tend to keep a stronger one from appearing. Criticism should help with such problems, yet there are so many publications which will rate a Renaissance recording highly precisely because it is bland and unobtrusive that I sometimes become discouraged. However, in this case there is no vacuum. The longest work on the disc, a youthful mass, was recorded earlier by the Huelgas Ensemble. I was very pleased to see that recording at the time, but have long lamented that a major portion of it was filled with such a weak mass! And so I eagerly await the opportunity to read the usually tedious Hyperion liner notes, to see "why" this mass needed another recording, in preference to so many stronger works by Gombert... it ought to be amusing.

Ah, such negativity today... well, I ought to be ashamed, especially as this music is booming and it should be a case of "the more the merrier." So, let me end by contrasting with another Hyperion recording of Renaissance polyphony out of the very same clique of Oxbridge performers, namely the most recent one by Gothic Voices. For this 15th century mass, Christopher Page is nice enough to tell us that he has decided this music "forbids the kind of tranquil performance ... [it] is often given today." So there is definitely some hope, even if this obvious idea is treated as a revelation. Regarding my caustic remark above, I feel compelled to note that in this era (one hundred years earlier) the English music more than holds its own weight, perhaps coincidentally. Now if only someone could convince Mr. Page to spend more than a few days rehearsing this music before recording it... but then, I suppose today a recording is necessary for promoting a concert tour.

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Todd M. McComb