Reconstructing the past

I had an interesting discussion this past week with John Thompson, who lives in Hong Kong and plays Chinese traditional music. I haven't heard his recordings, and don't want to characterize anything that follows as necessarily representing his point of view, but thought an introduction was in order. He plays the 7-string zither guqin, but with silk strings. This is an ancient instrument, with a very sophisticated and compelling repertory, usually played today with metal strings. So this is an example of HIP for non-Western music, and brings up some natural questions about how the terms might extend across cultures. Of course, different cultures have preserved music in different ways, and we're consequently left with a general question concerning what it might mean to "reconstruct" music from the past.

I'm of the mind that once something is gone, it's gone. If you bring it back, it's something else. In other words, music which has ceased being performed cannot be recovered. Our knowledge of how it may have been serves as a point of departure for our own new creation. In speaking generally of "HIP", I contrast that with music for which a continuous performance tradition exists. While a chain of small links can bend rather far outside a line, it does remain connected to where it was. Something, perhaps ephemeral, remains. Of course, music is the most transient of arts, and one could argue that this distinction is artificial, that no performance can be quite like a previous one. If we accept that it is partially arbitrary, the difference between reconstructed and continuous performance seems illustrative, and goes to the core of what musicians of the "HIP movement" do. In turn, while I clearly value the music dug up thus far, I do not want to fall into the trap of considering reconstruction superior. Indeed, we are seeing threads of continuity in HIP, based on previous reconstruction, and we should see more. As more is reconstructed, the impetus to dig further dampens itself, as the sphinxes are slowly dusted off. But might not they remain sphinxes nonetheless? I think they do, because we will continue to gaze in wonder at marks on the page, without any particular reason to believe that we have heard the sounds which induced them.

The fact that I see the score as induced speaks directly to my view on composition, and indeed reconstruction. One does not write great music beginning with its notation. The thought is absurd. One conceives of music, perhaps performs it, and then attempts to communicate it to those who might not have been there to hear. This idea too is outlandish in some ways, but of course we have examples all around us. The development of notation proceeded only slowly, and I have written before that I do not believe the score can be thought to prohibit something which it could not have notated in the first place, in short that there are always myriad details left unknown. While, for instance, the Ars Nova notation allowed composers to preserve rhythms which could not have been written previously, I do not believe that singers had not sung them! That is a matter of faith, I suppose. Of course, I also believe that a fine performer with superb intuition can resonate with the available information and produce something very compelling. Is that a reconstruction? In the sense of great art derived from original sources, sure... in terms of something approximating what the composer heard, who is to say? For very distant music, there is no one in that position. But that is no worry, because what is our obligation? The more detail we have, perhaps the more inspiration, but there will be no great art without inspiration, and the past is long gone. I am likewise not very fond of people who take a "scientific" approach to history, not that I want to ignore facts or possible insights, but rather I am not obsessed with what can never be known, nor determined to insist that my conjecture is "correct" simply because it is not contradicted. Yet, I remain intrigued by what we do learn. This is no contradiction, I don't think... one must simply remember one's distance without being overcome by it.

The Chinese repertory is quite interesting in comparison with that of the West. Besides Europe, this is the only culture I know with ample musical notation surviving from the medieval era. In the Arabic world, classical music was improvised. Java would be a definite possibility, given the prestigious place of music and the massive literary corpus, but I have not heard anything about musical notation from the period. The guqin repertory survives in tablature manuscripts from the 15th century, thought by many to reflect 12th century sources, and quite possibly to extend to the T'ang era (618-907). Indeed, T'ang court music has survived to some degree, although I have not seen the documents and so should not comment on the performance efforts. Given the decades of argument on the basic musical elements of Western plainchant from that period, and the difficulties involved with 10th century polyphony, etc. it is arguable that Chinese "early music" survives with more precision. There have been attempts to reconstruct it, and I expect this to produce both some interesting music and some possible insights on the endeavors of the West. In India, of course, oral tradition dominates. What is perhaps most notable there is that surviving writing seems to indicate that current practice (pace known modifications) does reflect something of the 14th & 15th century composers whose songs are still sung. This is an example of continuous tradition, and while one cannot make claims as to the precision with which the "original" is reproduced today, which state is actually preferable? I suppose that both, as we have with e.g. Haydn, is rather nice indeed. Iran has another interesting situation, with a presumably ancient oral tradition codified in the early part of this century. Already we see performers making an effort to uncover some of the variety they claim was lost in the codification. Likewise, Indian scholars are exploring some HIP-like questions. This can't help but be illustrative for our own reactions to manuscript remains.

Then what?

As written previously, a true reconstruction is essentially fanciful, but that doesn't prevent the idea from being useful in our search for identification and indeed creativity. Other cultures, China in particular, have an interesting combination of forces working on their traditional music. While, sadly, there is too much willingness to forsake one's own and turn to Western vanity styles, the reciprocal preservation of tradition can be stultifying. While I am happy that styles are preserved, if for no other reason than my own enjoyment, I would be happier were they to live. It is an easy thing to say, but who is to do it?

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Todd M. McComb