Medieval futures II

Thoughts about the future have been popular here, so once again it is time to take up what will apparently become a series. Medieval music has become increasingly popular, to the point where it is no longer a negligible appendix to classical record sales. Artistry aside, commercial aspects strongly suggest that its influence on subsequent music composition & performance will only increase. As we move into 1999, we are at a historical crossroads, and millennial thoughts seem to herald medieval ideas even more strongly, both for the sense of history and the patterns which emerge. As a simplistic historical progression, we can consider the centuries of Western art music by threes. Although it was employed previously, polyphony came into its own in the twelfth century, so starting from there, the Ars Subtilior concludes the first three hundred years. The second tricentennial brings us past the Renaissance and pre-Baroque, as the third opens with the codifications of the major/minor system per se in Fux & Rameau. Of course, it closes with us. The next generation of art music will have a wider range of influences than ever before, both from around the world and throughout history, and it is into this highly charged environment that medieval music now finds itself centrally placed.

This wide range of influences can have various ramifications, especially as they fold back upon themselves. The influences are not only relevant to composing new music, since the performance practices themselves borrow elements & ideas, especially from world music into medieval music. Although some examples have come to the fore of late, the borrowing is by no means new. In the 1970s, Arabic instruments and styles were popular in the performance of French medieval music, only to fall out of favor, and come back. The cycle almost seems like that of popular fashion clothing. One specific trend in performance style, as we move into a post-authentic phase born of increased knowledge of a finite set of facts, is that various influences are reinjected immediately into the public's apprehension of new old art music. The idea behind post-authentic style is that our level of knowledge regarding performance can only take us so far into the totality of sonic details for a musical creation, and so at some point we must fill in with something else, even after accommodating "all" of the available evidence. Thus far, most of this filling has been useless fluff... sometimes worse than useless, such as the refusal to articulate which can plague these performances... but artists are seeking other ideas to charge their performances. Due to basic similarities with some world music traditions, they are natural places to look for ideas, but for a truly post-authentic style, the ideas must then be welded more carefully to what is known of early Western style. This will come in time, as performers are not trained in a day.

Influences from Western music also filter back into world music, and so things become increasingly jumbled. There is still something to be said for purity of tradition, and there is certainly a place remaining for the most straightforward medieval performances possible. Although fusion music presents a wonderful creative outlet, I also believe it presents many dangers. Some ideas can only function to full effect in their own space. In the case of medieval music, we are trapped between creating a living "space" in the first place and keeping it empty enough for some breathing room. One thing I insist upon is that nuance & clarity are crucial to medieval performance, and that descending into the kind of bland nothingness which can afflict these interpretations is not a way to preserve space. However, there is no question that it is a "stable" or "peaceful" quality which has made medieval music appealing to general listeners, and so it is important to reconcile these notions with the details of the situation, both to find an interpretive stance and to understand how medieval music will affect subsequent musical endeavors. The key distinction is that medieval music as a whole is generally more subtle. Its complexities are not forced down one's throat, but rather exist in a latent form which must be actively grasped by the mind. It presents a surface of still water, teaming with life underneath.

Contrasts with typical presentation styles in today's world abound. Not only is medieval music less aggressive or indulgent, but it evokes a broader historical backdrop to the frenetic world of progress. As people become more caught up in the pace of life, and the increasing adaptations required of them, perhaps they begin to crave a stability which can be found both in the medieval art itself and the fact of its historical perspective. Although ideas of "escape" may come to mind, the effects can be more real. Even for someone who glories in the moment, an understanding of the past intensifies the present, and gives added weight to groundbreaking ideas today. This has always been the paradox of thinking about the future. Beyond that, as we look for permanent and sustainable solutions to the problems of today, the very stability of the medieval worldview becomes a matter of inspiration, if only obliquely so. It is, however, this very seductive sense of stasis which can serve to undermine the credibility of medieval music in the aesthetic domain. The nature of the reinjected ideas arising from post-authentic performance is not necessarily rationalist, and although this aspect opens up a plethora of avenues for artistic exploration, it also clashes most strongly with the preoccupations of the modern world. Rhetoric has become fundamentally rationalist, and so while the most revolutionary idea needs lateral thinking to develop, it must adopt another mode to sell itself. Fortunately, a solution to this paradox is only impossible for the rationalist, and medieval music has been almost insidious in its creeping success.

The proposed centrality of medieval music arises primarily from its relatively closer approach to various world idioms, and consequently the potential for a unifying thread in what is otherwise a disparate hodgepodge of musical ideas available to modern composers. Although different traditions certainly retain their own individual strengths and intricacies, the medieval perspective allows one to begin to perceive commonalities in development, allowing one to find a coherent stance from which to incorporate one or more differing ideas. I claim that this is the central aesthetic problem of postmodern art music. Finding a voice requires either the extremes of isolation or cosmopolitan knowledge, and the pastiche which the latter initially provokes can only be "cured" by a deeper understanding. It remains the task of the artist to internalize something fundamental and to articulate it in some way, but the required inversion of stimulus into cogent expression cannot be done without a boundary. The medieval strand of music history provides one such boundary. The musical material itself also provides a new emphasis on nuance as well as profundity without grandiosity. These traits, illustrated so well in the medieval repertory, are essential to grounding an artistic vision in real human experience. Small basic elements can drive the continual rediscovery of tradition most powerfully.

Administrivia: This project will be on hiatus over the holiday season. I hope everyone has an enjoyable time. The next column will be in five weeks. Sometime prior to that, the Medieval Record of the Year for 1998 discussion will appear.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb