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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Generative Musicology

As a long-time observer of musical trends, I've seen first-hand how established musical institutions - such as the symphony orchestra -have attempted to hold their ground against a steady but persistent onslaught of disruptive attacks from alternative modes of cultural engagement.

Orchestras get attacked from all sides. They operate under an old school brick and mortar business model, and like the failing news print business, function with the overhead of high operating and personnel costs. Their base audience of wealthy old people, tend to die off rather than expand. The new generation of active concert goers seems less interested in rehearing the great orchestral war horses and more interested in new and alternative musical experiences.

The avant garde has all but abandoned hope of performance by mainstream musical venues, and have setup shop in more intimate spaces: including the museums, cafes, and Internet. But they have never gained enough wide-spread support to grown into anything other than a fragmented specialist's ghetto.

However, there is a vibrant a counter-cultural cultural current that has truly resulted in cracks in the foundation of Boston's Symphony Hall. The Early Music crowd has attained gravitational strength, and a sizable economy of musical commerce now revolves around this maturing star. Every other June the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) runs a marathon concert series, including an opera or two, public lectures/master classes, and a trade show. It's evolved into a significant music festival. The Boston Herald described it as "the early-music equivalent of the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup and the NBA playoffs all rolled into one.”

I'm a little jealous about the BEMF. A while back an attempt was made (by composer Charles Fussell?) to mount a similar music venue dedicated to contemporary music. It would have been called the Boston New Music Festival (BNMF) and been scheduled on alternate, even-numbered, years so as not to compete head-on with the BEMF. Not surprisingly, finding sponsorship proved next to impossible, and the project never got legs. The last major International new music event that I can recall Boston hosting was the ISCM New Music Days in 1975. Gunther Schuller was instrumental in forging that large and successful series, but nothing on that scale has occurred in Beantown since.

This spring Boston is especially buzzing with people from all over the world who have traveled to Boston for the BEMF. While the organizers have scaled back slightly in measured response to the current economic climate, there does not appear to be a significant decline in the core business of Early Music. People just like it, and are willing to vote with their time and dollars to support what I like to call "new" old music.

As a practicing and still breathing 21st century composer, I follow all of this musical excitement with great interest and a bit of scepticism. Art music has always been obsessed with performing the works of dead composers, and Early Music advocates continue this morbid practice with a semblance of glee. But the demand for discovering and rediscovering so called old music seems almost insatiable. Musicologists have been at work overtime scouring dusty archives in search of works that eager early music ensembles are begging to bring to light. It's as if there were a hot market today for new works by long forgotten composers. Deep down, everyone wants to hear something new, even if it's not.

The public's thirst for "New Early Music" is so strong, that some musicologists have begun to synthesize their own versions of it. To me this comes across as a little forced. Is the need for original music so great that musicologists need to invent it in the laboratory? It reminds me of a dynamic in the socio-medical realm. Since there are not enough organ-donors to go around, we have to make do with mechanical hearts and kidneys because of unequal levels between supply and demand.

I think there is peril in creating "historic" music willy-nilly (even if it is well-constructed and historically informed) simply to fulfill the insatiable expectations of a public thirsty for a particular breed of music? The creation of an artificial musical entity reminds me of the ethical questions raised in Mary Shelley's famous novel about the creation of life: Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein created a monster who was assembled from the body parts of previously living humans, and it got out of control.

The music in question, which I read about but did not hear, was an extended work based on a biblical story by 16th-century poet Marko Marulić. The original poem had no surviving music, but Croatian musicologist and singer Katarina Livljanić devised her own musical setting based on various chant sources. The Biblical Story from Renaissance Croatia was turned into a theatre work and code named the"Judith Project." It was premiered at the Ambronay Festival in 2006. Livljanić directed her group Ensemble Dialogos in a performance of this work last night. The review of the Tuesday evening concert by Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe (6/10/09) ended with the following observation: Ultimately, it is an exercise in a kind of generative musicology at its best, using scholarly tools to plumb the distant past with the goal of imaginatively "reconstructing" a new work that, at least in this form, never existed.

My intention here is not to bash Early Music ensembles, talented musicologists, or the acclaimed Boston Early Music Festival and its population of dedicated and ardent followers. Clearly they have carved out their personal and unique musical space, and I admittedly breathe the air of an an entirely different atmosphere. I think we can co-exist. Both New Music and Early Music, as musical sub-cultures, have more in common than in opposition. Perhaps there is even an area of commonality and overlap. Neither faction has easy access to corporate sponsors who would more readily support mainstream organizations - such as a major symphony orchestra.

But it does perk my interest to read that 21st century composers have to compete for the public's attention against composers who never actually existed. The entire concept of Generative Musicology frightens me. The message that it sends is something like: "If you don't care listening to what the contemporary composers have to say, then you can listen to synthesized versions of whatever historical music appeals to you." Thus, a new market has been born, that of mass-produced musical replicas and cheap imitations.

It reminds me a bit of the fashion-trend to go retro. Retailers such as Restoration Hardware offer convincing look-a-like lamps and chairs that at first glance appear to be exactly what our grandparents had - only mass-produced inexpensively in China. It's an interesting phenomenon when our appreciation and fascination with the past is elevated to this new level. It recreates reality anew, like a Hollywood stage set. As with our experience with historic music, it provides an element of fantasy, escape, and intrigue. Perhaps this wholesale embrace of past culture is symptomatic of a benign defense mechanism created to accommodate our general distaste for modernism.

To some extent we have seen this same phenomenon in the genre of pop music, where "retro" performers recreate the feeling and nostalgic memory of a type of music that existed in a long-gone musical era. These artists may or may not perform the actual historic works of the period. Groups like Pink Martini have created a niche by composing brand-new songs that sound like the good old"classics." This is entirely different concept than keeping the musical past alive. It is a "Back-to-the-Future" version of musical engagement, and as with any form of time travel, it comes with risks. One should be careful not to disrupt the forces of nature by distorting the present from creating new musical artifacts of the past. If we do so, it should come with a disclaimer. Let's call a spade a spade. Works of this type should be thought of as new, and presented in a context in which we can more fully appreciate it for what it really is: Contemporary Music.