Friday, May 27, 2011

he knows and knows he knows: taruskin's very wise keynote

I can't tell you the number of times I've sat down to record and subsequently relay my experiences at Performa. There was just so much. For now, the best strategy seems to be to go day-by-day, paper-by-paper.

So, Thursday and Taruskin's keynote. The morning began with the following words:

He who knows not and knows not he knows not: he is a fool - shun him. He who knows not and knows he knows not: he is simple - teach him. He who knows and knows not he knows: he is asleep - wake him. He who knows and knows he knows: he is wise - follow him.

Whether he realized it or not, Taruskin set a particularly inspiring tone for the entire conference. His keynote, entitled "Where we are now," addressed the all-too-often abstruse discourse surrounding Historically Informed Performance (HIP) and theorized methods for "performative rightness" in the present moment: Taruskin called for knowing, cognizance, awareness, wisdom. Noting HIP's 1920s progenitors, Taruskin pointed out that this obsession with how it ought to be is essentially, a modernist impulse. That historically informed performance practices sought to prescribe one way reeks of modernist ideologies; indeed Taruskin's observation (which to me, now, seems painfully obvious; a why didn't I think of that observation) can be clearly posited in rebellious and transformational twentieth-century epistemology. Looking back now on this modernist performance practice, and our current moment--wherein we seek to rebel against these musico-historical mores--one can easily see HIP as the musical equivalent to an Occidentalist view of history, complete with the generalized, monolithic and exclusively Western we.

With an unapologetically post-modern perspective, Taruskin suggested that "Historically Informed"  encompasses a diversity of practices. He asked broad questions: historically informed by whom? for whom? and in what context? He offered these contrasting examples of ostensibly unorthodox HIP. The first was Furtwangler's Bach. Listen, if you will to the following clip, paying special attention to the oft-termed cadenza about nine minutes in.

To a listener bound by rigid (dare I say it, modernist) conceptions of HIP, Furtwangler's Bach is simply appalling. Taruskin pointed out that although--even to the wise ears of the Performa delegates--Furtwangler's playing is deeply romantic, slightly indulgent, and seriously Wagnerian, it creates a connection. That Furtwangler, even in recorded, digitized, and YouTubed disembodiment, was still able to form an ineffable relationship between composer, performer and listener is truly incredible. Furthermore, Taruskin argued that although the playing is indeed romantic, indulgent, and Wagnerian, this type of relationship is historically informed, thus positioning Furtwangler's singular Bach in the realm of HIP.

Moving on to a more contemporary performer, harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, Taruskin noted that audience response--regardless of the performer's adherence to the often arbitrary rules of performance practice--can signify HIP. Sadly, the recording he shared with us is not available on the 'tube. In my notes, I wrote "rock and roll Bach"; sufficed to say, Cooper played the hell out Brandenberg 5. Cooper's performance, in its overwhelming virtuosity, physicality, and commitment, so mesmerized his audience that upon completion they burst into a chorus of spontaneous applause. Thus, although--like Furtwangler--Cooper's interpretation exists outside of generally accepted HIP dogma, it is indeed historically informed: spontaneous applause was common (and documented) practice for early eighteenth-century audiences.

Although he didn't say it outright, Taruskin intimated on numerous occasions the paucity of communication between contemporary performers and their audiences. One could offer a litany of causes for this phenomenon: recording technology, culmination of exoticized/sexualized/generally othered performing body, the conflation of genius and virtuoso that creates distance...the list goes on. However, given my recent reading I couldn't help but think of what Baudrillard and Virilio might have to say. More than merely the disembodiment resulting from and supported by digital recordings, technology itself participates in the detrimental deflation of our personal relationships. Obviously, this is nothing new. I have, however, become in recent months acutely aware of  this detriment in my own life and relationships. I have witnessed, with helpless distance, once meaningful and important relationships crumble at the hands of gChat, Facebook and text messages. Operating under a veneer of concern, the virtual reality created by these devices of technological gossamer provided the illusion of closeness. Their inherent deception--the presumed collapsing of distances via instant communication (this is pure Baudrillard, by the way)--was revealed with the realization that the "intimacy" created through the repetition of disembodied communication only functioned to reinforce the separation and superficiality of virtual relationships. When the time and effort required to craft the friendship was repeatedly replaced by cavalier and careless communiques it was fated to exist solely at the surface, divorced from the depth and meaning it once possessed.

By contrast, I also participated in the creation a relationship completely divorced from virtual identities. The most I can say is that it was exhilarating to craft a friendship, slowly, without acceleration via information. For this reason--whether or not I ever see this person again--I believe the memories associated with the experience will resonate clearly and with more sentiment that those generated by the many years of friendship (mentioned above) rendered meaningless by gChat, Facebook, and the text message.

With my personal experience in mind, I cannot help but think that I am not the only one to whom this has happened. Furthermore, if we accept musical performance as heightened communication--an intimate (and often invasive) touch initiated from a distance but perceived as unsettlingly, and uncomfortably close--we must also accept the deep impact of the aforesaid social reality. More than anything else, this is what I wondered as I walked away from Taruskin's talk. Has HIP become such a formidable practice in our contemporary moment because the idea of relationships--musical or otherwise--is so totally elusive? Perhaps we are not looking to recreate the nuances of ornamental filigree but rather their effect on the listener. Perhaps we are not seeking a prescribed method of performative rightness but rather the freedom espoused and valorized in pre-Mahlerian performance.

So now you perhaps see why it has taken me so long to begin writing about my time in Portugal...

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