(Above: Top of the score of For Harpsichord, written for and dedicated to Francis Yun)
I just finished writing a solo harpsichord piece for my dear friend Francis Yun, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan. In writing this piece, I immersed myself in the instrument’s repertoire and scholarship for the first time in my life. It was a journey that genuinely challenged my approach to music. I’ve only scratched the surface, but it was more than enough to get my imagination ignited for the instrument.
Frankly, the resulting piece is a rather odd one, which perhaps reflects the existential loop-holes that I slid through while researching. For example, a page of the score is written in stick-figure notation, there is an embedded theater script, and a pop song is notated in its entirety in figured bass. To give a flavor, here’s a sampling of indications found in the score: “You may take any tempo you like, whenever you like, for however long you like …” “Play with a terrible sense of pitch and rhythm…” “…the stupider this sounds, the better.”
(Above: Performer directions: “…play with a terrible sense of pitch and rhythm…”)
I had a terribly good time writing this piece. Franny and I laughed and then laughed some more as this piece came to life. He was the muse – in fact, I would go as far as say that Francis co-wrote it. Have you ever taken a book recommendation from a friend, and felt as if you were reading with that friend over your shoulder? Francis is that friend. This new work is that book. I had him over my shoulder from beginning to end. The Francis I know is completely woven into the work – his mannerisms, his beliefs, his opinions, his words are in the piece, quite literally. Francis is just as much a part of this piece as I am.
(Above: My friend Francis Yun, at the harpsichord)
This is a core value that I perhaps always harbored, but only fully discovered while studying pre-Romantic music. Back then, the composer did not really own music. The composer’s most active duties involve performing or teaching in some capacity, and the act of composing is a natural and at times necessary aspect of the post, nothing more and nothing less. The Composer with a capital “C” is not a stone deity, as depicted here in Leipzig, but rather a humble factor in a complex equation of collaborative relationships. Romanticism portrays isolation and singularity as heroic, while rejecting any conflicting opinion that stands in its way (which includes Baroque music). I’m starting to think there is nothing divine and timeless about writing music, and there never was – it is merely a lofty construction Romantic Era composers and performers used to generate self-importance.
This notion saw new life in the “authenticity” debates of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement of the 1980’s, where individual people and groups self-righteously claimed (rather romantically) the title of Authenticity. That’s right, period performers acted too romantically. And, when it comes to claiming authenticity, players of contemporary music are no better. Contemporary players pontificate over the hypothetical realm of “future historians,” on which some get off. But to me, this realm is equally over-romantic, and it distracts at the least and impedes at most honest musical engagement. Honesty is too relative to define, but to me, a disingenuous flair lies in such talk from contemporary players. In it lies the same recklessness that proved HIP’s authenticity claim in the 80’s to be flawed and unfruitful. Perhaps authenticity is not the term to speak to at all. Authenticity is an illusion. A mirage, to be exact.
However, I don’t want to be unfair; I’m reluctant to criticize others without acknowledging my own hypocrisy. After all, I often indulge as one of the “others.” The first lines of my biography have always featured the words “unique” and “original” – perhaps my valuation on individuality is an echo of the Romantic ideal of the artist. If I was a Baroque composer stuck in the wrong century, I imagine my bio would read like a laundry list of previous jobs, and a thorough documentation of ancestors and offspring. But now, I’m thinking too simplistically of the Baroque as a polar opposite of everything I dislike about modernity. But now, I’m being too romantic in my love-hate relationships to things. Now, I’m unhealthily rejecting the Romantic, and suppressing a part of my nature…. AHHHH! You see the hole I dig for myself by compartmentalizing aspects of human nature into eras of human history?
All I can say with all my heart is: Plurality is key and authenticity is a sham.
If there is no such thing as authenticity, then how does anyone own anything? A possible solution: Speak of everything in terms of co-ownership. The piece for Francis is also for me. The piece I wrote for Francis is also written by Francis. The piece Francis and I have worked to create is also a product of many other opinions, ideas, performers and composers. Certainly, lines must be drawn in the sand for accountability, especially for legal or financial concerns, but the core value is something I keep: If you want to co-own something with me, go ahead. I’d be thrilled!
This reminds me of a project in the making. It is a three-way collaborative keyboard effort between myself (on modern piano), Katelyn Clark (on harpsichord), and Gili Loftus (on fortepiano). We are forming an ensemble around these three instruments to co-arrange/co-compose repertoire as a trio. What is crucial is that we co-own the project in three equal parts. Not any one of us assumes authenticity over another. I must own the harpsichord and fortepiano as much as Gili and Katelyn do. And Katelyn and Gili must own the piano in this project as much as I do. There is no ownership – only co-ownership.
(Above: Keyboardist Gili Loftus)
(Below: Keyboardist Katelyn Clark)
These opinions are rooted in the Baroque, or rather, what I imagine the Baroque to be. I cannot stress enough the importance of my qualifier, “what I imagine the Baroque to be.” If I had to translate all the wisdom I’ve gathered from Baroque scholarship into one line, it is this: “We’ll never know for sure, and how exciting that is!”
I’ll never know so many things about the music of the past, just as I will never know things about my own nature – I’m happy to co-own this state of wonder with the rest of humanity. So, Early Music, what do you mean to me? I don’t know for sure … but how exciting it is!