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Archive for April, 2003

HIP — Or Not

Posted by acdtest on April 27, 2003

HIP — Or Not

eginning in the 1960s, there arose an increased interest in, and performance of, so-called “early music,” a term referring originally to music of the Baroque period (c. about 1600-1750) and before, and later extended to include music written during the Classical period (c. beginning around 1750 or thereabouts, and extending into the first quarter of the 19th century). With this new interest there arose simultaneously a movement dedicated to performing this music as it was performed at the time of its creation utilizing instruments of the period or modern copies thereof, as well as performance styles and practices period-appropriate.

The movement first went by the fairly innocuous name of Early Music Movement, which name, however, soon morphed into the decidedly uninnocuous Authentic Performance Movement, thereby implying, of course, that performances of early music that didn’t comply with the movement’s tenets were, by very definition, inauthentic. In referring to this movement its critics quickly started to enclose the term authentic in scare quotes, and so the battle lines were drawn, and the fight begun; one which continues up to this very day, albeit with less acrimony and a softening of both sides, the movement now self-defensively going under the cleverly devised stealth name of Historically Informed Performance (HIP, get it?), a perfectly meaningless term because applicable to all responsible performance of music of any and all non-contemporary periods.

Most annoying about the HIP movement, as with all such movements in any domain whatsoever, are its True Believers, in that such always insist on unwavering adherence to the movement’s tenets; see the movement, themselves, and the movement’s followers and supporters as morally superior entities; and count as reprobates and cultural barbarians all who reject or make objection to the movement’s agenda.

Informed objection to the tenets and agenda of the HIP movement are manifold, and run along lines aesthetic as well as specifically musical. Chief among the informed objections is the objection that no amount of scholarly research, no matter how thorough, can result in authentically reproducing performance conditions today that are the equivalent of earlier periods, not the least difficulty being the utter impossibility of reproducing a period-authentic audience. There’s also the lesser, but still potent, objection that the available historical evidence is always fragmentary, and therefore modern-day performance based on this evidence always involves modern-day musical and intellectual imaginations and sensibilities, a further, and insurmountable, bar to genuine period-authentic performance. And then there are those objections grounded in the question of whether, in the first place, it’s even desirable to strive to attain a period-authentic performance.

For my part, I’m among those music-lovers who, in agreement with many performing musicians, believe profoundly in the idea that every piece of music is an individual work of art (i.e., an individual-created aesthetic work, good or bad) that possesses an essential aesthetic and musical nature more or less readily discoverable absent any knowledge of, and independent of, period performance practices or the social and cultural milieu existing at the time of the work’s creation. And while, my belief notwithstanding, I’ve a certain sympathy with certain HIP objectives, I find its motives, as well as performances done in compliance with its tenets, largely suspect.

My initial encounter with a HIP-style performance was the first-ever “authentic” performance of Messiah recorded for a major record label. It was done for RCA Victor in the mid-1960s by Robert Shaw with the Robert Shaw Choral (the names of the soloists elude me at the moment). The performance was breathtaking technically, but emotionally bloodless musically. As matters developed over succeeding years, this proved something of a template for HIP-compliant early music performance, and raises certain troubling questions.

Why, for major instance, is HIP performance almost always done at tempi significantly faster than is the norm for modern-day mainstream performance of the same work, especially in light of the fact that the scores for music of the Baroque period and earlier include no tempi indications of any kind? And intimately connected, Why is HIP performance so markedly absent the expressivity and nuance characteristic of modern-day mainstream performance of earlier music? Surely, it can’t be the case that scholarly research has uncovered the astonishing fact that all period early-music performance was uniformly arid emotionally, or that human emotion and response to music then was of a markedly different character from now. The very idea is manifestly absurd. Further, the typically breakneck tempi of a HIP performance suggests that performance groups of earlier periods were technically of the sort that could handle routinely and adeptly such breakneck tempi when all the best evidence suggests that performance groups of earlier periods were largely technically impoverished compared with performance groups of today. Additionally, HIP tempi seem to fly in the face of the fact that instruments of earlier periods were much less easy for hands, fingers, and lips to negotiate securely and accurately at speed than their present-day descendants.

Clearly, something is not kosher here.

So, is there good and plausible justification and explanation for this seeming historically insupportable phenomenon of breakneck tempi cum emotionally bloodless performance? Well, I can think of one, much as I wish it weren’t so plausible: Commercial and ideological staking out of turf. For an audience, nothing segregates a HIP performance more quickly and more surely from its mainstream competition than those breakneck tempi cum emotionally bloodless readings. And nothing could be a more clear and forceful rebuke of the mainstream “Romantic tendencies” so reviled by the HIP ideological cognoscenti.

Two hits for the price of one.

Cynical, you say? Perhaps. But if there exist non-cynical, equally good and plausible justifications and explanations for this HIP practice that seemingly hypocritically and ignobly flies in the face of the historical evidence, I’d like to know what they might be.

I, for one, can think of none.

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Should I Feel Ashamed?

Posted by acdtest on April 23, 2003

Should I Feel Ashamed?

ast night, ABC, using a splendid if at times over-color-saturated film-to-tape transfer, aired its biennial Passover/Easter season showing of the legendary Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. This almost half-century-old movie — a standout example in the long tradition of Hollywood spectacles that had its American beginnings in cinema’s infancy with the great D. W. Griffith’s two seminal works, Birth of a Nation, and Intolerance — has held up surprisingly well over time, and as is the case in most years it’s aired on ABC, I was last night among the audience tuning in.

Even given my generally snotty tastes in cinema, that’s hardly surprising as I’ve had something of an obsession with this movie ever since its 1956 release; an aberration which was for me a source of some little embarrassment.

Well, O.K., some major embarrassment.

In my crowd, at the time, the lingua franca of cinema discussion was the films of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and while one might have been able to screw up enough courage to admit to liking a movie by, say, Alfred Hitchcock, or one of the several Frog directors, even though such an admission would be good for at least a month’s worth of snide remarks and jokes at the confessor’s expense, to admit to liking a movie by DeMille, and one of his God-and-sex biblical epics no less, was an admission so reckless and fraught with peril that something other than mere courage was required. Something like, you know, wanton stupidity.

As already noted, however, I was obsessed with this movie, and so, mildly ashamed though I was, admit to it I did, and in consequence suffered banishment from our cinema roundtable until a plea of temporary insanity permitted me to again join the conversation.

But the roundtable knew only the half of it. Or to be more accurate, only the hundredth of it. For in the first two years of the movie’s release, I saw it — in the theater, and by actual count — 103 times, even traveling to out-of-town locations whenever that became necessary. By the end of that period I knew the dialogue, every word of it, verbatim and by heart, and knew, too, every miniscule fault of production, and even the faults of various release prints, as well as I knew my own body’s birthmarks.

Well, there’s no precise accounting for obsessions and the layered, byzantine, and mostly unconscious thought processes which provoke them. But those 100-plus viewings aside, should I really have felt so ashamed of liking this movie as much as I did, and in fact still do?

Consider the script, for instance. Although the dialogue has its share of embarrassing lapses — most often when it quotes verbatim and with cloying sanctitude from the King James version of the Hebrew Bible, or when it’s trying to score some moral point — it’s in large part fairly literate in the context of the story told, especially in the movie’s opening half. True, the script’s sneaky but box-office-savvy occasional attempts to insinuate parallels between Moses and Jesus are more than a little annoying, as is the over-ripe, King-James-y prose of the occasional voice-over narration (spoken by DeMille himself). But these are mere quibbles when one takes into account the movie’s gargantuan 220-minute running time.

Then there’s the score for the movie by Elmer Bernstein which is nothing to sniff at. It’s a rich, quasi-Wagnerian affair, more than musically competent in its own right, and perfectly suited to its task; just what a first-rate movie score ought to be.

How about the handling of the story itself? Its dovetailing of the Hebrew Bible narrative with speculative material based on then current biblical and archaeological research, most of it having to do with events not covered by or only hinted at in the biblical narrative, is fairly seamless and, for its time at least, perfectly plausible. Plausible as well for its time, and well detailed, too, were the myriad of things Egyptological and Bedouin, due allowance made for license poetic (such as Ramses II — father of some 150 children — having but a single wife and child). The costumes, for instance, were largely spot-on correct, as was most of the architectural detail (again, allowance made for poetic license). The only truly tacky thing in the detail department was the absurd, Ted Turner Production Really Bad Beard given Moses at movie’s end. I keep hoping that for the next release someone will take a digital pen to those closing frames, and give the departing Moses a beard worthy a prophet of his stature.

And what about the actors? Pretty much perfect casting all round, actually. Charlton Heston, from whom even the great Orson Welles could not coax a nuanced performance, could not have been more perfectly cast. Other than Heston, no-one then (or now, for that matter) had the required on-screen bearing necessary for a role so mythically heroic. And if his performance lacked nuance, well, so what. There was little nuance called for. One might even say it was part of the role’s job description. Ditto the role of Ramses, in which role Yul Brynner did his born-for-it king thing to perfection. In like manner much the same could be said for all the principals, all of whom were, at worst, competent (if hammy) actors, and at best, thoroughly convincing, as was perennial screen villain Vincent Price most particularly in the role of the nasty and lecherous Master Builder, Baka.

And the cinematography? First-rate throughout, of course, which is just what one expects of a Hollywood product. The technical side of Hollywood movie-making, then as now, is so superb it could, if its personnel were so inclined, make even a rank beginning director appear a seasoned pro. And while a few of the many vaunted special effects were a bit tacky even then (the two cartoony “pillars of fire” most especially), they were no more so than were the vaunted video-game-tacky special effects of, say, Star Wars, a movie made some twenty years later.

All this, however, is but mere fussy detail. What’s really notable about this movie is its quality of telling an heroic, mythic saga in the earnest, literal, and straightforward way sagas have been told and retold around hearths and campfires for millennia prior to our era; a quality reinforced by DeMille’s occasional voice-overs. In those bygone eras, if the storyteller really knew his stuff, and his narration, sung or spoken, was properly keyed to the sensibilities of his audience, he could be counted on to stimulate the imagination of that audience into generating images in an at once individual and collective theater of the mind wherein the saga would, in vivid images as recognizable and familiar to one’s neighbors as they were to oneself, spring into glorious, palpable, larger-than-life life.

DeMille at his biblical-epic best, as he was in The Ten Commandments, was just such a storyteller who not only knew how to straightforwardly tell a Judeo-Christian heroic saga keyed to the sensibilities of his audience, but provided that audience as well with vivid realizations of images effectively latent in their imaginations since earliest childhood, and by so doing bring to life for them that heroic saga in all its palpable, larger-than-life glory.

Should I really have felt (feel) ashamed of liking such a movie?

Not in my saner moments.

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