RIGHT, WRONG, and period performance

I really like Baroque music. I like it on any instrument. I like it on period instruments. Not only is it interesting and definitely valuable to understand how those instruments were played and maintained in an archaeological sense, but there is a charm and real value to hearing the music in the way that those in that time period might have heard it, including the composers.

But … I’m getting irked at listening to people saying that that is the only right way to play this music and that other instruments are wrong.

Well, usually no one will say you’re “wrong” for playing the prelude to the first cello suite on a fretless electric bass guitar. I suppose that’s trendy and hip enough that no one is anxious to look like a sphincter-lipped disapprover, or else the HIPP police figure that that’s so far beyond the pale that there’s no point in arguing with it.

But they are much more likely to tell off someone playing it on a modern cello. I guess that’s just close enough to going period that the smaller discrepancy drives them nuts. (Probably just another symptom of the primate tendency to write off anyone on the other side of the seesaw completely but to concentrate 90% of their attack on those who deviate from the other end by 10%.)

But seriously — stop banging on about how it’s not “appropriate” to play Baroque music on anything but Baroque instruments. Jesus, you people were spat on for “doing it wrong” for years (see that idiotic comment by Pinchas Zuckerman), and the first thing you do when you get established enough yourself is to spit?

There is extramusical value to playing music on the instruments on which it was written. There is also value to playing music on any damned instrument to hand, and if one doesn’t give a flying fuck about being a humorless period nitpicker period enthusiast, then why would it matter if they are using period strings, a period instrument, a period bow, period deodorant, and period underwear?

Besides, it’s not like the music was written specifically for those instruments. It’s not like Bach had the choice of using Baroque versus modern versus electric fiddles and actively opted for the Baroque ones. He used what he had to hand. Who knows what the hell he would have preferred had someone placed all three in front of him? I remain convinced that he would have fallen hard for a pedal steel.

And I can’t shake the idea that, when pushed beyond reason, this business is no different from those kids who fetishize vinyl records. I was around when things transitioned from vinyl to CD/digital, and let me tell you, there was a reason why we all abandoned vinyl as soon as we could. It sucked. Vinyl is one of those things that is great in theory, and routinely stinks in practice. “But you can hear all of this blah blah whatever crapola!” Yeah, with a $40,000 sound system, and if one piece of dust falls on the LP, game over. Go listen to your vinyl in a NASA clean room.

(And honestly, can you reeeeeaaaallly hear all that stuff, or are you just telling yourself you can because someone told you that the sound system cost $40,000? Seriously. Wine experts are repeatedly punked on this — this is only one story of many. Supposedly golden-eared music lovers are no different. Yes, there is a difference between a live performance, a lossless file, and an mp3, but after a surprisingly low bar has been reached, it doesn’t matter.)

Analogously, let’s not lose sight of why people stampeded so eagerly to synthetic strings. They’re more stable, hold a tuning better, last longer, and you’re much less likely to get a false string in a set of synthetics. They also react more predictably while bowed. (Helloooooo? It is not a bad thing to improve the operation of your device! Never forget: you’re manipulating a piece of technology.) Do these strings sound nitpickingly period? No. Do they sound good? Yes.

I suppose this will read as an attack on HIPP, Baroque music, period playing, and period-style players. Some people will read it as an attack if someone comes up to them and tells them they aren’t the only 100% righteous creatures in the universe and that everyone else isn’t a loser. Some people see it as an invalidation to be told that theirs isn’t the only “right” way to do something.

I’m not going to do spend time underlining the many ways in which I like period performance, listing the many CDs I have of HIPP-style music, nor enumerating the times I’ve spent money for tickets and parking to go listen to it. I’m not going to offer that as some sort of proof that I haven’t attacked or invalidated HIPP when it should be bluntly obvious that I haven’t.

Just … please stop it with the “appropriate” and “inappropriate” comments. Knock it off with how “yes, but that’s not period” in an environment where period is not what people are aiming for. Save the blather about how you play Bach/Scarlatti/Haendel the right way, unlike those other unsocialized baboons over there.

Basically, don’t be Pinchas Zuckerman only for the other team, okay?