Bringing the Past to the Present by Leah Gastler

Performing historical music is a balancing act. We hold tradition and history in the highest regard, yet we must also make personal decisions that allow music to breathe a new life; to be alive today, affected by our humanity, artistry, and also our modern standpoint. Like learning how to draw the correct proportions of the human figure, we have a responsibility to understand the structure, form, and intention of a composer’s work before imposing our personal opinions upon it.

When we perform a Mozart string quartet, for instance, we are affected by so much more than our own musical sensibilities. We want to adhere to the manuscript or discuss the values of the first edition notation, or we want to read Mozart’s letters and incorporate the historical context into our understanding of the work. Even more basic, we understand the form and function of the genre of the string quartet itself and its own historical context.

Then we listen to recordings, and we like the way one group does this or another does that, and we acknowledge that one recording might now be “out of style,” a rather mysterious qualifier itself. We incorporate all of these influences. We receive input from our mentors, who may disagree among each other, but who always present great arguments for his or her own interpretation. They provide quotes and anecdotes from their teachers and mentors—relics of the revered old-style performance that we so admire but can never relive. We make decisions based upon these ideals. We cannot adhere to every angle, because there is no “correct”; there is only “informed.” After the information, it is our duty to make the music alive.

Personal commitment makes music alive. The spirit of music originates within the performer, here and now, not within the composer or the history or all the information behind our output. We have to know what our personal impression is—what we want to convey and what moves us emotionally and convinces us of the validity of this music. It is our duty to make this history valid now, to us and our world, and it requires a challenging balance of imitation and innovation. This is what Mozart “should” sound like. This is what Mozart “did” sound like. This is what Mozart sounds like now; or, This is what my Mozart sounds like. This is what Picasso’s bull looks like:

0130a Picasso Bull

In new music, the role we play as the performer is much more of a creative process. We embrace unknown techniques and notation, and we imagine what sound, image, or feeling the composer intended. Sometimes we are lucky enough that we can even ask the composer. We are not beholden to centuries of tradition before us or even the qualities of beauty that we have learned to recognize. Sometimes we are even asked to actively reject these ideals and reinvent; start anew with a different palette, different medium, different-sized canvas, and different tools. Or sometimes only one of those variables may change.

Being the first to bring this music to life, we are allowed to bring our creative process to the foreground of our work. We have to decipher, interpret, and enact this music without the influence of what came before, setting the stage for performances to come and defining the meaning and relevance of this music. We have to relate to this work, as we are contemporaneous beings, and introduce our audiences to the musical expression of our time. We have to convince the audience of a work’s greatness, value, expression, relevance—that it should be heard again and given new life.

Whereas a Mozart quartet will survive into the future regardless of how many heartless performances it receives, a new work requires a level of commitment that believes in the future of this repertoire. We have to send this expression off well. This is Joseba Eskubi’s contemporary expression of something nameless, in mixed-media.

1030b abstract painting

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