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Early Music: Opening the Gates

By Gus Denhard, Artistic Director

If you’re not familiar with it, Early Music is an artform that is all about taking a long view on how to value and perform music.  And that long view is getting longer! 

The Early Music movement exploded in the 60s and 70s in Europe and the USA as a counterculture movement within Classical Music to push back on a scene that was perceived to be full of cronyism and elitism.  In those days taking an historical, academic perspective to developing music performance styles was truly a fresh approach and circumvented established Classical Music norms. The Early Music movement set new standards for how to understand and perform the music of Europe’s medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods. In those days we poured over ancient manuscripts and old instruction methods for instruments. We scoured royal pay ledgers to discover just how many violinists King Louie the Fourteenth employed. There was a sense that we were closing in on a deep understanding of how music was understood in times past, and that we were developing a new way of presenting music that composers, musicians, and audiences could have experienced back in the day.  It was a kind of time travel, both for the researchers and the modern audiences that attended the fledgling performances. 

But while this historical approach challenged Classical Music values and brought amazing forgotten music to light, over the decades it calcified into an inner circle of scholars and artists who never addressed basic questions of who gets to participate in the music making and whose stories are being told through its performance.  The historical underpinning of this first Early Music movement, written and sanctioned by academia, was overwhelmingly Eurocentric.  Its version of history was that of the most recent “winners” on the international stage: the post-colonial West. As a result, since the 70s Early Music repertoire has concentrated mostly on the music of the royal courts of medieval, renaissance, and baroque Europe, with repeat performances of the same works at a rate that would lead anyone to believe that there was nothing else of value was going on. This has led Early Music to be referred to by one critic as “…the gated community within the exclusive neighborhood of Classical Music.”

While these trends continue, we now have new voices and perspectives that are leading Early Music, among other arts, in new and exciting directions.  Writers such as Charles C. Mann (1491 and 1493) and Peter Frankopan (The Silk Roads) are helping us see the importance of using a wide lens as we understand the development of European culture – both its beginnings and legacy – in a rich context.  By recognizing the sources of knowledge that informed European development, we can begin to give credit where it is due. And once we’ve opened these gates, we can begin to embrace and value the cultural achievements of the world’s peoples, all of whom have had an historical influence on our lives.  

What does this mean for an Early Music institution like Early Music Seattle? It’s valuing the ancient music practices and traditions of the many cultures reflected in the residents of Washington State.

In the Early Music Seattle Showcase (Saturday, May 25, 2:30-4:30 at the Cornish Playhouse), you’ll see a sampling of this new vision for Early Music, which will combine the voices of Latin America, Al Andalus, ancient Persia, China, and Europe into one chorus. This is a music that truly celebrates our shared and interdependent past and hints at a deeper truth: that we are truly brothers and sisters who have many more cultural touchpoints than any recently highlighted superficial differences can ever deny.