Beyond Early Music | Carpe Diem 2013

Much time has passed since I last took some time to write here, and even more new developments have come across my path since then. My work as a music producer and balance engineer is becoming more and more intense and time-consuming (maybe too much, speaking of sustainable and healthy workloads), the label (Carpe Diem) has grown to an apparently well-respected and not anymore completely unknown company with a nice catalogue of special, mostly well-done, sometimes irritating CD releases, and that is basically how it should be.

Some of you may have noticed the change of our company slogan from “Excellence in Early Music” (which was not completely untrue but still a bit showy maybe) to the much simpler “Recording Magic”, and that is a much more precise term to describe what all my work, efforts and ambitions are really about. Regarding the field of Early Music, not many interesting things are currently going on (except those I am not aware of, maybe). Repertoire has been largely recorded, and if new material shows up, it is rarely worth mentioning, or even if it is, there’s no world-changer among them, recently.
Interpretation is another thing: Historical accuracy in performance practice has proven dead boring, while inaccuracy or conscious denial of accepted practice often failed to convince due to lack of skill and wit, quite neccessary for creation of significant art. Often I cannot bear witnessing today’s performers and ensembles trying to reinvent the reel with superficially crafted performances, not at all aware of the fact that musicians before them did it all, and better than they ever could. I enjoy listening to old recordings from the 60s or 70s these days, more than I enjoy most of the current stuff. Some of those are really gorgeous and I wonder why the heck do people dare to record this or that piece over and over again without adding anything new, anything better, anything more valuable? How many Goldberg Variations, how many Schubert songs are there out on the market? Just trying to answer that questions reveals the absurdity of our current music market situation, and we still call it art and are proud as punch if we manage to add just some more water to the soup. It will not get much tastier from that alone.

So what is there left to do for us? I am no fan of demotivation speeches and prophecies of doom. If we look at the world we inhabit, and at the society we are coping with in our everday lifes, it is obvious that there is loads of things to do. We have one crisis following the other, may they be of economical, ecological, social nature: The world is in constant movement on all possible levels, and it is moving fast at the moment, and the music world, being part of the art world, being part of those people who give meaning to life and being since the first days of our existence, that music world should not just stand still, lament over declining sales, aging fans, deteriorating situations.

Not long ago I heard someone in a music industry speech say that we should focus on the repertoire, not the artist, because the repertoire lasts longer and will not outfashion so soon. I would say the repertoire is dead (in the case of Early Music since at least 400 years or so), while many artists are very much alive, willing to perform, to contribute, to create. I want to work with living artists, not with dead ones, and I mean that not only literally.

I am curious what musicians these days are able to create. I don’t want them to play the same stuff over and over again. That is boring and if they say it is not than it’s pretentious. I am into recording magic. That means bringing new ideas to people, trying out things nobody tried before, without being afraid of stepping out of the box here and there. Magic lies in the moment, not in the planning. Magic becomes real and comprehensible if we open our minds and let us fall into trust, if we open the eyes to see the world around us without preconceptions, prejudices, and without fear. Ever played (or listened to) a single note with a totally true heart? That’s what it is all about. I want artists to be true, so that their art can unfold its magic in their environment. The world would be so different if there was more true music, less pretentious art-faking, more generous passion, less egocentric self-display. I mean it could really make a difference. It could change politics, societies, everything. We, the artists, are so powerful. We are the ones that create the beautiful illusions, that shape the way people feel, that make the world a more peaceful, more interesting, more stimulating place. So let’s just do it and stop wasting time and energy on copying and faking, or worse, lamenting on the fact that we’re wasting and faking, or even worse, listening to those who lament.

I close with a quote from Daft Punk’s new album, where Giorgio Moroder says:
“You want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.”

Well he is a magician. He invented electronic disco music and changed the world. How do you change the world?


Add yours →

  1. Oren Kirschenbaum July 1, 2013 — 8:17 am

    Great article. I share your views and hopes! keep those magical recordings coming. Oren Kirschenbaum, Basle

  2. Hi Jonas,

    interesting post – it reminds me a bit of a day in undergraduate music school when one of my friends at the time – a freshman composition student – slunk down at the lunch table looking quite distressed. We asked “what’s wrong, Chris?”, and he said that he’d for the first time realized that there has been so much great music written before him that he couldn’t possibly fathom why he needed to write any himself. Why, it would take him the rest of his life just to discover the great things that already exist!

    It’s probably a common scene – the moment when a musician or someone in the music industry comes to the realization that they’re a somewhat smaller fish in a perhaps much bigger pond than they originally calculated. And to your point, yes, the early music scene has matured greatly in the past two generations, and the exciting initial ground has been covered. Several times in most cases.

    For the Open Goldberg project we faced a lot of the questions and concerns you mention. Why record the Goldbergs again? Why do it on a modern piano? Why spend so much money on a classical music recording? Isn’t Glenn Gould good enough?

    None of them are easy questions to answer without an underlying philosophy to guide you. For us, the philosophy was quite simple: everybody involved with the project had to be happy with what they got out of it. For our backers, nearly everybody reported being very happy with the results, and the chance to take part in the project and the journey. For the pianist, Kimiko Ishizaka, she was happy with the chance to take her turn with the cherished repertoire. For the recording engineer and producer, Anne-Marie Sylvestre, she was happy working in a great studio with an artist she believed in.

    With all of those happy people involved, most of the initial questions don’t seem very important anymore. Because they’re not important. Not really.

    Make music because it brings you and others joy. Don’t get caught up in whether what you’re doing is profound, revolutionary, changing the industry, or anything like that. You’ll drive yourself absolutely crazy. It takes every ounce of concentration and dedication to master these arts, and there’s no room in there for being distracted by worries about the arc of history. No, I tell you, the only really important thing is that you do the next project the very best you can, and that you have fun doing it. If you can’t do those two things, then there is a whole world full of other problems to solve, like you said, and walking away from music is no tragedy (I did it myself – I survived).


  3. @Robert: “It takes every ounce of concentration and dedication to master these arts, and there’s no room in there for being distracted by worries about the arc of history.” – I don’t agree. Art is an important tool to change the world into a better one, it always was. I think we, musicians (artists!), have a huge responsability, because we inspire people. But of course, everything – also the wish to change the world – has to come from the heart. And there is no conflict there to the “joy” you are talking about.

    • Fair point, though I also have to counter that not every artist feels connected to such a mission, and that it shouldn’t be forced upon them as part of their mandate. It really is a legitimate activity to probe the meaning of a Beethoven Sonata just because you love the music and want to share it with others.

      • I don’t want to argue, but I think you misunderstood Jonas. It’s neither about mission nor about forcing anyone to do anything. Read this again:
        “I want artists to be true, so that their art can unfold its magic in their environment. The world would be so different if there was more true music, less pretentious art-faking, more generous passion, less egocentric self-display. I mean it could really make a difference. It could change politics, societies, everything.”
        There’s nothing about having a mission here. It is about artists being true to themselves and about magic. And this magic can change the world, well, it does.

  4. I have had similar thoughts many times. The problem is not with early music, however, but with the way classical music performance is critiqued today. (Those devoted to early music, are, despite appearances, living classical musicians.) I just returned from a modern performing convention/competition. Various established artists and new comers performed and it became clear that the excellence of craft is now based solely upon one criterium: the absence of mistakes.

    There is no expectation for the modern classical musician to show evidence in performance that they have put any thought, much less heart, into their presentation. As long as one can play consistently with virtually no mistakes, that person will have a career.

    While I appreciate the incredible dedication these performers have given to achieving this goal, I can’t help thinking that it misses the point entirely. It is like saying that the best public speakers are the ones who pronounce the words with absolute precision and that the message is irrelevant. While we do not expect a speaker to stumble over every other word, the mechanics of sound production are merely the means to an end. As long as we can understand the speaker, it is the message – and even more – the DELIVERY that excites us.

    I’m afraid that so many classical musicians are focused only on execution that they’re sucking the life out of the music. The play Beethoven, Mozart, Bach over and over because it literally doesn’t matter what they play. They’re only being judged on technique and those composers wrote nice sounding music. (Modern players always make it sound too nice.) It is for this same reason that so many contemporary composers are still dedicated to atonal music. How the music sounds is inconsequential; as long as the composer can demonstrate the consistent application of some technical apparatus, they will be accepted in the proper circles. No creativity or personal commitment required.

    In my own work, I pursue a more independent track, investigating rarely performed music, incorporating improvisation and composing original music. The personal consequences of integrity are very, very real, however. So much of a musical career depends on recommendations from established personalities. Those established musicians are of course going to recommend people (often their students) who play like they do. Often I sit at home watching others with less commitment, who just blindly follow the path laid out for them, get the jobs.

    • So absolutely true! My favorite recordings of Chopin are those of Vladimir Horowitz – and in particular his live performances which are certainly flawed and have plenty of mistakes (not to insinuate that his technique was anything less than monstrous – there are astonishingly few mistakes, really). But it was clear that he wasn’t avoiding mistakes – he was communicating. There’s such a feeling of authenticity in those recordings. You’ve expressed a very important truth.

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