Dull Wilfulness A question of ethics

Sometimes musicians, especially young ones, rocket through the rank and file of the musical establishment on a roller coaster of incredible and undeniable talent, musicality, panache, personality and fire. Generally, these young sparks of flame are encouraged, helped, supported and even financed in part, by agents or managers, well-wishers, family, instrument builders, you name it. A lot of talent though goes unnoticed without the help of crowd funding website platforms, such as Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a marvellous way in which artists and designers, business start-ups and actually almost anyone, can appeal to the public for financial assistance. In return, the contributor is normally offered one of a number of gifts to show gratitude. The gifts tend to vary according to the contribution.

Other musicians plod along on their merry little ways, working, doing concerts, making CDs (even self-financed ones) and just generally being around, until they gradually work their way into the body of known musical entities, the body of the Establishment. It’s generally these very people who end up with the jammy jobs at colleges where for a handsome salary they are able to teach their art, share their experience and generally contribute to the improvement of the music world.

But what is it that differentiates those musicians who “make it big” from those who don’t? In the Early Music world, that of so-called “historical performance practice”, we’ve had a good number of huge mega stars who grabbed the whole world by the shorts-and-curlys and spun it around their heads until, with dizzying speed the whole amassed and evolved way of understanding, playing and even hearing music of bygone eras was turned completely on its head. In the past couple of years alone we have sadly lost a good number of these maestri to old age and death. Frans Brüggen, a Dutchman, was one of our first truly great pioneers of the recorder. The recorder was, until then, an instrument which had been denigrated, particularly by way of plastic manufactured toy-like instruments, to the level of a penny whistle for children to learn the basics of music at kindergarten. Brüggen shocked the world in showing that the recorder was not only an instrument to be taken seriously but was an instrument of remarkable virtuosity and beauty.

Alongside Brüggen a harpsichordist also from the Netherlands, Gustav Leonhardt, was instrumental in a total revival of the harpsichord. From what had evolved into a mechanical plucking piano, Leonhardt, through his performances with Brüggen and alone, encouraged a whole new direction of keyboard playing and instrument building, the harpsichord building revolution led initially by Martin Skowroneck. Recorder builders, harpsichord builders, builders of all manner of instruments ran to museums and created technical drawings and plans of instruments in collections and ran with fury and fervour to their workshops to start the process of recreating these hitherto defunct instruments which had, themselves, been the treasures of their own eras.

Alongside Brüggen and Leonhardt other musical genius were jumping out of the woodwork in the dozens. Bruce Haynes, formally an American recorder player working with Brüggen in the Netherlands, was asked to teach the Baroque oboe at one of the Dutch conservatories and had to teach himself as he taught others, so new and so fresh as this all was. Haynes, like Brüggen and Leonhardt had done in their respective fields, took the double-reed world by storm and revolutionised not only the Baroque oboe but, through his research and writing, the whole notion of “Early Music” as an art form.

Sadly, we have lost all four. In 2014 we lost Brüggen and Skowroneck. In 2012 we lost Leonhardt. The Brucemeister, as I call Haynes, was lost to us back in 2011. There have been so many other great talents and many of them still continue their immeasurable work and contribution to the world’s enjoyment of music.

Clearly, the ground-breaking, the innovative initiative and time tested talent brought the people to the Hall of Fame of the Early Music movement. But once the ground-breaking work of the musical pioneers has been done the floodgates are opened to the rest of the musical world to climb onto the roller coaster of musical evolution, to jump onto the bandwagon of musical current and, in some sad cases, to grab onto the fame of their forefathers. Having a USP, or “Unique Selling Point”, is always a plus on the road to fame and fortune. And one might well think that this would be obvious enough; a musician needs to have talent, originality, mechanical ability and personality. Combine all this with “being in the right place at the right time” and the rest should all somehow happen automatically. Right? That easy?! But how many thousands of young people across the globe are so equipped and yet don’t somehow manage to get into the limelight? Is there more than just the good old honest, hardworking practicing and studying at play?

The music world is really no different from any other business in the end. Of course there are a great number of ethical and morally upstanding people, be they musicians or agents, managers or record companies. But there are also, lurking throughout the industry, shrewd and cunning opportunists, waiting for an “in”, an opportunity to use someone’s name, to take advantage of someone’s naïveté. This is as true for the administrators as for the artists. Sure, music critics can help the worthy, as well as they can the less so worthy. But music critics can be bought by money, or charm, or good looks, or a good old fashioned scam. And once the helter-skelter of public exposure has been nudged into motion, there is almost no stopping the snowballing performer and the ever increasing monster it creates. In fairness, some young talent does take advantage of good looks or image to help along the way into the public’s awareness. So long as this is backed up by talent or—at very least—potential, the world normally doesn’t mind if the public thinks not only with their minds but has a little assistance from their hormones too. And why not! Thankfully, these artists are normally welcomed into the Establishment eagerly and with open arms. Their accolades and achievements, their appointments to academic positions, are normally lauded and applauded. There are others, conversely, who are disdained, disliked, rejected, shunned and criticised for seeming to do no more or less than their peers… at least on the surface.

Indeed, the musical world plays shocked when they hear of the appointment of such a young artist to professor of a respected music college. Wi-Fi routers steaming with the traffic of messages back and forth around the globe as to the astonishment and perhaps the disappointment at the announcement! But why? Had the young performer created such division in the music world, such anger and hate and, on the other side of the coin, such admiration and respect? Perhaps tours, concerts, record contracts… For a player who is possibly not particularly interesting as a musician or performer and less so as a musicologist, is too young to fully understand the repertoire being performed, it might seem a bit remarkable that the music industry jumps to oblige. And yet it does. But why and how? It seems to be the peripheral music industry that is enamoured in such cases, the critics, record companies, even music colleges, but not the musicians themselves. Such sudden notables are, after all, big money when seen as products. Clearly then, the musician is interested in musical ability where the peripheral music world, the media, is interested in financial marketability. Therein lies the conundrum, perhaps.

In such cases there are probably a couple of rather mundane factors which, inadvertently, contribute unwittingly and perhaps unwillingly, to the media being made aware of the marketability of such a product. One of these is perhaps a talented photographer, whose PR photos are very striking, interesting, and attractive. The other, a talented instrument builder whose instruments are used as the centre point and focus, the drama and interest of what would otherwise have been relatively average PR photos. The last, of course, is the performer who, without apparent justification, might have allowed, even perhaps encouraged the public though websites and interviews, to believe pedigrees which seem not to be held. The music industry is, of course, only too keen to jump on board and make a buck where an easy buck is to be made. But is that enough to get the media so interested in that kind of product? What makes one artist more attractive to the media than another? Is it skill, image, marketing?

Perhaps the artist is portrayed by critics to be shaking up the stuffy world of the music. Maybe we are advised to re-evaluate our notions of what a musical performance is all about, the implication being that we have here something new, something ground-breaking. Is this what the media is grabbing for? The media might even play its little media puppet, quoting it even to have insulted the ability and reputation of a deceased artist of great acclaim, one whose name was flaunted as a trophy not months before. People do sometimes heave their heads above the crowd by pushing down on the heads of others around them after all. That is newsworthy perhaps. All gossip is good gossip, as well the media is aware!

Any writer of such words would have to have no idea how much of a disservice has been done to an artist in this situation, however well intended were the words. With such an artist as our media puppet, already much disliked for the presumed manner of professional advancement, the magazine splurge runs the risk, in its florid and glowing accounts, of inadvertently publicly exposing the artist’s thinking and disgracing the artist’s name in the music world. That author opens a mouth and puts a foot in it. The artist, on the other hand, is made to appear to only open a mouth to change feet. And yet others, such as music opinion bloggers, seem to allow the public to be misled into thinking such artists are devotees of the very people whose names are painted suddenly black. And so the farce goes on, the snowball rolls and grows despite the obvious contradictions.

As much as it is sad that this seemingly inexplicable and almost nauseating doting, nay, infatuation, goes on all too often in this kind of case, it is sadder even that there are those, such as writers, critics, managers, agents, who so utterly fall for something they believe to be so different from what has gone before, some curious unicorn that is nothing short of a mirage, such that they actively seek to promote it and—in some cases at every opportunity, to the point of raising the question as to whether or not there might be a conflict of interests. How blind are they of the world to have assumed that this is new or even that this is real! How sad it is that at the hands of such people young students at music colleges risk being deprived of what they deserve. I had once thought, that it was exactly this very kind of artist in question which is the greatest victim in simply not being mature or smart enough for the very precarious position the media has been eager to impose and capitalise on: it is one thing for a poor artist to be delusional and yet another for that foolishness to be taken advantage of by others. Or is the converse the case? Have the music critics, magazine authors, the college administration departments and record company talent scouts been the victims of delusion? Did they also see the Emperor’s clothes? Are the rest of us simply blind? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in-between. Certainly in many such cases, as dull as is the playing so equally wilful appears to be the ambition.

Music should be about good music making, not about tricking the world into having in the public eye people who are there to please the public eye. To quote Einstein: “I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.” (Albert Einstein: The Negro Question, 1946)

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