We're happily adrift in a sea of living musical tradition
What is our living tradition in music?
In the fall issue of Early Music America, columnist Thomas Forrest Kelly asks readers to help him come up with a definition of early music. In asking the question, he raises some interesting points, but, for me, none more interesting that bringing up the living tradition, meaning music whose performance and style are familiar to musicians of today.
Kelly brings it up so that he can present early music as outside the living tradition, something that needs to be reconstructed. "We seek to recapture the performing styles -- including improvisation, ornamentation, and other expressive effects -- that have been lost in the modern performer's training to be an exact reproducer of notes on a page."
But let's take a wider view, for a sec.
In Elizabethan England, for example, people would have had the folk song, madrigals, consorts and church music, unless they happened to have access inside someone's palace gates. Living tradition in that context is pretty narrow.
In 21st century Toronto, people can listen to -- and perform -- anything from any culture in the world, just as they can eat almost any dish from anywhere in the world. So what is our living tradition? The Canon According to Guitar Hero? Beethoven's Für Elise? Leonard Cohen's Allelujah (which seemed to be inescapable this summer)?
Can we find it at a Michael Bublé concert? Among the masters of Persian music? In fusion groups such as Tasa?
Of course, the answer is that, today, the living tradition is just about everything. People listen to Gregorian chant for meditation, and Hildegard of Bingen probably means more things to more people today than she did in her cloistered world more than eight centuries ago.
Kids in South Korea listen to the Black Eyed Peas. Kids in Toronto listen to Rain.
Life has never felt more diverse, nor our definitions more narrow.
Here are two random examples of what I mean. First, Japan's fabulous Yoshida Brothers mixing shamisen with Western rock. Second, a cute, homemade mash-up of Tori Amos's "Black Dove" and the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata by Ted Hu: