Friday, April 27, 2007

Death of the Bard

by Rolf-Peter Wille

If you search the Internet for music genres Wikipedia will offer you a tasty menu, more diverse, indeed, than that of a Chinese restaurant: Acoustic rock, Afro juju, Alien music, Austropop..., you realize that we are still in letter "A" and these are only the more exotic items. Is good old classical music no longer available? Well, it’s still on the menu, but no longer de rigueur; they’ll only serve classical if you happened to order it.

And if you have no appetite for music at all? Fine, too: music education today ranks far behind science and the general consensus in barbaric society is that as a school subject music is dispensable. How low have we descended? In Europe’s medieval educational theory Music belonged to the liberal arts and formed part of the quadrivium together with Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy. Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy? A rather strange family indeed. Music, for us, is trivial entertainment. But the medieval mind contemplated it as divine order, as the rhythm and harmony of the world, and thus, naturally, it related to mathematics. Rhythm and harmony permeate everything and concern everybody. If a rhythmical disturbance occurs in our weather all humans shall suffer from the resulting chaos. Celestial bodies, stars and planets, have their rhythm and we can hear it, if we convert the vibrations into acoustic frequencies. Music, in a way, is a language much older than us and if we want to preserve our place in nature we better contemplate it.

And this explains why the truly dedicated musician does not just want to reach an elite audience, a selected few but, ideally, everybody. Why not have concerts on the street? Everybody travels, everybody has to pass, and as a street musician you will be heard by everybody. Why not a train station? Why not the subway station of a big city? In case you are a reader of the Washington Post you will certainly remember the recent story of world star violinist Joshua Bell, dressed down as a subway musician, performing incognito at the L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington during rush hour. He played a full recital, including Bach’s Chaconne, on his $3.5 million Stradivarius. He was ignored by almost everybody and just earned $32.17. Some people tossed pennies into the open violin case at his feet. But those were the exceptions. Most passersby did not even notice his existence. At Boston’s Symphony Hall good seats for a Joshua Bell concert would cost you $100 and more.

It seems that the role of the itinerant musician has steadily declined through the centuries. In ancient civilizations the singing rhapsode was a poet-musician and an historian as well. The oral tradition ensured the mythological memory of an entire national epos as exemplified by the legendary bard Homer. Without him we would know nothing about the epic battle for Troy. In some corners of the world this art is still alive. In Iran’s street theaters Alexander the Great is still fighting the Persian King, and the audience is still shocked when "their" Darius dies. The real battle happened in 333..., before Christ.

The noble balladeers of the high Middle Ages, the troubadours and minnesingers, still had a cultivating influence at the courts, singing mostly about courtly love. A much lowlier reputation had the singing storytellers, the minstrels, or cantastorias. Those were more like present-day newspaper reporters. Especially in Germany since the 17th century "bench singers" (Bänkelsänger), standing on a wooden bench, would sing often gruesome or salacious stories about murder (Moritat), intrigue, affairs, etc. During the performance they would illustrate the story by pointing with a stick to a particular cartoon-like drawing on a banner. Sometimes those stories would touch on politically sensitive issues and it is no wonder that the Nazis ended the tradition. Persian street artists seem to have possessed more foresight. They often included the painting of a handsome police officer on their banner and, if a real one showed up, the story would suddenly digress to the heroic exploits of the police. Stalin, like the Nazis, seems to have been afraid of street musicians. There existed a unique culture of wandering blind folksingers in Ukraine, called lirniki. The memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich tell an episode in which these bards were tricked by Stalin to participate in a fake convention, an "All-Ukrainian Congress of Lirniki" and there they were massacred in cold blood. The mythology of an entire nation was wiped out in an instant. Today a single blind minstrel is still alive in Ukraine. The "lirniki" still evoke distant echoes of the ancient bard Homer. Not only were these musicians blind but "lirnik" comes from "liry," and though it is a hurdy gurdy, the name is still derived from the lyre, the divine instrument of Homer.

We did perform once in Taipei City placing a grand piano on Chung-Hsiao East Road and we drew quite a crowd of spectators. But that was a long time ago. In the streets of our modern cities the cacophonic music of cars and motorcycles is surely drowning out any lyrical sound of the lyre.

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