There is much understandable consternation that the Victoria and Albert Museum, with one of the great musical-instrument collections of the world, is shutting down their galleries for these instruments — in favor of an enlargement of their display of costume and fashion. At first blush, I was alarmed at this. When I was a young pup, I interned in our own national collection of musical instruments at the Smithsonian, and one of the guiding lights we looked to for conservation and display was the sister operation at the V&A. But while other collections, like those of the Metropolitan Museum or Yale, seem to flourish (the Met is even now building new galleries for their own), the V&A is shutting their dedicated gallery down.

I remember being told right away at the Smithsonian that a big difference between that collection and that of the V&A was that the London museum classified musical instruments as furniture, whereas Washington put them under history and technology. The resulting difference in attitude can of course be a major one.

As a thoughtful, if alarmist, Evening Standard article points out, the classical-music business is booming in London, and such a cutback might seem rather counterintuitive, if not mad. What the article doesn’t mention is that the instrument galleries at the V&A have been open only one day a month, so that the intention of distributing historical examples around the museum into other appropriate galleries might in fact increase the exposure of the objects. And, more to the point, it might greatly increase their impact.

For, in fact, there are two main reasons for such collections. One is that they are a resource for historians and for makers of musical instruments. Only a fraction of this huge collection has ever been on exhibit, and the rest are stored for research and conservation purposes. These uses will not be impeded by the new arrangements — in fact, they might well be enhanced, since objects on display were not available for this kind of examination. The other purpose was for the education of the public. But this meant that only the people who were motivated to go to the musical-instrument galleries got the benefit of the information that these displays could impart. Might it in fact carry a much larger intellectual and cultural payload for people to encounter Queen Elizabeth’s virginal in a context of, say, Tudor furniture? Or to come upon a dancing-master’s violin in a context involving social life, education, or aristocratic homelife? An African thumb-piano might be much more at-home surrounded by sculptures from its own tribe rather than being in a gallery with a Cristofori piano.

Far be it from me to forestall anyone’s pleasure in the sort of default doom-and-gloom that infects so much of our “high” cultural life. Therefore, I’m not contradicting the concern over this issue (which now has a Facebook page, which I was happy to join). If Sir Roy Strong were still running the V&A, I’d feel quite confident that an enlightened strategy was afoot. I know little about the current régime but see no reason not to hope for the best. Nothing, it would seem, about the announced measures are irreversible, and these were galleries that — even apart from their being almost entirely closed to the public — were clearly in desperate need of revitalization. So the public debate can only be healthy — so long as we recall that fruitful debate is never one-sided.

The Cult of Originality

January 14, 2010

Much is made of originality in our arts and literature. It was not ever thus. Until what scholarship calls the Modern Era, originality was a vice. Legitimate literature was loaded with quotations “from authority” and was often just a patchwork of such snippets. If you were writing about poetry or music and kept referring to number-symbolism, it wasn’t because that bee was particularly resident in your bonnet. It was because Augustine did it — as did the authorities that the overachieving Bishop of Hippo was using himself. Your book was good if it cogently marshaled the arguments available from the acknowledged writers of the past. To be original was to be wrong.

All the arts paid tribute to precedent. How a painter or architect used the practices of his predecessors marked him as good or bad. Or would have marked him if we even knew his or her name — since it took a long time for it to occur to artists to sign their work or for people to honor them as individual creators. Not until Guillaume de Machaut do we have a composer whose name is attached to a purposeful collection of his works. About six manuscripts of his music exist (one of them just a few blocks from me as I type, in the Gallery Wildenstein), in which he sets his own poetry to music. Machaut was not an innovator so much as a brilliant craftsman in fixed forms, and I have no doubt that that’s exactly how he wanted it.

The occasion for these thoughts (which are not even remotely original) is an article that has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, which starts out with a passage calculated to scare the living daylights out of anybody who publishes in this day of mad plagiarism-detectors. These people, and they are legion, can sully or end careers over a suspicion or insinuation of unacknowledged quotation, or even alleged influence:

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator—marked by her forever—remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

As for Guillaume de Machaut, it was not excessive self-regard that made him collect his wonderful works. An admirer as far away as Chaucer speaks of him as a master to be emulated. In fact, Chaucer is known to have modeled his Book of the Duchess on Machaut’s work. Ol’ Geoffrey (as we used to call him in the medieval-studies seminar) had better never try to get tenure in a university or run for political office without calling a press conference and apologizing. And the more tears he can produce, the better.

The illustration above is from a Machaut MS. in the Bibliothèque Nationale. It has long been assumed to portray the composer-poet in the figure to the right.

I thank Annasue McCleave Wilson for drawing my attention to the Jonathan Lethem article.

Here Comes Everybody

January 12, 2010

YouTube is now in the position of having to stop 8 year olds from becoming global publishers of video.

Clay Shirky delivers that and other such striking one-liners in a short essay at The World Question Center. Try this one: “[P]ublishing has become the new literacy.” But I recommend the linked piece because it is much more than the sum of its one-liners.

The item in that collection that hit home most for me, however, is the one on how some of us are rebuilding, in our everyday lives, the guild system.

Everyone in my guild runs their own operation, and none of us report to each other. All we do is keep close track of what each other is thinking and doing. Often we collaborate directly, but most of the time we don’t …

One’s guild is a conversation extending over years and decades. I hearken to my gang because we have overlapping interests, and they keep surprising me. Familiar as I am with them, I can’t finish their sentences. Their constant creativity feeds my creativity, and I try to do the same for them. Often the way I ponder something is to channel my guild members: “Would Danny consider this a waste of time?” “How would Brian find something exciting here?” “Is this idea something Kevin or Brockman might run with, and where would they run with it?”

The one place where I diverge from Stewart Brand in that piece is in his remark that he and his pals (i.e., fellow guild members) Danny Hills, Brian Eno, et al. stick to e-mail for their intercommunion: “That no doubt reflects our age—younger guilds presumably use Facebook or Twitter or whatever’s next in that lineage.” In fact, social media are now becoming basic to people of all ages. The fastest-growing constituency of Facebook is the over-forty segment of the population. But he is certainly right to speak of “whatever’s next in that lineage.” A recent — and terrific — conference on social media that I went to emphasized that we should never marry a particular program or device for interaction; it’s the interaction itself that we should buy into, being ready for every useful tool that offers itself, when it appears.

Existing in Time

January 9, 2010

Pamela Bell let her children and their friends paint her muslin-covered furniture

Frequent readers know that this site is highly interested in musical improvisation, both its history and its current practice. A fascinating blog extends the principles to all areas of life.

Do Blogs Count?

January 8, 2010

Be a scribe! It saves you from toil and protects you from all kinds of work. It spares you from using hoe and mattock, that you need not carry a basket. It keeps you from wielding the oar and spares you torment … Now the scribe, he directs all the work in this land.

— Tomb inscription at Memphis (Saqqara) ca. 2100 BC

Pointed out to me by Peter Kurth

Lord, Byron!

January 8, 2010

The veteran artist of the piano Byron Janis has a remarkable article in the Wall Street Journal in which he takes an enlightened — and very atypical for his generation — attitude towards the written text of classical music.

Tip of the hat to Kim Witman

While Americans commonly exert themselves to make their Christmas celebrations as Olde Englishe as possible, I think it deserves remark that the superb choir of Westminster Cathedral took both of their two Christmas Midnight motets from the corpus of contemporary American composition. Fortunately, they are preserved on YouTube as only the incomparable BBC television directors can present such events:

Passing on the Flame

January 7, 2010

Last night I went to the memorial for a recently-deceased colleague. There were several fine musical performances and touching personal talks about what the much-missed friend meant to various people. But an eminent composer stood up and talked movingly about the man in terms that laid before us facts about our friend that were universally applicable in our own lives.

He spoke of how people in music need to stay in touch with that initial enthusiasm that got us into this stuff to begin with. Enthusiasm, of course, isn’t everything. That very morning I had begun listening to the 11-hour PBS documentary Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, in which the unique maestro emphasizes how much sweat and toil went into the making of the composer-conductor-pianist he was. However renowned he was for charisma and energy, he commendably wanted the world to know how much grueling effort goes into the making of a Bernstein.

The composer speaking last night told of an interesting technique he has when his energy is flagging as he sits alone in a room with his pencil and music-manuscript paper: he says that, from time to time, he thinks of our departed friend and of how fresh his relationship with the art remained. And it brings him back to the place where he belongs.

In some sense, for those of us who are deeply committed to music as a way of life, this kind of rebooting is the same as returning to our true selves. It is melancholy that the loss of a fellow-traveler on the road was the occasion for this reminder, but if the crowd made up largely of musicians there took the point to heart, then — if for no other reason — our lamented colleague left us a valuable legacy.

Most, if not all, of us would do well to have such a signal to self that reminds us of why we do what we do and live the life we live.