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HIPster’s guide to not winning friends and not influencing people

A couple of days ago I picked up a recording of Fidelio in the library. It’s conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a “historically informed performance” (HIP) specialist, meaning that his ideal is to calibrate the performance of a piece based on what is known about musical practices and instruments at the time it was written. When I got home I noticed that Opera Chic (OC) had blogged some mean things about “Niki The Anaesthesiologist,” as she calls him. I listened to the disk right away, and, well, to my mongrel ears there’s a wonderful clarity to Niki’s Fidelio, and nothing soporific about it. It was kind of disappointing—why do I always have to be one of the uncool ones? After I read the comments in OC’s blog I felt better. There are worse things that being uncool.

People who dislike HIP tend to see it as the musical version of PC. It’s true that the more zealous and simpleminded HIPsters can be preachy, can come at you with a moralistic sense that it’s their duty to correct the bad habits of the uninformed by foisting onto them a laundry list of dos and donts (this bow, those strings, that tempo, these ornaments, etc. etc.). But the idea that HIPsters have a unique claim to authenticity was punctured a long time ago. Deflating claims to authenticity has become a cottage industry with academics and high-end critics. I’m not that hep to the HIP literature, but everyone knows Richard Taruskin’s “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past,” almost 20 years old now, in which he showed that the “historically informed” sound grew out of Stravinsky’s aesthetic much more than Bach’s. That’s why they stopped calling it “authentic performance” and switched to “historically informed.”

It’s odd to see people still talking about HIP as a kind of fashion police and debating it as a monolith—it’s a well-established, diverse part of the music world that’s way past its heady, revolutionary days. Yet even OC seems to think that it takes courage and “powerful allies” to stand up to Harnoncourt and HIP, which looks to me like a touch of Imusitis, a disorder that makes people conjure up a PC gestapo in order to make whatever they’re saying sound better. It’s a mild case, but still a little disappointing in the face of her usual sly intelligence and enthusiasm. It’s the peanut gallery that takes up the theme and runs with it, turning it into a low-grade flame war. It’s interesting to me as an example of the bad habit people have of talking about taste in moral terms, and of writing as if it’s possible to browbeat someone into changing the way they hear music.

[As I get ready to post, after a delay of a day or two, I see that there are more comments on OC’s site, including more moderate ones from darahbee. I based what I wrote here on the comments through May 23, and I’m going to leave it that way but attach a postscript]

Most of the commenters are reasonably civil. There are only 3 who are conspicuously negative, and of those it’s darahbee and Benedict who stick around for a fight. Darahbee uses his opening line to suggest that he’s probably dealing with dilettantes then briskly moves on to insult OC as “just an opera fan.” Benedict invokes the Rolexes in the audience at Salzburg in his own gesture of anti-dilettante snobbery and shows that he, too, is deft at putting people in their place by declaring that “musicologists belong in the audience,” not on the podium. At times it might as well be a couple of five year olds shouting “no, you’re the poopyhead!” at each other. Even when it’s more substantive, points are made in a spirit that’s uniformly contentious and argumentative.

To be fair, darahbee’s primary interest is to tell OC off for being disrespectful, and since he’s dealing with simpletons (aka opera lovers) and dilettantes, he doesn’t seem to expect or want much of a discussion. It’s hard to reconcile with the high musical ideals he alludes to, or with his admiration for Harnoncourt. He has nothing to say that might draw a person to listen to Harnoncourt’s music, and I don’t think it does any service to the man to leave the impression that’s he’s a great favorite of the holier-than-thou.

The only person who has the grace to own his taste is claviclaws. He “loves[s] the sound and love[s] the feel” of HIP. And it’s not just the musical feel but also the communal feel—“the passion and commitment of the musicians”—that he loves. This is not only an realistic and honest take on the roots of his preference, it’s an invitation to a conversation instead of a fight.

The only music forum I can think of that can sustain long substantive discussions is Sequenza21. A few weeks ago, a review was posted that drew in some angry newcomers, and it had a striking effect on the quality of the discussion, shifting it in the direction of the Harnoncourt flap I was just talking about (an additional factor that fanned the flames was the misguided suggestion that the newcomers were spamming). A quick point-counterpoint sums it up.

Point (David Salvage):

Cipullo’s music can veer into syrupy Lydian-land, but the first act holds up relatively well. The second act unfortunately sacrifices musical and dramatic continuity for applause-nabbing solo arias, and the show ends up lacking impact despite its loaded subject matter.

Counterpoint (Marley):

The dramatic morphology of Glory Denied is a brilliant and succesful grappling with the problematics of translating Phillpotts double narrative of Thompson’s life into an opera. I think Mr. Salvage should attempt to understand a work before he derides it.

Salvage was bothered by the way the opera was broken up by solo numbers with applause. It’s meaningless, not to mention insulting, to respond that he didn’t understand—he doesn’t know what continuity is? His ears aren’t connected to his brain? He’s wrong to be bothered by things that bother him? There’s no answer to be made on a musical level. Marley falls short in another respect, very familiar to me as a teacher. Salvage is writing about things that are concrete and meaningful whether you heard the the opera or not, but “brilliant and succesful grappling with the problematics of translating Phillpotts double narrative…” is nothing more than the overwrought opinion of a complete stranger who I know nothing about—another dead end.

[Darahbee (who must be conductor David Alexander Rahbee) posted a long, more diplomatic and informative comment after I stopped reading and started writing. It’s familiar stuff to anyone who’s looked into HIP—the kind of thing that should induce open-minded people to give it a listen, though I think for the most part it’s defeated by the pointlessness of telling people how they should hear things. All the less likely after the tone he had coming into the discussion. It’s to his credit that he stepped back and gave it a shot, though.]