The Magnificent Heads of Ife and Bach

On my day off from practising (usually Wednesdays if I’m not otherwise occupied), I went with a friend to see a much-discussed exhibit at the British Museum: ‘The Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa.’ I would have to say that, in short, this exhibition was one of the most eye-opening visual art experiences of the last year. Featuring works of sculpture from the 12th-15th centuries AD, the exhibition focused on the artistic output of the Kingdom of Ife (now located in south-west Nigeria). In other words, attendees at the British Museum were treated to a view of art from this part of Africa that would be roughly contemporary with works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico, or Gentile Bellini.

I am totally willing to acknowledge my ignorance of the art of this place and time. I had no idea of the incredible subtlety that went into these sculptures – even more fascinating was the level of individuality of each and every art work. This was no stylised, impersonal art. Rather, its refined and naturalistic features breathed with a variety that could stand with the best of the output of the works of Europe in the same time period.

Many European ethnologists who ‘discovered’ the art of the Kingdom of Ife in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were incredulous that these works could have been produced by African artists (shades of condescending colonialism? – you bet). The German ethnographer Leo Frobenius – the same one praised by Leopold Senghor for having ‘given Africa back its dignity and identity’ – claimed that somehow he had discovered the ancient Atlantis and that it was that civilisation which had produced these works. In fact, Frobenius believed that a white civilisation must have existed in Africa at some point, and that it was this ‘white residue’ that enabled native Africans to exhibit traits of, in his words, ‘military power, political leadership and… monumental architecture.’ Many thinkers and educated Europeans like Frobenius were ready to resort to legends of lost Continents and other such esoterica before they were ready to acknowledge that the African mind could have possibly approached the complexity of the European one.

This kind of thinking has not died out, at least as far as music is concerned. We have always had, of course, those who refuse to acknowledge that earlier civilisations and peoples could have great music – that is a given. There are also those who are not willing to acknowledge that the ‘power’ of a repertoire of music is not always directly proportional to the information gleaned from the written page or score. This sort of positivist thinking, for example, fails when applied to music with an improvised or unwritten tradition – the operas of Monteverdi are great examples of the music that benefits from meaningful research into performance practice. Lastly, even those who wait hand and foot at the altar of ‘historical performance practice’ subconsciously deny earlier composers the right to have felt and thought the same way as we do today. What else explains dry, overly-articulated performances of Bach? Are they so different from the ‘typewriter’ school of Bach-playing, or the ‘sewing-machine style’ so prevalent a few decades ago?

The resort to Dogma as a subsitute for critical thinking is what unites all of these different performance approaches. Since it is modern man that built the Chrysler Building and has designed the Sydney Opera House (the same modern man, incidentally, conceived of nuclear weapons, but that is another discussion…), then we must think ourselves to be so intelligent and subtle and complex that no civilisation or era before us could possibly possess the same loftiness of thought. Hence performances of the opening movement of the Matthaus-Passion of Bach: Christ is going to be crucified, so let’s dance! Bach did not personally know English instruments by Schudi or Kirkman and did not live in Hamburg, so how dare we double octaves in the bass! The final movement of an otherwise maudlin violin sonata of Handel looks to have the metre of a gigue, and since we proud modern men know that Handel did not have the subtlety of thought that we do or could not have possibly conceived of anything close to irony (so much for his friendships with London literary circles), we must play it with the exact tempo of a gigue however it was danced in 1732 and then, moreover, squelch any signs of musical humour and substance in it. The sort of silly examples I could come up with would take several blog posts.

To set the record straight, I am not by any means railing against the studying of historical performance practice treatises. Quite the contrary, in fact – as I’m writing this, next to me on my nighstand is a copy of Girolamo Diruta‘s ‘Il Transilvano’ (1593/1609) covered with my own notes in pencil. Rather, I am inspired by the words of Ralph Kirkpatrick, who, in an article written short before his passing, spoke of the need to ‘transmute archaeology into art.’ When someone uses period fingering, I praise him, but not if a perpetual limping two-by-two can only be appreciated by those ‘in the know’ according to the performance practice Party line – as if, then, those who recognise the error of falling into any dogma are then attacked by the Party as somehow being ignorant. The memorisation of tens and hundreds of treatises will lead to the same place as the endeavour to be wilfully ignorant of the ideas and sentiments behind the genesis of a piece of music – in other words, nowhere! We are ready, like those patronising European colonialists at Ife, to embrace dogmas and legends of our own making rather than to acknowledge our own ignorance.