Colonialism, late capitalism, and the invention of Early Music

Wistreich, R. (2023) Colonialism, late capitalism, and the invention of Early Music. In: ‘The Revival of Heritage’: in memoriam Richard Taruskin (1945–2022), 28–29 August 2023, STIMU Symposium, Utrecht Festival Oude Muziek. (Unpublished)

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In the Introduction to Text and Act (1994), Richard Taruskin wrote: ‘the [“performance practice”] movement … has interests aplenty, and protects them… [It] is aggressively prescriptive and territorial, dispensing or conferring the status of authenticity as oxymoronical reward for conformity, claiming a specious moral authority, and laying guilt trips on those who fail to endorse its goals’ [p. 19]. In retrospect, Early Music’s ‘authenticity wars’ were of considerably less import than their bristling antagonists then thought. I am nevertheless struck by the high concentration of other highly charged words and phrases in this short extract: ‘protect[s]’, ‘aggressively prescriptive and territorial’, ‘dispensing or conferring …status’, ‘conformity’, and ‘specious moral authority’. They recall Jean Rancière’s concept of police: ‘an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying…. It is an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible, and another is not, that this ‘speech’ is understood as discourse and another as noise’. Taruskin situated his sophisticated (and at the time, unsettling) critique of Early Music’s various self-delusions in terms of a somewhat undeveloped notion of ‘modernity’. In this paper, I offer some tentative thoughts about how Early Music’s apparent success has been achieved and sustained against two of the greatest historical forces that shaped and continue to shape ‘modernity’– nineteenth-century colonialism and twentieth-century late Capitalism. This is an exercise in metaphorical rather than empirical, causal, or even cultural historiography, and I do not offer a rigidly materialist analysis of the ‘historical performance’ phenomenon. I do, however, want to emphasise that Early Music, like all cultural production, cannot exist outside the ideological spaces in which it operates, and only by understanding the ways in which it is interpellated into the prevailing political order can its participants progress its transformational aspirations.

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