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Make It Old

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Make It Old

Apart from a certain ingenuity with rhythm, I suspect my principal gift as a musician is the unerring ability to always be out of step with everyone else. My outsider credentials are valid, and one example is that the motto of my aesthetic progress is likely "Make It Old" in contrast to Ezra Pound's famous modernist exhortation to "Make It New." Yes, my modernism is more like an antiquarianism. Mind you, the very phrase "make it new" which Pound used as the title for a book of essays in 1934, was actually discovered by him in an ancient Chinese manuscript, so there you go:
The actual genealogy of the phrase “Make It New” has been established by Pound scholars and is well known to those among them who specialize in Pound’s relation to China, but it is so often misdated and for that matter misquoted (tagged with a spurious exclamation mark) that its genesis is worth recounting in some detail. The crucial fact to begin with is that the phrase is not originally Pound’s at all. The source is a historical anecdote concerning Ch’eng T’ang (Tching-thang, Tching Tang), first king of the Shang dynasty (1766–1753 BC), who was said to have had a washbasin inscribed with this inspirational slogan. According to the sinologist James Legge, it is not a commonly told anecdote, but Pound was fortunate enough to have found it in two sources: the Da Xue (Ta Hio), first of the four books of Confucian moral philosophy, and the T’ung-Chien Kang-Mu, a classic digest and revision of an even older classic Chinese history. That Pound coincidentally found the same uncommon anecdote in two different places may be explained by the fact that both texts were prepared by the neo-Confucian scholar Chu Hsi (1130–1200 AD), who has perhaps the best claim as true originator of the slogan Make It New.
 I was a practicing rock and blues guitarist in the late 1960s when I discovered classical music, at the precise moment, in fact, when, according to Richard Taruskin, it was popular music that was where it was at as classical music was no longer where "serious" listeners went:
And that is why classical music is failing, and in particular why intellectuals, as a class, and even the educated public, have been deserting it. The defection began in the sixties, when all at once it was popular music that engaged passionately-adequately or not, but often seriously and even challengingly-with scary, risky matters of public concern, while classical music engaged only frivolously (remember radical chic?) or escaped into technocratic utopias. By now, the people who used to form the audience for "serious" music are very many of them listening to something else.
Richard Taruskin. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Kindle Locations 1173-1176). Kindle Edition.
But, out of step as I was, what I heard in classical music, first Tchaikovsky, then Dvořák and finally, as I found my stride, Bach and Beethoven, was a range and depth of expression that, no matter that it was popular and ever-present, popular music simply lacked. Taruskin complains of the "packaged greatness" and smugness and dullness that celebrations of classical music, such as the impromptu performance of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the fall of the Berlin wall, always seem to involve, but there was no packaged greatness in my encounter with the classical. It came in the form of scratchy old LPs and even 78s borrowed from the father of a friend. I still expect performances of the Unfinished Symphony of Schubert to skip a few bars as did the old LP that I listened to so many times!

For me part of the ineffable attraction of classical music was in the very fact that it was neglected, marginal. In the social circles where I grew up, rural Canada, there were no symphony balls, no Met galas--no symphony and no opera at all. Classical music was a minor little niche, not the expression of elite taste. Other minor little niches that I discovered over the years between my late teens and my late twenties were Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Homer, Dante (these latter in part due to Pound, in fact), philosophy and all sorts of antiquated culture. The philosophers I was drawn to were not Nietzsche or Hegel, but rather Plato and finally, Aristotle.

My career as a performer tended to show some of the same traits. Yes, I did perform the warhorses of the repertoire, no avoiding that, but every chance I got I played more esoteric music: Leo Brouwer before he became popular, obscure sonatas by Scarlatti and suites by Weiss. Even the occasional transcription of Froberger or mammoth sets of variations by really obscure Czech composers. Since what the audiences wanted to hear were tangos by Piazzolla, you can guess how my career went!

My whole life, my criteria for quality has always been connected to the unpopular because it seems clear that everything really popular involves deadly compromises. Quality, like veins of gold, is found in the obscure niches, in the neglected, in the scratchy old 78s, in the manuscripts few bother to read.

An old friend of mine says that true wisdom is always boring, likely because it states truths so timeless that we already know them, but are reluctant to admit it.

Let's listen to an old recording of the Unfinished Symphony by Schubert. This is Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1953:




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