The presentation text accompanying the Radio 3 series classic world, inviting us to “join the dots between the classical musical traditions of the world”, offers an introduction to the field of comparative musicology. Such a noble undertaking – the search for commonalities in melodies, ornamentation, rhythms, use of instruments, vocal styles and techniques, etc. – would once have been an essential part of Radio 3’s continued adherence to the Reithian ideals of informing and educating as well as entertaining. Jon Silpayamanant’s series, however, is more like a series of episodes of Late joinmarried to moralizing and historically unbalanced commentary.
Music is used to illustrate a particular view of world history from around the 8th century to the beginning of the 20th. The variety is enormous: from the enthusiastic but static polyphonic interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer of Georgia, to the austere but very complex and inventive counterpoint of Guillaume de Machaut The Mass of Our Ladythe amorphous, unanchored and intimate slippery heights of Japanese gagaku, to the combination of Arabic-like chants with a rhythmically charged accompaniment from Zanzibar’s Ikhwani Safaa music club. But observations on many pieces of music, and their relationship to each other, consist of a few basic remarks about the common use of polyphony, similar instrumentation, or their origins in dance forms.
The three episodes are “Pious Voices and Plucked Strings”, dealing with the Middle Ages, “Courtly Dances, Imperial Advances”, considering the impact of patronage and empire, and “Nationhood and New Sounds”, on music, the nationalism and cultural exchanges.
The first episode opens with Hildegard von Bingen’s antiphon ‘O frondens virga’, a crucial work in Hildegard’s modern reimagining as a 12th-century New Age figure, whose music broke away from its particular philosophical and theological context. Next, we are given a 1996 recording of the Armenian melody “Zarmanali e ints” – with elaborations on modern string and wind instruments – presented as if it were what one would have heard in the 8th century. There is extant musical notation from this time and place, but it did not indicate pitch, a tradition which was not codified until the 19th century. The researchers made some inferences, but the knowledge remains very uncertain to date.
In a recording played by the Spanish band Hespèrion XXI of the only surviving song by a trobairitz (a female troubadour), the 12th century ‘A Chantar M’er de So Q’ieu No Voldria’ by Beatritz de Dia, the strongly inflected chant of Montserrat Figueras fits with today’s constructions of ‘the’ expressiveness’ but it’s speculative to project that style back to the era. Likewise, orally conveyed information about the performance of older world musics may have evolved significantly over the course of changing social and political circumstances.
These issues have not been examined, as have many aspects of Silpayamanant’s larger historical view. He uses Josquin Desprez, William Byrd or JS Bach mainly to make a didactic point about European composers who essentially follow money, which could be said of almost all professional musicians throughout history. At the end of the second episode, Silpayamanant plays the prelude to Bach’s organ chorale “Komm, heiliger Geist”, BWV 651. Instead of considering the music, he employs guilt by association, alluding to the “long interwoven histories of patronage music that went before him” and earlier how “the enrichment of Europe often subsidized classical music via global exploitation” (there is little evidence of global undertakings from Bach’s major patrons) , with connections to other cultures and people sometimes ‘hidden in patrons’ balance sheets’. Whether the relationship between a patron and his socially inferior musician may in itself be strained and strained, or that various patrons have different agendas, n is not taken into account.
Such a liberal application of postcolonial guilt and fair historical judgment applies only to Western classical traditions. When considering Ottoman classical music, Silpayamanant portrays the empire almost as a precursor to modern, liberal, multicultural pluralism, not as a violent, expansionist empire that enslaved millions of Africans and Eastern Europeans. . Similarly, while pointing out the number of mosques in early modern Thailand, due to Persian influence, Silpayamanant does not mention the 500-year history of slavery beginning at this time. The connections between these phenomena and the music of this period may be tenuous, but this is just as true in the Western context.
The final program is more engaging (despite derisory coverage by Beethoven and Debussy), with some additional information on Balinese gamelan and Arabic traditions.
As a survey of a few short samples of a range of global traditions over a millennium and a half, the program succeeds, although the view of many non-Western traditions is primarily touristic. But more insightful engagement with the premise is possible in the time available, with selective use of music and context and more incisive critical observations of their possible interactions. Silpayamanant’s programs may prove more effective in placating the consciences of the Western middle class than in encouraging serious engagement with world classical musics.