On enigmatic traces

Marc Bloch states in The Historian’s Craft that the primary characteristic of historical observation lies in the reconstructing of knowledge from tracks or traces:

Whether it is the bones immured in the Syrian fortifications, a word whose form or use reveals a custom, a narrative written by the witness of some scene, ancient or modern, what do we really mean by document, if it is not a “track”, as it were – the mark, perceptible to the senses, which some phenomenon, in itself inaccessible, has left behind? (1953,54-55).

Thus, the trace stands for or takes the place of the past. An indirectness, which according to Ricoeur gives an enigmatic character to history from a philosophical point of view. Something that does not concern historians much, as their priority lies in their engagment with verifying the value of a documentary trace to a past event (TNIII, 143; MHF, 278).

Yet, history based on documents is meaningful, according to Ricoeur, so long as historians, in contrast to collectors of mass data banks, hold on to the idea of a debt “to people of flesh and blood to whom something really happened in the past” (TNIII, 118).  He sees the historian as providing a useful and nuanced corrective to collective memory, the final result of mass data collection. In view of today’s huge collections of big data and data mining, it is salutary to remember Ricoeur’s reflections from the mid-1980s.

The concept of traces was something Ricoeur reflected a great deal over in both Time and Narrative as well as Memory, History, Forgetting with the help of the writings of, among others, Bloch, Le Goff, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Bergson and Lévinas.  In his notion of historical time, as a connecting bridge between phenomenological time and ordinary time, he sees time as being refigured by historians through reflective instruments, such as calendars, generations, and archives, documents and traces.*

Of these, a trace is accepted as one, only when historians can recognize it as such, by rethinking, re-enacting, and retracing its significance, thus enabling a return to the past (TNIII, 146, 183, 77).

Traces are fragile. They may be altered, effaced, destroyed, made inaccessible or forgotten (MHF, 415-416, 472, 284). They indicate a here and now – of past events or activities of human beings. They mark the passage of time;  give a temporal distance. They are datable, and thus inscribed in time (TNIII, 229).

Ricoeur identifies 3 types of traces: the physical, material trace, which along with archived documents and the questions of historians constitute the basis of historical knowledge (MHF,177); the affective, the existential that we experience as impressions through encountering traces; and the cerebral, cognitive traces of memory (MHF, 415, 427).

Traces disturb, by their very presence. With Lévinas**, Ricoeur believes that traces imply an Other, a historical Other (TNIII, 124-126), thus attesting to Bloch’s “evidence of witnesses in spite of themselves” (Bloch, 61).

*See also my previous posts: On Calendars and Historical Time, and On intertwining history and the Other.

**Levinas, “La Trace”, in Humanisme de l’autre homme, 1972,  57-63.

Performing in historic spaces: an interview with Patricia Halverson, Chatham Baroque

(Patricia Halverson DMA has a doctorate in Early Music Performance Practice from Stanford University)

How were you inspired to study music? And make it your profession?

Music was important to my parents and consequently, my siblings and I were exposed to music (classical, primarily) and encouraged to take music lessons as a means of education and enrichment, not necessarily towards the goal of making music a career.

As a high school student I was interested in either pursuing music or in becoming an occupational therapist. Certain opportunities in music came my way—stimulating workshops, travel, and encouragement from musician friends—leading me to pursue music studies in college and later, in graduate school, at Stanford.

Why Early Music?

It was a case of being in the right place at the right time in terms of opportunities that presented themselves. For instance, while in high school I had the opportunity to tour with an early music collegium at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. One of the attractions of music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods is the explorative and flexible nature of music. I attended my first year of college at the College of St. Scholastica. I spent the remaining three years of undergraduate study at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Both schools are liberal arts schools, meaning that students develop a major area of focus but are also required to have a number of credits outside of the primary discipline.

And approximately what centuries are we speaking of here?

Much of the music I studied and performed while in college was music from the 16th century. Currently, I perform regularly with a group called Chatham Baroque. Our focus is 17th century and early 18th century repertory.

Do you also think about the historical context of your music? What sources do you use, apart from musical scores?

We love to perform in historic spaces. It is inspiring to us and it also informs our approach. This does not happen terribly frequently but we have had this experience in Latin America, Mexico and in historic churches in South Carolina, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In terms of historical context and sources, it is important for players of early music to be well versed in historical performance practices. This knowledge informs programming choices, ornamentation styles, the arranging of music, to name just a few examples. In Chatham Baroque we try always to have access to facsimiles of the music we play or to use clean modern editions.

You play on an authentic instrument from those times? What difference does it make?

The instruments I own are copies of original instruments. I use strings made of pure sheep gut or gut core covered with silver. Gut strings as opposed to nylon or steel strings have a significantly different sound. The bows used by players of early music are quite different from modern bows Since much of the music has references to dance, the bows make a big difference in playing stylistically.

Does it sound different to playing on a modern reconstruction?

That is a question which is impossible to answer simply because it depends on the builder and the overall condition of the instrument. Original instruments, especially members of the viola da gamba family, are not very common and are expensive to purchase and maintain. There are countless examples of original instruments in excellent condition, most likely with some restoration needed at various times. I have never had the opportunity to purchase an original instrument nor have I been in the market for such an instrument. I would be delighted if one were to fall into my lap!

How about costumes, have you ever performed your music wearing costumes from that time?

Occasionally, but the costumes were modelled on appropriated dress from the time, not authentically produced. Performing in costume is not something I would pursue. In general, I would say that playing in costume is something that amateur musicians are more likely to do.

Would the costume affect the playing? And how about your audience, would they experience the music differently? Am asking because of a weird experience: I once listened to an ensemble playing wonderful music, Renaissance I think it was, but suddenly I felt their sober dark suits were incongruous with the sounds emanating from their instruments.

It is likely that costumes would affect the playing. As for the audience’s experience, it depends a good deal on their expectation.  I believe that audience members may enjoy costumes because they can provide a visual enhancement of a purely musical experience. But I would guess that most musicians are not happy performing in costume.

What is the best performance your ensemble has given?

That is a challenging question. It is fun to perform concerts and I feel extremely fortunate to have wonderful and talented colleagues with whom I perform on a regular basis. When things go well in a live performance, it can be a thrilling experience. The other side of the spectrum are those concerts that are deflating. It’s like a bad day at the office. What keeps me going are the performing experiences that go beyond the “normal.” This can result with a particularly moving piece, or if the effort of the performers aligns in a special way.  The involvement or response of an audience or the treat of performing in an acoustic perfect for the repertory can also bring on one of these “magical moments.”

Or the best CD you’ve made? Can readers listen to some of your music online?

Espanoleta on the Dorian label (no longer in print but on iTunes). Henry Purcell: Sonatas and Theatre Music, also on the Dorian label. Bach & Before, on Chatham Baroque’s own label. Chatham Baroque’s music can be heard online by searching for Chatham Baroque on YouTube.

Music touches something deep within us, when I listen to music from earlier times, I feel we’re sharing something authentic with human beings in the past who heard the same music. As a performer, when you play, do you ever feel the frisson of history?

As I mentioned earlier, it is essential to be familiar with the history and have a knowledge of performance practices from the period during which the music was composed. For me, performing live does not involve or require a connection to the past. Rather, it is more about the moment—the music, the performers and what happens spontaneously on stage as a response to the connections between the performers and hopefully, with the audience.

How about other Early music ensembles? Who do you feel has particularly contributed to the field?

Important pioneers in the field include Gustav Leonhart, Frans Bruggen, members of the Kuijken family. They are all European. It is the case that teachers and performers from western Europe have led the way as leading performers and teachers in the early music movement. In today’s world there are an incredible number of important ensembles and orchestras to list and many ensembles evolving in the States and beyond that I have not yet heard or know.

What are you reading at present? Have you a favourite author, book, film, play, painting or building that you find inspirational?

I read a mix of things, mostly fiction. Nothing of great note lately, though I greatly enjoyed David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.

And music? Who are the composers, perhaps from other historical periods, who inspire or fascinate you?

I attend many live performances each month. It is a necessary part of the continuing education in the life of a professional musician. I really enjoy hearing music totally unrelated to early music. My husband and I attend several concerts performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra each year. It is broadening and moving to learn new works and hear their programs in a live setting.  Nearly all of the PSO’s repertory is music that I will never have the opportunity to perform.  I am a big fan of the music of Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Verdi.

Humanity and history: what do these terms mean to you as a musician? And what do the present day migrations signify to you?

Regarding humanity and history, we live in a conflicted world filled with inequalities. More often than not, technology offers a distracting palate and trumps face-to-face conversation. I would like to think that the arts and music in particular have the potential to inspire and move viewers and listeners in a way that is new and healing.