The Boy Who Cried Wolf

While being interviewed, it is easy to realise – within seconds – how informed the person behind the microphone really is. It is your duty, dear fellow musician, to clear all doubts, myths and incorrect information while giving the interview; your chance is there, it’s not difficult to fulfill. You are representing – no matter how significantly – an art field, and probably you want your audience to understand it better. And those who are interested in your work, in your career, in the mechanism of your world, well you have the opportunity to demystify it, to explain and enlighten.

Unless, of course, you think it’s better to keep the mystery, and add some salt to it instead. Then you choose to act differently: you can grab all the clichés and feed them to clueless people who want to remain clueless. For example, “Early Music sounds like it’s dead already” – they used to say that in the Sixties. Someone who never listened to enough Early Music recordings will just take this statement for granted, if it comes from a famous artist. In my country of origin, this is called “demagogy”. This statement belongs to the same category as “Germany takes in refugees, while they don’t care about their own homeless people”. Clueless people will just believe that, and you have just used and misguided them. Is that how you care about your audience? Do you want them to understand, or you want them to “vote for you”, like they voted for Trump?

A few days ago I read an interview in the VAN magazine, of a harpsichordist who made a career out of presenting himself as a “misunderstood and persecuted outsider” (words of a friend of mine). This interview was apparently worth translating and publishing in the German issue as well. As VAN puts it, “his approach to the instrument stands out in contrast to the traditional associations of the harpsichord with the historical performance movement”. This can be (and often is) said about almost every emerging harpsichordist in the last twenty years, wherein I count myself as well: we are many. There is some truth to VAN’s statement, but only when being looked at through a distorted lens. In its essence and poor description, it is actually wrong and misleading. The interview mentioned above would have us believe that the “traditional approach” is boring and dead – which is simply not true. There are tons of records to support such a statement, as there are tons of records to prove this statement wrong, as it is with all kind of news nowadays. Yes, the younger generation is different than the older. Together with growth there comes emancipation, but not always denial. Being stylistically inaccurate or technically careless does not count; this has nothing to do with being a pioneer breaking the chains of old traditions. Conclusion: This statement is more wrong than right, and it is useless, in other words, this is what we call in German “hot air”.

The press needs to start caring more about the facts, and less about freak-shows. Dear interviewer, before asking questions about the harsh reality of the harpsichord and early music academic world, make sure that the person you are just about to interview knows what they are talking about. Would you ask someone from the US who travelled to Germany once for Oktoberfest about German society and the realities of everyday life there? Do you think that this person would be qualified to give pertinent answers? Maybe you really want to know how the reality in those music academies is, by asking people who actually studied there? You could do that, and you’d get your share of scandalous stories and critical issues. But let us not invent any.

The performance practice departments of music academies in continental Europe are the most cosmopolitan ones of all. During my studies in Amsterdam with Bob van Asperen, there were 10 of us in his class, from all over the world (except from the Netherlands, there was nobody from there). Such a thing as institutional “foreign-hate” did not exist, as it does not exist now; we were all foreigners there. We are all foreigners everywhere, in every academy, on every stage. Maybe each one of us felt as an outsider every now and then – how could we not, when we come from a different world and need to adjust at first? This is part of life. And yes, one might experience some snobbery here and there, because some academies are more prestigious than others, but this is only elitism, not nationalism. We can all cope with a bit of elitism: we are adults. We don’t need to cry “wolf!” like the boy in the story.

Did you, dear interviewer, realise that you are talking to this very shepherd boy, who has cried “Racism!” for years now? If the harpsichord world would be a monopoly shared by the “Dutch and French camps”, how do you explain the career of harpsichordists who don’t come from Central Europe, but from Eastern Europe, South America, USA, Asia, Israel, UK & elsewhere? That many of these people studied in France or the Netherlands is easy to explain: that’s where most Early Music departments were, it’s when the Early Music “movement” started. But that changed rapidly, and today there is an impressive number of active and gifted harpsichordists who studied in Spain, Belgium, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland and several other places which are not The Netherlands or France.

The boy in the story gets eaten by the monster he cried for too many times. I think the villagers should have punished the little boy for wasting their time. Indeed, they gave him one chance too many, and then the wolf got him. I ask myself: why does the boy keep harassing everyone? Maybe things don’t go the way he wants, and he is frustrated? Or maybe he is just bored? Maybe he hates the villagers and does it intentionally? Or maybe he truly believes there is a wolf out there? If he would be truly aware about both these things – (1) what a wolf really is, and (2) there is no wolf out there – I think he just wouldn’t do it. Now, if the real wolf would come and threaten other kids, and they cry for help, will anyone listen?

I asked a befriended journalist why does the press often not do their homework properly. Did they forget what they are there for? He said that everyone is struggling for popularity and high rating, and that the pressure is high. When did that happen? Anyway, this has to stop. ““Your conscience is the measure of the honesty of your selfishness. Listen to it carefully.” (again, not my words). Dear press, start doing your homework properly.

You’re in it for the music

Where did I hear or read that, that you need at least two out of three in order to make the job. And these three would be: quality, fun, and money. Anyway, even if I know my colleagues must be tired of this already, I keep quoting this a lot, and a second thought immediately comes along: “Most of the times, it’s just one”. Or, lately, something like “two halfs, or one and a half”. Something like that. Now, what is the work of a standard early music performer in Germany? You have your own projects if you got the ideas, the ambition and the energy, and a bit of luck. That’s great, it gives you two out of three, even all three, and it can make you happy or at least high. You got to get high, in order to cope with all the extra load which comes inevitably together with your activity as a performing musician: travelling a lot, sleeping way too little, rehearsing from eight to twelve hours a day, sometimes having to cope with inconvenient lodgings and lack of privacy. You can also cope with real discomfort, provided by inconsiderate concert hosts, conductors, colleagues or fans and poor concert locations. Such things are not often the case, but often enough to be mentioned. If you don’t get high, you can’t cope with any of this in the long run. Then, however, apart from performing as a soloist or with some great projects that are the fruits of your own mind and soul, or of some other colleagues you love to work with, there are the other jobs an early music performer in Germany does, and they are the majority. These are the gigs: one Christmas Oratorio here, one St Matthew Passion there, performed by freelancers just like yourself, some you know, some you don’t, under the direction of a first grade church musician, together with his choir and some hired vocal soloists. These gigs are our daily (or rather weekly, or monthly) bread. This is what feeds us and pays our bills. Providing that these gigs sometimes prove to be fun, challenging and sophisticated, in most cases you find yourself sitting on that chair of yours and trying to get high, on the music you actually love, but which is not happening the way you need it. You ask yourself if you can cope with it. How different is this music allowed to be, in order to still get you high? The porn scene you are forced to watch now, how different is it from the good sex adventures and romance in real life you have experienced and which you want to recall, in order to get high? How well are you able to accomodate with what’s going on? Can you still get high while watching that porn? Is anything going to happen in order to at least “push the button”? Well, you’re trying hard. Maybe it’s up to you to make that porn go away and turn it into real passion. And it’s exhausting, as seconds pass by in slow-motion. Your mind is at the music you play, while trying to get high, but one other thought is there as well: “It will be over soon”. In the concert, all musicians play better. We try to get high, and sometimes we can, but it required some energy. Then we think about getting to the station in time so that we can get the last train home, because no matter what waits for us there, it is better than the porn we left behind in that concert hall.
I wondered for so long if I were the only one who feels it this way – quite pretentious of me, I admit. Now I know better, there are many of us.
Last year one dear colleague announced his early retirement from the concert scene, I know of many who seriously consider quitting as well. Others got seriously ill. I may be a bit too forward to connect all these things, after all, I do not take the liberty to talk for others and some of them might, in good faith, not agree with me. It is for sure, in the world of the musical scene – very undemocratic as I see it – an unwise move to talk freely about such things. And yet I wish we did, to take into consideration that we may disagree, and eventually to find advice and solutions. I know I am not the only one who feels porn when it’s supposed to be passion, I cannot be.

Three Sides Of Me

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” Ansel Adams

Thank you, Leif Marcus, for the time, the distance, the attention, for the way you choose your moments to capture the light and the moments which pass by so quickly. For the talks we had and the cigarettes we smoked together on that sunny afternoon.
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_MG_7455photos © Leif Marcus

To think of harpsichords as lovers

This idea came to me – consciously, at least – not long ago, one stormy and pitch-dark evening while practising in a church for next-day’s big concert featuring Gesualdo Consort in Leer/East Frisia. Huge rain drops whipping the streets of this otherwise cosy nordic German town made an almost deafening noise and it was cold outside – not at all an unsuitable atmosphere to practice my Sweelinck. The solid, spacious church was friendly enough with just a few indecisive ghosts wandering around, I felt fine. Only my first „date“ with the instrument did not go the way I hoped. This harpsichord would not always do what I wanted, not immediately, or not the way I expected, leaving me a bit worried and tense. At that moment I remember thinking „it’s like a much older boyfriend with rusty habbits a half-open heart“ and that made me sad. Soon my mind became full of the pictures of some other significant harpsichords from my history, and they were a merry gathering wearing their human masks, as if they thought that was fun. And because music making and love making are so much alike – AND because one cannot approach a harpsichord properly except with tenderness, and because… because… who doesn’t “humanize” their instruments anyway? – I realized that seing harpsichords as lovers is one of the most natural things in the world. And if not a lover, then a friend – or an enemy, or a cold bastard at worst. For sure, a harpsichord, for me, is always a „he“. And where there are many harpsichords, or lovers, they fall into categories. Here the inspiring kind, which brings to light some hidden sparkling jewels in the music you’ve been playing for weeks, months or years, here’s the comforting kind which replies with grace to your imperfections, here’s the trustworthy kind you can rely on because it never changes, and here’s “the perfect lover”. Mine is the Neuchatel-Ruckers (1623/1745) who carried me on his golden arms to places I did not know before, leaving me completely changed, reborn! There’s also, of course, the reliable trophy „husband“ at home (like my double-manual French after Hemsch). Then there’s also the deceiving kind, the one which completely changes (in the concert), after he promised you not to (during the rehearsal), or the unsetteled, whiny wimp who needs constant tuning, adjusting, permanent assistance for a poor result in return and at last, there’s “the enemy”, the rude kind who declares war the very moment you lay your fingers on. Many of those leaving you with a bitter taste and the wish never to see them again.

The harpsichord from Leer proved itself to be an intriguing and consistent companion after all. During the concert he stayed with me and even allowed me here and then to sense his beating heart under my hands. Soon I’ll be seeing him again. I expect he will need to be reconquered from scratch but I’ll glady try.