Monday, January 16, 2012

Consuming Culture at Colonial Williamsburg


Over the week between Christmas and New Years this year, I traveled to Colonial Williamsburg with my family. While there, I attended a concert of chamber music at the governor's palace meant to emulate the kinds of music that the state's upper-crust would have enjoyed in the years immediately preceding the American Revolution. My lack of intense enjoyment of this musical style prompted some interesting conversations with friends who had benefited from Oberlin Conservatory's phenomenal musical education.

My friend, Kate, provided an insightful view, introducing me to the scholarship of Bruce Haynes, a "period performer" who wrote a historical treatise called The End of Early Music in which he explained that there is a lot more to the musical performance than the music itself. Historical performance requires a delicate dance, bringing together the peculiarities of instrument, venue, audience and aspiration to "authenticity."

Haynes' view reminds me of David Lowenthal, a historian who wrote a book called The Past is a Foreign Country. Excerpts of his book are usually required reading in public history classes, but his main argument is that you can't easily understand the culture of the past, or take tiny parts of that past culture into the present (like music, or art, or furniture or architecture) with only assumptions drawn from your present context. To better understand any culture from the past, you have try to reconstruct its context by understanding what came before and after it, and what kind of people were into it when it was going on-- what their goals and motivations were, etc. But any attempt at historical performance or re-enactment makes things even more complicated because if you perform or re-enact in exactly the way something was done in the past, it might not make any sense to a present audience. You need some kind of transitional interpretation to aid in any current audience's appreciation.

So, going back to the chamber concert I went to at Williamsburg, I wonder whether they accomplished this appropriately. I imagine that a lot of the chamber music we heard at the candlelight concert at the governor's palace would probably have been heard in a more "party" context back in the 18th century. A lot of people probably would have been milling around and talking through the music. At the same time, those people attending a party at the governor's palace probably did so for rather formal reasons, so even some action that appeared casual probably had a great deal of contrivance behind it, making the measured, formal quality of the music even more appropriate, whether or not they were actually involved in the sarabande or gavotte.

Our 21st century audience was mostly made up of middle-class or upper-middle-class tourists who were treating themselves to an extra evening activity, a measured act of liesure representing their aspirations to a higher level of cultural refinement, or to personal identification with being well-educated, or worldly in a history-geek kind of way. So, I doubt that there was any political maneuvering going on during our evening concert-- Instead, I think that every little tourist group was trying to have a very personal experience in the midst of a crowd of strangers. So, i doubt that there could be a way to more "authentically" recreate the experience of 18th century chamber music for the crowd that vacationed at Colonial Williamsburg without detracting from the enjoyment of the visitors.. That being said, I think I still would have enjoyed more instruction about the role of the composers they chose to perform-- would they have been well-known or new to the people attending a contemporary concert?

I guess most of the time, I don't mind a little additional instruction. Along those lines, one of my favorite programs we attended in Williamsburg was a performance of single acts from contemporary plays called "Rogues, Villains, and Fops." Before the actors came on to perform each scene, they gave a pithy introduction to their character and what an 18th century audience would have expected. My favorite was the fop-- a character who used displays of fashion-consciousness bordering on feminity ostensibly to attract women. Is there a modern equivalent? I feel like boy bands fit the bill in the 90s and early 00s, but what now? Would love your thoughts.