old and new
And a bit about oboes.
Recently I went to the Medieval Market in Turku, a city a few hours west of Helsinki by bus on the Aura river. The city was the original capital of Finland, dating back to the 13th century and home to a medieval stone church with stunning acoustics. I heard a concert of medieval music there, and I can really recommend attending music events in the church–it’s really an authentic experience. Which is sort of what I want to talk about.
It’s always a little problematic when we talk about authenticity, I think, because the motivation behind it is really what matters. I talk about this a lot in terms of early music; I was pretty well indoctrinated into the historical performance mindset during the few years I was actively studying it (lucky to study under some of the contemporary HIPP greats plus guest lecturers and to even meet the iconic historical oboe master Bruce Haynes), and it struck me that the root of all those great debates is really in the motivation behind decisions you make (or choose not to make) in your approach to the music.
I’m not such a rabid HIPP proponent that I insist on only using the materials that the original performers would have had available, playing only on exact copies of original instruments. I use bought staples (because the ones I have made myself are decidedly less than expert and require a lot of time and a bit of finesse in metalworking!) and Teflon tape instead of fishskin, I play on a Saxon and I don’t mind some creative license; I once spent an afternoon improvising on a Handel sonata in mariachi style. But I do think it’s a bit inauthentic to do the St. Matthew Passion with 20 singers on each part, or to play Scarlatti on a Steinway with no trills. It’s still music, but it’s become something different, and I think we need to be aware of the decisions we make.
I feel strongly about early instruments mainly because of physics. The music was written specifically for instruments that work this way, which is often very different (well, relatively different) than the way “modern” instruments work. The early oboes have few or no keys, just tone holes, and in terms of technique, the process of playing the instrument by picking up your fingers (to allow sound to escape the tone holes) rather than putting down your fingers (to press on the keys which open the tone hols) requires a complete conceptual mind shift and more attention in particular to timing. There is a difference in air pressure within the instrument and in the way the air moves through boxwood rather than grenadilla, rosewood or (heaven forbid) resin. Lacking octave keys and keys which would prevent crossfingerings (a kind of awkward fingering pattern that requires the player to put fingers down and pick others up simultaneously, often resulting in an unappealing blurp sound between notes and which also often have a more muffled timbre–F and Bb in particular on oboes), early oboes shift registers by overblowing, which is a process of increasing air pressure and shifting the direction of air flow in order to bump the note up to the next harmonic. Flautists and brass players are already familiar with this process. Because oboes (and flutes) are shaped like very long cylinders on the inside, they overblow an octave; members of the clarinet family, which are shaped like cylinders, overblow a twelfth. I could go on and on about this–I think acoustics and organology are fascinating, and that’s not even getting into the acoustics of reedmaking! But if anyone’s interested, there are some great resources out there.
My point with all this is that the music that was written, say in 1670, was written with the contemporary instruments in mind. In some ways the early instruments were more limited–mainly in range and in dependability–but in many ways they were more flexible, and the music reflects this. It is possible to play much faster passages on early oboes simply because the mechanism is much simpler (it only depends on how fast you can pick your fingers up), and it’s possible to play more florid and interesting ornamentations by flexing pitch and timbre in ways that the more rigid modern oboes and modern reeds cannot. It is of course possible to play early music on modern oboes, or modern music on early oboes, but again it’s not quite the same thing. It’s more of a co-opting of physical circumstances or rhetorical devices, a sort of anachronistic creative license.
Back to the Medieval Market.
At one point walking through the market I realized something: although there is no shortage of “ren faires” etc. in the US, like the creative license taken with mixing modern and early musics (see, I did relate it!), they actually represent a co-opting of European, mainly English culture at a time when culture in North America was a complicated clash between Native American tribes and European imperialists. A more accurate “faire” would feature Puritan garb, tribal handicrafts, and whatever games were popular amongst the colonists–certainly not jousting dressed as knights. It’s not wrong, but we have to admit that it’s a good deal of creative license. It’s performative, not historical.
But Finland had Finnish people in it during the medieval times, and the wares featured at the market were culturally accurate. In fact, the market square lies in the shadow of a medieval stone church and was the original market square. It was an interesting glimpse into history to see how this area would have looked at that time. I was so impressed by the authenticity of the vendors’ carts and their outfits; I guess I haven’t had experiences with the more intense “ren faire” reenactors, but my memory of the dress is that they are overall cheap and costumy, a farce. At the Turku market I caught myself staring at people because everything about them was authentic. Clean faces and traditional hairstyles on the women, headscarves and braids, all the clothing was made of real linen and wool and in the colours of the natural dyes that are found in Finland. Even accessories and shoes were authentic, leather and fur, wool yarn braided into decorative ribbons. There were men, women, old people, young people, and even tiny children dressed entirely in the style, not making a big show out of it like people do in costumes, but going about their business cooking sausages and stirring pots and selling cups of tea and weaving fabrics. It made me feel not so much that I was at a medieval fair but that I was in a sort of Amish country but instead of being Amish, all the people were living in some kind of old-fashioned Finnish community. It was like being there, like these people were real and not playing characters.
And then I had a second realization, which was that the reason it all felt so real was that it is real. I ended up not buying anything because looking around, the vendors were selling the same handicrafts which are sold in the markets today. Birch baskets, beautiful wooden boxes and cutting boards and kitchen sets, cups and tankards and sauna ladles carved from wood, wool and linen textiles–rugs, blankets, fabrics and hand-dyed fibres, handmade soaps with clover and lily-of-the-valley, natural paints made from plants and minerals, leather and ironworks and silverworks, and in the food alley there was smoked fish and sausages and potatoes, mushroom tea and Finnish bread and pastries and local honey. Of course there were books about medieval times and some costume pieces, and a lot of little birdcalls which are apparently a big thing in Finland, but all things functional were things that handicraftspeople who live today in Finland have trained in their trade and continue to make a living selling their wares in the markets in town. And in fact, walking around the market we watched a group of women dying wool with leaves and flowers, a whittler carving something with wood, a cauldron of vegetable soap boiling away on an open fire in the yard.
I want to emphasize that these are not “alternative” lifestyles, either, they’re just businesspeople, modern entrepreneurs and artists who make things that we all use everyday. They just happen to sometimes dress in medieval outfits while making their wares. And overall, the handicrafts themselves are even the same design: a bit stark, but minimalist, extremely efficient, inspired by nature, and simply elegant, classic features of Finnish design. So I had a little laugh to think that Finnish handicraft hasn’t really changed in about a thousand years! Just goes to show, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I talk a lot about exoticism, but I also want to make a point here about markets. Although it is changing with people of my generation increasingly demanding local, responsible products and thronging to farmers’ markets, there are parts of the Western world in which we’ve just accepted that things come from supermarkets and malls, whether it’s food or clothing or soap or housewares or gifts. Things come in plastic packages lined up a hundred all the same, with a little white price tag and a black bar code and if you can get it on sale, even better. I know this thinking originated a way back, probably even starting with the industrial revolution, and in the way that society has evolved in the past 200 years, it makes sense. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.
But I don’t think that life has to be this way. I don’t think that my clothes have to be made cheaply in China and shipped overseas or that the scent of my soap has to be trademarked. I don’t think that my food has to come in plastic packages with a “use by” date as if I can’t see if carrots have gone off or not. I don’t think that a gift that was made in a factory with an expensive price tag and a return receipt is worth more than something entirely unique that is made by hand and bought from a market hall or a tent by the harbor.
And I don’t mean that progress should halt, or that we should all turn into hipsters and start bringing typewriters to cafes or take up homesteading. I just mean that there are some things in life that everybody needs and will always need–food, pillows and rugs, home decor, cups and bowls and boxes and baskets, soap and fabric and art. All around the world people have these things and they have both stayed the same and evolved with time. Historically, culture has been passed on through handicrafts workers and the stories that they put into their works. They represent both the old and the new of humanity; the idea that a woman sat in the same square as her counterpart, hundreds of years between them, weaving the same fabric out of the same wool but using the resources and the inspiration that comes from her own life and time–it’s fascinating to me.
When the next big fall of Western civilization comes, however you think it will happen, we will still need fabric and soap and pots and cups and baskets. We will still need stories and people who know how to make things. So I think we should honor the handicraft artisans. They are the ones who made our culture and they are the ones who will carry it another thousand years.