Historical Performance – and Unfair Comparisons

I’m currently reading Taruskin’s Text and Act – essays on Music and Performance. A part of the beginning of the book is all about the intersections of musicology and music performance. Musicology in part is important to the western tradition also because of the concept of historical performance – to reproduce, as accurately as one can, the music from a time period not their own. This, as one can imagine, includes many many disciplines – people who study scores to find out what different things mean, instrument makers and repairers – who can decipher from text – the technology from a different time and recreate it, experts on intonation – those who can interpret how intonation might have been from the score and the hints in writing, historians – who can interpret the mood and the setting of the music, and lastly conductors, theorists and teachers, interpreting how the music must have sounded from score. This means that music performance majors also specialise in particular times in history.

Several of these disciplines that emerge from the insistence on Historical Performance, are not fundamental to the study of music in a cultural performance studies like Indian music. In part, this is perhaps what makes it very easy for Indian musicians to undermine the importance and strength of the entire discipline of musicology. The history that we are trying to reproduce doesn’t exist from any time period in particular, but is a reference to a common, homogenous, historic ‘whole’, that may or may not have been in the past. A trope such as ‘why write about music if you can practise it’, and ‘if you write that must mean you are actually no good at performance’ can come about only because of a different angle of historical performance.

This meanwhile, is true for most musical cultures. As they start to get objectified, their nature changes. They are sometimes viewed from the outside, sometimes their agency shifts, as in the case of Indian folk music, from social functions and rituals, to catering to the tourists. The subjects that the songs are about, instead of changing to match the new life of the people, become inwardly – sticking to archaic themes in apparent attempts of preserving historicity. This is visible not just in folk music but also in part in the newly composed khyal material in Indian classical music. Non-canonized new compositions self-censor their language to not be contemporary on purpose. The subjects to reflect an imagined time in ‘history’, but without a date and a place. In this sense, the new themes are often lost entirely, and never spoken about in song.

So – what is the position of musicology in such a setup?