Sunday, August 5, 2007

Queen of the World

So I was in the bathroom. Doesn't every good story start this way? So I was in the bathroom, specifically one of the dozen-plus identical bathrooms that honeycomb the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. I'd gone in for the usual reasons and all signs pointed to a quintessential bathroom experience. There was tasteful blue tile. There were empty paper towel dispensers. There were sinks of marginal cleanliness.

And then there was BWV 1030, sonata for flute and obbligato harpsichord by J.S. Bach, performed on period instruments. Yes, folks, the historical performance movement has ascended the throne.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I settled for drying my hands on my pants. Later, though, staggering through the neon bustle of the airport, I couldn't seem to shake the opening bars of the allegro, or, for that matter, the dulcet dribble of the tap. Isn't the early music movement charged with refreshing our ears, with injecting new life into half-dead sonatas, with overturning our expectations? If so, a slot on Top Bathroom Ballads of the Upper Midwest surely constitutes less than complete success.

Then again, early music is settling down nowadays. Performers are worn out with reflexive rebellion and are starting to make noise about simply engaging the ear. What if the early music movement's goal is merely to produce music audiences appreciate? Again I think a bathroom debut spells trouble. How many people are able to eliminate and musically engage at the same time?

Ah, but if we subscribe to the notion of authentic performance? Of recreating music as it was heard in the time of its composer? Well then, my early music brethren, we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. For music has become what it often was in the time of Bach: incidental. Background to liturgy or socializing, political maneuvering or food, but seldom the star of the show.

Don't forget to flush.

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