Confronting The Museum

In their infancy, museums must have confounded its guests. Here was a place where things were taken away from their context and function to be displayed and compared to other presented artifacts which came before and after. A pilgrimage to Rome to see sculpture turned into a walk down the block.

Music in modernity has been a museum in this sense. A recording brings the organ works of Bach out from the church and into our home. Works originally for Baroque instruments, lute or harpsichord for instance, are transcribed to fit modern instruments. Programs can juxtapose Serialist, Renaissance, and Romantic repertoire in the course of an hour.

Listening to music comes eerily close to walking in a museum, passing by an artifact as you read of where it came from and forgetting about it as you move into the next exhibit. Performing music comes eerily close to curating a museum, putting out works to show and adding program notes to make sure people know what they’re looking at.

Museums are wonderful as a sort of pseudo-intellectual entertainment. People feel smart for going, that their time was spent wisely observing and learning about history. The latter sentence could easily describe a classical music concert.

The question is whether we’re fine with building more museums out of music or whether we want to create a living breathing art: a music still connected to the context and function that museums sought to eradicate.

Context and function sound time constricted. Bach wrote this cantata for the third Sunday…it starts to sound like a museum all over again. Yet perhaps this is only a base context and function.

There has to be a context and function to music that is timeless, that isn’t linked to an exhibit or a recital or program notes. Appreciator and performer alike talk about experiencing these transcendent qualities. But it’s so much easier to talk about dates and notes: less room for misunderstanding and cluelessness.

The museum returns…


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