By Jackson Studzinski
What is historical performance? That is a question I have been asking myself and the faculty of Oberlin Conservatory, where I studied harpsichord and baroque bassoon. I recently graduated, and with graduation comes a final recital. This can either be a source of dread and fear, or of inspiration and creativity. For me, it was absolutely the former. My mission was to somehow turn this alarming recital into creative output, into something I could collaborate with other musicians on, and have fun in the process. So I started with a fundamental question: what is it we are trying to do here?
The conclusion I came to was that historical performance can be a very valuable and useful creative tool in our toolbox. Too often, I find we are merely re-creating music with what we think are “historical rules and regulations” that lead to a tasteful performance. For the uninitiated (college students), I have found that “tasteful” equals boring. The source of dread in regard to my recital, I realized, was that nobody would come, as had traditionally been the case with historical performance recitals at Oberlin, because they would think it was boring. In order to attract a group of young musicians on the cutting edge, as well as inspire myself, I would have to create something new.
It was at this point that I realized that historical performance as a concept does not and should not have to be relegated to Baroque music. Every musical genre, including jazz, funk, noise, hip-hop, punk, Indian classical music, etc., has a rich musical and cultural history that we could potentially draw from to create something spectacular.
For my recital, I decided to combine the idea of fresh approaches to Baroque music with the idea of using historical performance methods on other musical cultures to formulate new music. I looked at historical documents for inspiration and attempted to experiment with new interpretations of Baroque music. Then I looked at historical documents of other musics, ranging from punk and black metal to noise, musique concrete, free jazz, and more.
I opened with a version of the “Star Spangled Banner” that was a viral video on YouTube. At first glance, the woman singing appears to be butchering the song. Upon further investigation, however, I found that she is moving between keys, hitting microtonalities, and venturing into the farthest reaches of atonality, albeit, accidentally. I provided continuo support on harpsichord while a singer sang the woman’s newly composed anthem.
That piece sets in motion an exploration and deconstruction of the Baroque dance suite. Divided into three parts (Prelude, Allemande, Sarabande), each part consists of three pieces: a movement from Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer’s Uranie suite; a movement from Maintenance, a suite I composed that juxtaposes field recordings of possible sounds of maintaining a harpsichord with an improvisation in Fischer’s style of the respective dance movement; and a piece that explores the 1960s Dutch concept of group composing, or composing in real time with a group of musicians. The recital ended with a piece by my friend Joshua Harlow, an improvising pianist, that explored Baroque gesture, polyrhythm, and Ligeti-style texture. Think Bach mixed with Prokofiev mixed with Ligeti’s Continuum.
The resulting experiment-recital was, in my and my professors’ opinions, a success. Many people showed up, listened, and asked questions afterward. I feel that many of those people went home with a sparked interest and curiosity in the historical performance concept, perhaps ready to add it to their musical toolboxes.
Jackson Studzinski is a musician and composer based in Northeast Ohio. He graduated from Oberlin Conservatory with a degree in Historical Performance in 2017. His music explores the area where history and place intersect and he tries to apply historical performance methodology in everything he does artistically. Being an avid listener of noise/experimental music, he helps run an artist collective and venue called 3 Door Studios in Oberlin, helping to provide a place for non-Conservatory experimental musicians to perform. He is a member of Early Music America’s Youth Advisory Board.