My interdisciplinary book project, Extreme Early Music: Performing Antiquity Today, examines the development of new methods and paradigms of musical authenticity and reconstruction in the work of scholar-performers presenting “extreme early music” – a term adopted by some performer/practitioners to describe the reconstruction, creation and/or performance of music from before the emergence of the first musical notations in Europe (ca. 800 CE). The methods and models of these practitioners are not only useful for reimagining and performing ancient music, but also for reassessing concepts of “Western Civilization” and of authenticity in both material and performed culture. When these musicians draw from both ancient and contemporary, Western and non-Western sources (i.e. West Asian, North African), issues of authenticity inevitable raise questions of cultural appropriation and of race and ethnicity in the ancient and modern worlds.
This project ultimately re-examines the musical roots of concepts of Western Civilization and how they are presented and performed today in both musical and archaeological settings. This project is novel in that it expands Western music performance practice back further to the ancient Romans, Greeks, Mesopotamians. When one does this the “rules” of Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIPP) shift as they encounter performance practices outside the Western music canon (roughly music since 800 CE). Combining methods and approaches from classics, archaeology, philology, musicology, and experimental and living history projects these musicians and researchers approach the problems of musical reconstruction and musical authenticity anew. Understanding their work, their process and the philosophies and politics behind their music will profoundly impact the ways we think about the performance of early music and the ways we write ancient history.
There exist only a few precious scraps of musical notation from antiquity and intact examples of ancient instruments. Musicians have developed methods of creating music by balancing the oppositional forces of free experimentation, improvisation, and training in global musical styles with the methods of HIPP. By employing experimental archaeological and historical methods these musicians provide pathways for inventive completions of musical fragments as well as new compositions informed by and based upon ancient models.
I argue that in the absence of established traditions, audiences, fellow performers and scholars may use politics, identity and imagined traditions to discuss the authenticity of extreme early music. Often these discussions draw not only upon scholarly debates about performance practice, translation, and ancient music theory, but also upon hotly contested notions of race and Western Civilization. The development, training, performance and reception of extreme early music challenges some previous assumptions about authenticity because so much of it is unapologetically contemporary, non-Western and distantly ancient.
Extreme early music has often been appropriated as a tool in narratives about the development of Western Civilization. In some cases it is used to develop closer connections between musicians from different cultures. In other cases, extreme early music becomes another weapon to misappropriate ancient history to support racist notions of white supremacy as seen in internet forums comments by white nationalists seeking cultural “evidence” of the superiority of Western Civilization. Humanities scholars need to pay attention to extreme early music and understand not only how this new music is created, how the practitioners are trained, the politics of this emerging network of professional and amateur musicians, the dissemination of their work in concert venues, at scholarly conference, as parts of museum displays, at archaeological sites, for public political events, and online; but also how some scholarly, casual, and journalistic audiences hear and see these performances as part of a project to preserve, restore, or reinvent the musical roots of Western Civilization.
This project is richly interdisciplinary and uses historical, ethnographic as well as critical methods to answer questions that stimulate research and public debate surrounding important public issues of our time, namely the origins and reception of Western Civilization and the display and public discourse on material and performed cultural heritage. Like much of my work, this project is designed for a broad audience: academics as well as the general public. It is critical that this project orient itself toward the public through musical performances and events that bring together artists, audiences, and scholars. The project is outward facing and I am committed to producing scholarship for academics, musicians, and the general public.