John Butt (Talk)

John Butt is Gardiner Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow, musical director of Dunedin Consort and a Principal Artist with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. His work, as both musician and scholar gravitates towards music of the 17th-18th centuries, and his recent work gravitates towards music and modernity, listening cultures and embodied musical experience, music and film.

In his abstract, John wrote “Classical music culture has been the subject of intense debate … about crucial issues of funding, but also education.  Supporters often suggest that this culture is some sort of ‘universal’, in the sense of something that speaks to all peoples at all times, while others suggest that it is merely a narrow cultural taste. That is a matter of personal choice.  Should it have privilege on funding or education? The claim of elitism is a sell fulfilling prophecy.”

The talk was thus wide-ranging and raised many issues that invited expansion, some of which are outlined here:

  • “The defining features include an air of wonderment or of spirituality, or of exclusivity, in part due to the need for specific locations for performance.
  • It has notation and can be written, but needs special training to create expertise in notation and of performance.
  • It has the quality of an enzyme or catalyst, absorbing and combining multiple elements, yet is often unpredictable.

Has 19th Century music captured earlier music? It is exceptional among arts in not creating a canon of work until the 19th Century.  In the Renaissance account of cultural history, classical music coincides with the 2nd phase, and the key development since 1800 is of a symphony orchestra with multiple performer roles.

The 19th Century culture then became modernist, implying a scientific representation of reality.  However, an idea by Descartes was that we create our own fictional worlds to try out alternative worlds. As musical voices are multiple, and performed in real time (unlike in novels), the listener is as if a reader, but with control of consciousness of time.

Is music a cultural analogue of colonialism, so with political overtones, and so reflecting several versions of political reality? We now see versions of histories playing out in parts of the world as various cultures absorb aspects of modernity in addition to their own traditions.

Historical reproductions of performance style restore the roots that are denied by aggressive modernism.  So the new antiquarianism of authentic performance since the 1960/70s is similar to that in post-modern architecture.

John left us with questions.  Is there now a post-truth culture in music? For instance, does the classical music growth in Far East, as in Japan, have different cultural meaning?

This talk stimulated many questions:

  • is the emotional effect universal and cross cultural?
  • is far east consumption due to need for product to play on their devices?
  • is classical music largely for the elderly? how much should the young be taught?
  • who is the giant in 20th Century music? “Stravinsky, also Bartok, Messiaen …”
  • value of music as a soundtrack to life
  • commercial development of orchestras in 19th Century
  • scale of extra funding especially in US and Europe: public funding more acceptable
  • role of China: high numbers of students of classical music, but they refuse to perform if religious
  • the baroque era was when music changed from emulating the heavenly to personal impact or affect.

A fulsome vote of thanks was given by Bill Wardle

John Butt (Talk)