Some Thoughts on History and Pluralism

Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by the preeminent music scholar (and frequent NY Times contributor) Richard Taruskin. Taruskin was on campus as part of a weekend-long conference which commemorated the centenary of Stravinsky’s (in)famous ballet The Rite of Spring, but his lecture this morning commemorated a slightly different event: a now (in)famous six-hour seminar he conducted here at UNC in 1987, which was eventually published in his 1995 collection Text and Act as “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past.” In his lecture––as in much of his output over the past 25 years––Taruskin is critical of a movement within classical music called “Historically-Informed Performance” (henceforth HIP). The HIP movement came to prominence in the middle decades of last century and purported to peal away the layers of overly romanticized sentiment that had accumulated on classical music performances, revealing the work as the composer intended it to be heard. Performers create these “authentic” performances by the strategic deployment of period-specific techniques and technologies included by not limited to: using a variety of regionally- and temporally-situated tuning systems, using instruments created during the period in which the composer was writing, and carefully studying contemporaneous instrumental performance treatises to understand the particularities of articulation and tone production that were common during the origin of the work.

Taruskin objects to these claims on grounds that will no doubt be familiar to many of us, namely as problematic expressions of modernism. How could one possibly claim to “authentically” recreate the past with any certainty or authority? And isn’t the challenging of modern performance practice with HIP simply the substitution of one failed orthodoxy for another? Taruskin argues that there are simply too many different variables in the equation and that rather than trying to fix a single orthodoxy, we should encourage and embrace a plurality of historical performance practices. Curiously though, while Taruskin is critical of the totalizing modernist tendencies within the movement, he has baffled people on both sides of the aisle by failing to embrace the typical position of postmodern relativism. Taruskin is still adamant that there is objective knowledge to be learned about the past and subsequently that there are some demonstrably incorrect ways of playing historical music. Because of my contrarian personality, I’m instantly drawn to anyone that can manage to alienate the diehards of both the modernist and postmodernist camps, and I think the way that he makes his argument for “pluralism without relativism” is instructive for those of us who think about religion.

In a conversation with Taruskin after his lecture, I noted that his argument reminded me of something that philosopher John D. Caputo said in the final lecture before his retirement last year entitled “The Future of Continental Philosophy.” He observed that while metaphysics was rapidly disappearing from academic philosophy of religion, this was not due to a sense of pious enlightenment––a sentiment that would say something like, “Science has made us too intelligent for such silly speculation!”––but rather because the insights of quantum mechanics have shown us that the world is actually must stranger and more speculative than any metaphysics we could dream up. I think this observation of Caputo’s closely parallels Taruskin’s argument for plurality without relativism. Taruskin is encouraging a diversity of historical performance techniques, not because we are too enlightened to believe in such a superstitious historical orthodoxy, but rather because we have taken the historical study seriously enough to discover that the past actually is a plurality. We discover that people in the past did not perform music in any sort of monolithic way, but rather belonged to myriad schools of thought and practice much as we do today. We protect the right of performers to explore a wide variety of incompatible approaches to the music by virtue of the fact that it is precisely this type of pluralism that is the most concrete historical fact.

Within religious circles, “practice” has become a bit of a hot topic in recent years, which dozens of books describing the importance of formative practices in the creation of Christian belief. But for so many of these thinkers, practice is simply untrammeled ground that can now be colonized in the name of orthodoxy. Rather than viewing practice as simply another sphere in which orthodoxy can be contested, I think a focus on practice would actually change our relationship to orthodoxy altogether. Transposed to the religious sphere, I think Taruskin’s argument has powerful resonances with debates over religious diversity, especially diversity within a single faith tradition. These sort of debates often reach an impasse because one side is arguing for the incontrovertible Truth of a particular branch of the tradition––undoubtedly a difficult position to maintain with any conceptual or historical honesty––while the other side simply digs into a relativistic stance that almost always capsizes into nihilism or agnosticism. But what if we took Taruskin’s insight about the past seriously with regard to religion? We could defend multiplicity of orthodoxies and orthopraxies because of the concrete historical fact that Christianity has always included this type of diversity, while simultaneously retaining our ability to make objective judgments about the way the tradition has worked (and should continue to work). We could accommodate pluralism without losing our ability to speak about the truth. While many people regard a pluralistic culture as the inevitable future for the West, perhaps this process could begin by seriously looking at the past.

Joshua Busman :
Joshua Busman is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds a BM in music theory and composition from Middle Tennessee State University as well as an MA in musicology from UNC. His current research deals with music in religious communities (specifically in evangelicalism), music and politics in the twentieth century, musical postmodernism, and critical theory. Alongside his academic interests, Joshua works with Durham CAN, a multi-racial, multi-faith, grassroots political organization in Durham County. When he isn’t reading or writing, Joshua enjoys hanging out with his wonderful wife and hound dog at their home in the Bull City.