Tribute bands and musical authenticity

Classical music's "period instrument movement" has covered as much ground as music history can throw at it. With a tool bag of gut strings, valveless trumpets, white-noised sopranos and investigative musicology, it has tracked backwards in time from its 18th-century starting point to simulate the music of medieval Parisian troubadours, and forwards to Elgar and Wagner as they might have sounded then. Short of rearing, by barbarous means, some castrati to recreate a night at the opera in Handel's London, where else can the search for musical "authenticity" go?

The answer lies not in brilliantly obscure PhDs about harpsichord string lengths in 18th-century Potsdam, or experiments with grain-fed oboists - but it is almost as kinky. It lies in the world of tribute bands. There are 60 or so Genesis impersonators around the world right now. Lots in middle Europe (a territory where unfashionable rock lives on), one each in Brazil and Japan, and several in the UK and north America. They have a certain following, though it is small compared with the crowds their musical parent once enjoyed, and smaller, too, than those of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Abba stand-ins that seem now to be de rigueur at stately home summer music festivals.

Two fundamental differences between the cultures of classical and popular music are pop's link between live and recorded performance (the tour to promote the album) and its 50-year history of bands performing their own material. Classical music's notated, published form carries no expectation that its composer will perform it, but with the converse expectation that many different performances will emerge over time.

The nearest classical music got to the cult of the composer-performer was perhaps the pianists Chopin and Liszt. And the ensembles devoted exclusively to the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and Steve Martland generate genuine, composer-sanctioned performances. But as Radio 3's Building a Library programme shows, one of classical music's abiding fascinations is the multiplicity of various interpretations a single piece of music can have.

The term "tribute band" is a silly one. If the Berlin Phil perform a Beethoven symphony, they are not paying tribute to Ludwig. A new kind of rock ensemble may evolve, dedicated to playing discrete repertoire from across the band divide, the music chosen for its intrinsic merit rather than tribal allegiances. It wouldn't be a tribute band, nor a covers band, but something else - more interpretive, more ... "classical".

Extracts from an article in today's Guardian by Meurig Bowen, who although he keeps it a secret in the Guardian article actually manages a world famous Benjamin Britten tribute band himself - the Aldeburgh Festival.

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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Easter at Aldeburgh


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