In music history, we learn about composers who commented on and innovated from the music before their time. Each artist and piece fits neatly on a timeline, a line that lays out the changes in the ever-evolving trends of music. Much of history is presented as events on a timeline, a single linear dimension that illustrates series of causes and effects.
It can become easy to get the impression that we view history from a higher vantage point in the current day. This can become a sense of superiority in that our own understanding of art, music, even morality is more valid and correct than that of any other time period. We forget that people in the past experienced their present exactly as we experience ours– and that people in the future will see us as we see those in the past.
In reality, day-to-day events affect each other constantly. The mundane and the extraordinary exist simultaneously, and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
By viewing history as linear, we build a barrier between our experience in the present day and our understanding of anything in the past and how that life was experienced.
Gumbrecht aims to change this in his book, In 1926 ‘n’ Living on the Edge of Time. He writes about a very short period of time, focusing on breadth of details instead of a cause-and-effect structure that describes one element of culture only. The writing is informal and easy to read. Outside references are casually tossed around in relation to the subject: jazz. Athletes, food, sex, racial prejudices – all of these are intimately connected in real life. In the “user manual” of this book, Gumbrecht states that his goal is “to make at least some readers forget… that they are not living in 1926″ (Gumbrecht, x).
This approach to understanding history could be useful for performing and appreciating music of the past. Music, unlike visual artwork, can not be preserved in its original form over time. Music is kept alive during individual performances (and with more recent work, recordings.) If we can’t understand a piece of music as being intricately connected with all of the factors of life when it was written, how can we effectively let that music live on?