Should We Always Protect Endangered Musics?
(letter to a preservationist friend)


Dear Friend,

I have meant to write you for quite some time, and kept putting it off. Probably because it is not easy to give words to ideas that are not yet clear in my own head. But now I just decided to go and do it.  Actually, precisely because my thoughts are not yet straight, your input may be helpful. You are the right person to ask, because you have been so actively concerned with cultural preservation and issues of sustainability. I admire what you did and, if I had the opportunity (and the necessary talent) I could easily see myself doing something similar. And yet I sense a dilemma, a 'divided self', somewhat like Robert Schumann's Florestan und Eusebius.

The Florestan in me would like to preserve everything, would like to live in the present and in the past – at the same time. In other words, would like to entirely incorporate the past into the present. And yet Eusebius feels that it is not only objectively impossible, but probably not even desirable. In the end, the question I ask myself is whether we should contemplate circumstances and establish criteria that help us decide when a musical tradition, a language, or a cultural practice of any kind could/should be let go, die, and – so to say – rest in peace.

If I think of my parents, whom I dearly loved, and have been dead for a long time, I sure wish I could have them still with me. And yet, if I could revive them – not as the old people they eventually were, but as they were in their 40s and 50s – then it would be difficult for me to be the adult person I am now. I would have to recede into the role of the “son”, the son of parents who, out of affection, would certainly wish to have a say on how I run my life. That is why it is beneficial that parents at some point should age and eventually die.

Let me take it from a different angle: languages. The idea that different languages reflect different views of the world goes back to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. Their hypothesis comes in two parts: first, that different languages embody different Weltanschauungen; second, that such Weltanschauungen predispose their speakers towards different ways of thinking. This latter part has always been controversial, but the first one is hard to argue with: no doubt, languages are nourished by an accumulation of historical experience, and express a detailed knowledge of the natural world of different areas of te world: animals, plants and their medical uses, etc. Once such languages are lost, the knowledge embedded in them is gone as well.

It would be wonderful, wouldn't it, if Latin could have been preserved as a living language to this day. Latin did certainly embody a very special view of the world. Nonetheless, had we been able to preserve it, we probably would not have modern languages, such as Italian, Spanish, French – and we would not have Dante, Cervantes...or Proust! I wonder, therefore, whether we should consider that when a language has nothing much more to say, when the world of which it was part no longer exists, maybe, we should let it die.

See how I contradict myself? I take comfort in Walt Whitman who once wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes!” But let me bring up one more example, one of what we might call “what if” musicology. Just like it would be fascinating to experience today the Latin language as a living practice, it would be phenomenal to experience as well the Isorhythmic Motet or the Madrigal as living practices. But, had they survived, would it have been possible to have Mozart's “Don Giovanni”, or “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis? It is hard to say of course, except, whatever is alive and present, takes social space away for other things to exist. That may be one reason we forget, or let things drop out of fashion. Style Louis XVI would not have existed if Louis XV and Louis XIV had not gone out of fashion.

I guess what I am getting at here is nothing less than a 'meditation' on ...death. People die, and presumably will continue to do so. And yet death is something we can never really accept. Even in the domain of cultural artifacts or practices, the Florestan in us seems to be constantly looking for things that we think should be immortal. But if a cultural practice really is alive, should it not be reasonable to expect it to die at some point? Or do we wish to make of our planet a universal museum where, one day, there may not be mental and social space for anything new? There can only be so many masterpieces in the world, so many languages, so many musical genres...so many cathedrals! I even wonder whether the Talibans who destroy archeological treasures may not have a truer concept of the function of art than the preservationist Florestan in us. 

You do understand, I am sure, I am not advocating the deliberate destruction of anything, any more than I advocate the murder of old-timers like myself. But there is a natural life span to all things, isn't there – why should we wish to make things immortal. Even a work of art really makes sense at the time it is made, it may continue to make sense for some more time, but eventually it is bound to lose the function and the meaning it had for those who originally made it. Just like neeeds a generational turn-over, new cultural practices and new art need  social space to expand and fulfill their function. If the social space they need is totally occupied new cultural practices and new art will be stunted. Oral traditions show that especially well: in order to have new music, older styles and practices need to be progressively forgotten; although something of them will usually in some way survive. Just like the phonological characteristics of disappeared languages often influence speech habits of the newer languages that replace them.

At this point I am reminded of “Funes el Memorioso”, the story invented by Jorge Luis Borges, of a man who had complete and precise recall of everything he had ever seen. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at down on 30th April 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in a Spanish binding he had seen only once. But at the same time, he lost the ability to make sense of these sights and comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form. It even bothered him that a dog at 3.14 pm seen from the side, should have the same name as the dog at 3.15 pm seen from the front. This is what I call the “Cratilos Syndrome”. According to Plato, Cratilos was so keenly and painfully aware of how fast things change, that he found it even futile to give them a name; as once a name was given that “thing” would become something different. Because language is unable to keep up with an ever changing reality, he just pointed at things with his finger rather than using names!

Finally, just like animalists (and I am one of them) do their best to protect dogs, dolphins and other likable animals, and do not care that cockroaches should be given the opportunity of a decent and fulfilling life, I find it intriguing that not all cultural practices receive equal attention and protection. The loss of film genres, for instance, is seldom lamented. As far as I know the “western” genre is no longer cultivated, and no one seems to feel that something should be done about it, not to mention silent film – nobody seems to regret its loss. While Opera is kept alive with the oxygen tent (and a lot of public money), the Minstrel Show is dead, and so is New Orleans and Chicago style jazz.

Well, dear Friend, this is it. Please, do not feel you have to answer this long letter if you do not feel like it. But if, on the contrary, you have some kind of input that might help me getting out of this Florestan vs. Eusebius kind of dilemma,anytime in the future - please do!


Your affectionate friend,

Marcello