An Apology To The Historical Performance People, After Their Acquisition Of ABBA
Updated: Aug 7
Dear Historical Performance People,
Please accept my apology in the face of your recent victory, after which it seems unlikely that the tide will be turned happily within my lifetime.
I have often expressed doubts about your commitment to not merely studying, but also recreating, the original modes of performance for historic works.
I have rooted those doubts largely in the notion that recreation and simulation of original modes of performance refers to signifiers that have lost their meaning in the current age. They might be useful points of reference (“this musical motif was understood to be discordant, and a sign of evil magic”). Just not understood, except to scholars.
Thus, by my usual rule of “I don’t want to have to do homework before going to your show”, it’s really interesting to me as a creative (perhaps I can indicate the idea of ‘evil magic’ in another way? If I don’t do that, what am I doing and why?), but not to be directly applied.
That said, we have found a happy stalemate in the parallel existence of historical performance shows as a sub-genre of Art Music more generally. This seemed healthy.
However, you have the momentum now.
For you have ABBA, and thus this is the Evolving Performance People’s Waterloo.
Preserving The Past - Perfectly
ABBA: Voyage is not a show I have seen, but have read accounts of. For those not familiar with it, holographic avatars of the band members in their heyday perform routines of classic songs. They are modelled on the motions and voices of the band members currently, and then refined to be more in sync with one another.
There are plans to do this with other iconic bands, I hear.
Opera has been criticised for clinging to a dead (or, at least, museum-like) tradition of old classics. However, even you historical performance people never, in your wildest dreams, were able to do such things as this.
To preserve, forever, an exact performance, to be seen live. Or perhaps on a VR headset in private.
Thus connoisseurs will be able to choose between attending different concerts of pop icons, as long as those concerts were recorded. Much like Dekkard in the Blade Runner sequel, watching Elvis perform the American Trilogy by himself in an abandoned cabaret bar.
Do androids dream of electric sheep? Is the sheep real? Is Elvis? Are the ‘ABBA-tars’ [ABBA’s word, not mine]?
Well, no. Perfection is inhuman. Eternity is inhuman.
Why It Might Be The Future
And yet there is a lot of money going into this. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and other icons will appear in such forms shortly. I am fascinated to see how people start engaging with these ‘authentic’ versions - and, indeed, what it does to the impersonator market, since were I a cover band, I’d be seeing these clouds on the horizon with a certain amount of fear.
I suppose that cover bands have always been pop’s answer to historical performance.
It turns out that the full, recreate-the-past-precisely glory of some historical performance wasn’t unique to art music.
It was simply that we had to wait for pop music to become old enough.
Many new artists have reported, since at least the 2000s, signing away the rights to their image and voice for digital usage and preservation. This has been being planned for a long time.
And so you win, historical performance people. Let us assume that, with enough money behind it, it will at least become a point of cultural acceptance.
After all, UK arts journalism has, more and more, become ‘churnalism’ [alas, not my coinage], recycling press releases. The questions asked are those from the press release, and mainstream media rarely ask the kinds of searching questions that would challenge the professed claims of artists.
This is true at small scales (a number of UK opera companies falsely claimed the ‘first live opera performance’ after lockdowns in 2020) and global scales (journalists feeling pressured to repeat the talking points from Marvel movie press releases, rather than, say, challenging the idea that a strongman is needed to solve some problems inherent to many such films). Why would they challenge these ‘real’ experiences?
And thus while something is sensed to be different, and perhaps not wholesome or authentic, in ABBA: Voyage, it seems to be a direction of travel.
What It Means For Opera
For those of us working in a form that exists, at least in part, in the intriguing tension between honouring what has gone before, and ensuring it is present now, while also looking forwards (to broadly paraphrase), this may create an interesting pressure.
Those of us who argue for reimagining and a living tradition are likely to be, to some extent, on the back foot.
After all, how many people would watch an ABBA cover band if they could watch the ‘real’ thing?
If this technology does become more widespread, presumably someone will use the extensive staging notes we have for some Puccini operas, not to mention recordings of the singing (cleaned up, of course), and indeed photographs of the performers (recolourised, naturally) to create an ‘authentic’ La Boheme?
Since we know quite a lot about performance traditions and vocal styles for operas Baroque, Wagnerian, Mozartian and more, will this mean we can create a truly ‘real’ experience?
In short, will we be able to give those people who beg for ‘traditional’ productions exactly what they wished for?
Yes, I like folklore, and that is indeed a threat.
If this sort of performance becomes normalised, the historical performance people will - via ABBA - have secured a major victory for their viewpoint.
Equally, in the examples above, I suspect many answered ‘no’. It might be that this helps clarify why we value live performance.
Yet This Is Human
I described this work as not human above, for it was perfect and eternal.
But it is very human to try and record existence for long after you are dead. Generations transcribed Gilgamesh more or less accurately to preserve it for the future; people wrote their names on fragments of Ancient Greek pottery; they commissioned realistic paintings from great artists, until photographs did the job better.
Now we have a new way to do that, getting ever-nearer perfect simulation.
But there is another way that it is human. For as Gilgamesh ends, pointing to Uruk, to say it is his way to achieve eternal life, this will end.
Uruk has crumbled. Each time the data is transferred to a different server or file format, it will degrade a little more.
Those who dream of living in such a virtual world, while others preserve the servers they exist on, will eventually find them without power or components.
And this shall end.
In the end, even the ABBA-tars are too human for eternity.