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Tonight, I went to a roundtable discussion entitled “La Serenissima: The Millenarian Venice” at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University. The speaker was Jordi Savall, a Catalan musician who has been recording, performing, writing, speaking and otherwise informing the world about ancient, medieval, renaissance, and baroque music (from both the orient and occident) for over 50 years. img_3167
I originally thought to attend the lecture because I have studied Venetian political history but know very little about music from Venice. I (very nervously and poorly) presented a paper at a conference in West, Texas in 2012 and was exposed to some Medieval Spanish music there, but I otherwise have no experience with music history (you can peep that paper on my LinkedIn profile). To my pleasant surprise, Savall went beyond the discussion of music history and touched on the two things I am most passionate about: Jewish history in Venice and European cultural identity.
Savall is in New York to perform as part of a Carnegie Hall series about Venice. He has constructed a 1 hour and 50 minute (whittled down from 4+ hours) performance which covers Venetian music history. The auditory history begins in 828 when Venice was only a cub in the Adriatic and ends in 1797 when Napoleon slaughtered the sick lion.

Savall specifically mentioned the importance of Sephardic Jews to the commercial history of Venice and the first of two pieces he played was a Sephardic melodyPor Que Llorax Blanca Nina. He explained that the piece had been played from the Expulsion in the 15th century to World War II. He brought up a great point about radio which plays into Benedict Anderson‘s ideas about shared language and print culture. Up until the 1920s and 1930s music was very much a community affair. Not only was it passed down from generation to generation orally, it also had to be played by members of the community. It could never be replicated exactly and it was not a shared experience outside of the memory of those who witnessed the live performance (still true to an extent hence the unique experience of concerts). With the invention and permeation of radio and recording, people were then able to share a common experience and simultaneously ingest audio content while also interpreting it differently. People were able to do this with vernacular language and print much earlier, but it wasn’t until the 1920s or 30s that people were able to have this shared auditory experience (then shared and simultaneous visual experiences with cinema+TV). Similar to the evolution of print culture and its relation to modes of power, Savall also touched on the idea of folk music and its relationship to the two main sources of power in European history: the king’s court and the Church. I’m interested to look into this more and it definitely reinvigorated my curiosity about ways in which European identity were and are created. While his discussion of Sephardic Jewish music in the Venetian diaspora was especially fascinating, he also discussed something much more contemporary that has always intrigued me: cultural preservation and European identity.


I have always thought that regionalism, separatism, and local governance are the best ways to preserve cultures, heritages, and languages. Savall, as a proud Catalan, voiced a different belief. He thinks that unique cultures and heritages should be preserved, but he does not see that as a separating factor between Europeans. He specifically stated that he is not only Catalan but also a citizen of Europe. He says he speaks Spanish, but talks to his friends and reads in Catalan, yet feels at home in London, Venice, and all of the other cities in Europe. This brings up something at the heart of my second Masters essay: the hierarchy of one’s cultural and political identities. He didn’t talk about referendums or separatism at all, but he made it clear that he does support European unity while maintaining a strong Catalan identity-with music being the meeting place of those identities. This expands and adds nuance to a model I used for my essay. Here is an excerpt:
“Sébastien Dubé and Raùl Magni-Berton provide a theory which directly correlates  one’s income and national GDP to Euroscepticism. Their model outlines four specific differences in European political identity. The first model is poor people living in poor EU member states, the second is poor people living in rich EU member states, the third is rich people living in rich EU member states, and the last is rich people living in poor EU member states. In general, each of these socio-economic situations produces a different hierarchy of transnational, national, and regional identities. Poor individuals living in poor states often elevate their religious identity above that of the nation, assuming the pre-nationalist identity that Anderson outlined above. Poor individuals living in rich countries are more likely to identity with their particular culture or nation. Rich people living in poor countries often elevate their transnational identity above their national or cultural identity, valuing diversity above most other qualities. While rich people living in rich countries are often concerned with improving their aesthetic environment, maintaining their material well-being, as well as pride in their nation and personal economic status. Dubé and Magni-Berton conclude that wealth, and in turn European identity, denotes support of deeper EU integration while those poorer citizens that possess a strong national and cultural identity are often against EU expansion.”


I don’t necessarily think Savall’s opinions contradict the above model (I don’t know how his ideas of European integration have changed over time), but he did introduce some intricacies which I haven’t considered. In my work, I presented art and entertainment (as it was presented to me) as tools used to build national and transnational identity. There is a wonderful book called Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice which touches on the importance of entertainment and placation of the public as a tool to create shared experiences among citizens of all classes, build a singular identity, and mold people in to allowing the state to govern them. Modes of entertainment owned and operated by elite forces (the king, the Church, wealthy European politicians, etc.) have been used as tools to sculpt the political identity of the masses since Ancient times, but I have never thought about how folk music (and music created and performed on the local or regional level) helps to shape and bolster one’s political identity. I am very intrigued to know how other folk musicians from different regions and socio-economic backgrounds think of their music in relation to European integration. I will do further research, but I am also very happy to see ideas of cultural preservation come to the forefront, without some of the xenophobic ideas that often accompany that conversation. We can and should work together to help preserve the unique music, language, art, culture, and history that we each represent in the modern world. As Stavall said, cultural conservation does not have to denote separation!


SN: The theme for the 2016-2017 year at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America is “Conservation and preservation of heritage and the contemporary destruction of art and architecture”. The brochure presents one particular scholar and her work, which seem to tie in directly to my ideas about cultural identity and transnationalism: “Public indifference to the loss of cultural heritage and identity” by Roberta De Monticelli. I have yet to read her work (as I just learned of it this evening), but I would argue that the public (generational intricacies are super important here) is actually not indifferent to the loss of cultural heritage and identity at all. In fact, I think a majority of people who support Eurosceptic and populist political movements (beyond economics) are doing so in a desperate attempt to reclaim both national and regional cultural heritage and identity. Now, finding a singular definition of said cultural heritage and identity to “reclaim” and from whom to “reclaim” it is where the difficultly arises (which often manifests as fear, exclusion, xenophobia, racism etc.). Rather than addressing the root cause of these fears, many just scream “Fascist” or “Nazi” and go on about stripping away or militantly reshaping those very identities people are so scared of losing. I think the preservation of cultural heritage may be a great way to change some of the sentiments which lead to the support of populist and Eurosceptic political movements (againnn, just to be clear that I don’t have my head in the sand: I do think economics trumps cultural heritage and without economic changes people are going to continue to reject transnationalism). When national and transnational governments fund the protection and preservation of these local identities, they are showing citizens that in the face of globalization and economic/social/religious/linguistic integration, their personal identity matters to the success and heritage of the European Union. And we all know people just want to matter!
Anyway, tonight was FREAKING AMAZING and I can’t wait for the next discussion on the 13th: “East of Venice: La Serenissima as seen from its Eastern frontiers“! One of the criticisms of my second Masters essay was that I did not adequately situate Italy between the orient and the occident. I wasn’t thinking about this when I wrote the paper as I’ve never read any scholarship touching on Venetian history from the perspective of the East (beyond my short foray into Jewish merchants as middlemen between the Ottomans and Venetian Republic), so I am stoked to finally learn some stuff about that! Come back and join me then.