The “A” word reared its ugly head again in a recent Facebook exchange concerning authenticity in Live Performance Workshops in a Higher Education Institution of my acquaintance. Someone asked a question about whether an authentic rendition of a Rolling Stones recording should reproduce all the mistakes or reproduce what the players think the Stones intended to play. My view on this interpretation of authenticity is that it is by definition referenced to some previous model and thus mitigates against originality. Any artist deliberately trying to be “authentic” will produce timid, scared art because rather than allowing their creativity to flow freely they are constraining it by constantly measuring it against some received notion of authenticity. I argue that true authenticity is achieved by making no reference to anything that has gone before: create rather than recreate, and if you are performing a previously-composed work, render it rather than repeat it.

My interlocutor expressed his view that if he were called to play in a Latin ensemble (for example) he would be sacked if he did not know how to play that style authentically. That knowledge of and competence in stylistic conventions and devices is not what I mean by authenticity: it is just the vocabulary of the style.

So what do I mean by authenticity? Let’s take the example of the Latin styles. Those who play “authentically” conform to those stylistic conventions not because they are conventions but because they are the vocabulary of the music, but they transcend those stylistic conventions: sometimes by using them in daring and innovative ways, sometimes by subverting them without destroying the spirit of the piece, and in the case of the true greats by inventing new words that are added to the vocabulary and become new elements in the vocabulary of stylistic conventions. That last example is the purest form of authenticity because it is (usually) created spontaneously as the musician’s creativity responds to some stimulus, either internal or external, in an honest and unfettered way.

My response to the Rolling Stones example was that the musicians should always play with heart, soul, and balls: but YOUR heart, YOUR soul and YOUR balls (please disentangle and reword to suit your own gender: the word “balls” is used here metaphorically rather than literally) because that is how the original records were made, and thus the most truly ‘authentic’ rendition would be one that remained true to the spirit while not repeating the exact sequence of musical events that made up the original recording. To extend the literary metaphor: this kind of creativity is about the musician being able to contribute to the conversation as it is happening at the moment rather than repeating sentences from a previous conversation which only make sense if all the other musicians are also repeating exactly the other participants’ words from that same original conversation.

A more practical objection to the “note-for-note” approach to these Workshops is that it is ludicrous to attempt to recreate in 10 minutes with 2 guitars, bass and drums a recording that took days in the best recording studios to make and usually featured multiple overdubs and additional instrumentation. This adds weight to the suggestion that a rendering is more likely to be successful than an attempted recreation.