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What is Authenticity in Music?


You’re a guitarist, a musician, an artist. Music is your lifeblood, your soul, you’ve devoted your life to it and you’re going to create good, authentic music to bless all who would listen to it.

You get up on stage to perform the quintissential classical guitar piece ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ by Joaquin Rodrigo. But wait, you are an authentic, original, innovative artist! You decide to perform it on a steel string acoustic guitar with a brilliantly executed percussive groove drummed on the guitar body, making your rendition uniquely you.

The next thing you know you are booed right off stage with classical music afficionadoes, and the critics hurl their judgements at you.

‘That’s not how it’s supposed to be played!’

‘That’s musical blasphemy!’

‘You can’t play a classical piece on steel strings!’

‘That sounds nothing like the original!’

But hold on, you didn’t make any technical mistakes, you spent countless hours practicing, and most importantly you wracked your brain creating a fresh new interpretation rather than just play it the way everyone else plays it!

How could they say it was bad, incorrect, unoriginal, and worst of all… INAUTHENTIC??

Two Sides of Authenticity

Authenticity is always branded as a good thing. We all want to be authentic. Why then, in your performance of Concerto de Aranjuaz, did your effort at being authentic create the opposite outcome?

We need to understand that what authenticity means differs with each style of music. An authentic approach in rock music would be considered inauthentic in western classical music. Why?

Consider western classical music, where much of the repertoire is already canonised - the ‘best’ classical works have all already been created by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven just to name a few. To present an authentic performance of a work by Bach, you get many authenticity points from playing on period correct instruments, playing with specific techniques used in Bach’s time, playing in the exact tuning temperaments used then, playing in a historically correct venue, and even dressing as musicians did back then.

This is what’s called ‘reconstructed’ authenticity, where the ideal form of authenticity is to be as true to the original as possible

On the other hand, if you’re in a classic rock band and you want to be an authentic artist, the last thing you want to do is to perform Sweet Child O Mine with the exact same instruments as Guns ‘n’ Roses, play the same guitar solos, dress like Slash and run around the stage singing exactly like Axl Rose. To do that, at most you’d just be a good tribute band, a far cry from being an authentic rock artist.

The Authenticity Spectrum

In rock music, to be authentic is to be original - create music that comes directly from your hardships, joys, pains, and love. Let’s call this type of authenticity ‘new identity’ authenticity.

Now authenticity in music isn’t going to be so clear cut - there isn’t any genre that is completely ‘new identity’ or ‘reconstructed’ authenticity. Instead, authenticity should be conceptualised on a spectrum, with ‘reconstructed’ authenticity on one end and ‘new identity’ authenticity on the other.

Now Go Be Authentic

Now you as an artist need to figure out where on this spectrum the ideal authentic you lies. It depends on the type of music you play, and the type of people listening to you play. A carnatic artist playing to carnatic music experts will need to stay close to ‘reconstructed’ authenticity. A jazz artist playing to a younger crowd would find much approval in developing fresh and innovative musical ideas.

Where does the ideal authentic you lie? Is it closer to ‘reconstructed’ or ‘new identity’ authenticity? Leave a comment below, let’s get a dialogue going on and learn from one another.

By Neil Chan


The ideas and contents of this post are inspired by the book 'Facing The Music' by Huib Schippers.


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