Friday, August 24, 2007

Playful Apparatchiks

Sometime in the late 20th century, attaching a thick -- if not complete -- external apparatus (contextual, intellectual, explanatory, and tangential commentary and footnotes for musical notes) to a piece of music became an acceptable standard of practice. Now, this has always been a possible practice -- Wagner wrote extensively and Ives essayed before his Concord Sonata, and somehow the fact that Beethoven read Kant is supposed to mean that reading Kant is a useful adjunct to knowing the music, and for some historical musical cultures, the music came solidly embedded in larger systems (e.g. the tropes of liturgical music, or baroque systems of figure and affect) but recently, among a certain class in Newmusicland, this apparatus has become an emblem of rigor and sophistication, sometimes even a prerequisite to approval among those who identify themselves as rigorous and/or sophisticated.

Sometimes this apparatus is in the form of a more-or-less practical music theory (often the natural byproduct of a day job teaching musical theory and practice), sometimes the theory acquires a more mathematical polish, sometimes its more literary, philosophical, or culturally contextual. At its best, it's a thickening of the musical experience with complementary intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional experiences, travel guides for perplexed and perplex-able listeners, all done in a playful spirit.

But, as with all good things, there is also a certain risk of excess. Musicians do notes better than words, and many a musician has uttered regrettable words (just imagine how Wagner's work might now be assessed if he had never published a word!) Among the musicians who, reasonably enough, keep a distance to extra-musical public expression, there is constant complaint about music which "justifies itself" through dense prose, whether in program notes or in the pages of die Reihe or PNM or the Contemporary Music Review. But the justification complaint is a canard: any musical work is ultimately going to have to stand on its own and the works which get written about are simply the ones which have attributes about which one might write. A score by Feldman or Ferneyhough invites comment and reflection, and such commentary and cogitation might inform or enhance the listening experience. A score by Corigliano or Henze, on the other hand, neither invites nor benefits from the same. (Babbitt actually tries to have it both ways, on the one hand making the case for the intellectual, or more precisely, academic, value of his theoretical attachments, while simultaneously insisting on a certain accessibility or even lightweightedness of the same: "mathematical? well isn't figured bass mathematical, too".)

I think the keys to this are tone, balance and utility. The apparatus attached to a work of music should enhance it, not overweigh it in either volume or density or ambition, and be careful to contribute to the spirit of the musical enterprise, whether that of the individual work or of music-making in general.

But then again, we should leave open the possibility of a work in which the ostensible apparatus is essential, creating a synthetic genre or even an entirely new medium, going outside of the traditional enterprise of music-making. I like the example of Nabokov's Pale Fire, a novel ostensibly in the form of a scholarly edition of a poem, and composed of a Forward, the poem itself, the editor's Commentary, and the Index (Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin, composed at roughly the same time, has precisely the same form). The novel comes without instructions about how it should be read, but instead invites reading in a number of ways, some of them leading to contradictory constructions of the narrative (or, more correctly, narratives). Here is a model of an artwork in which parallel worlds (poetry, scholarship, auto/biography, fiction) leak into one another and create a work which ambitiously and playfully enjoys the best features of each of these worlds. It's fascinating to imagine a musical (or musical + media X, Y, Z-ial) equivalent.


Stefan Kac said...

Don't you think that the pressure to make it seem like we (musicians) are actually contributing something to the world is a factor here? I think that's a big reason why certain musicians and music lovers are prone to overdo it when it comes to attachments. This gives us something objective to agree on about a piece; then it's easier to give a grade, get a grant, win a contest, or convince your future in-laws that you do more than sit around all day and eat doritos. Differences of taste preclude this kind of agreement when it comes to, ahem...what really matters about the piece in the first place. It's interesting what you say about "justification." It seems to me that the same people who would be most apt to complain about a piece "justifying itself" are also the ones who complain about music that is "self-referential" (meaning it has the opposite problem of not being "about" anything, and hence, its composer must just sit around all day and eat doritos).

Hucbald said...

I don't even give my pieces descriptive titles unless they - the pieces themselves - are in a humorous vein.

Samuel Vriezen said...

just imagine how Wagner's work might now be assessed if he had never published a word!

A symphonist?

As a paradigm from visual art where the text is a vital part of the work I nominate Duchamp's Large Glass, which has the explanation of the workings of the Bachelor Machine going with it, including the description of some parts that aren't on the glass.