Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How much music do you know?

Kenneth Woods opens a good discussion about the size and breadth of a conductor's repertoire, comparing annual repertoire lists from four different conductors. Others, online (Google it), have expressed some concern over Daniel Barenboim's recent weeks of work, including conducting a revived Tristan at the Met, a West-Eastern Divan concert at the UN, doing a four-hands gig with James Levine, contributing the piano Interventions to a new Elliot Carter orchestral work under Levine's baton, and topping it off with solo piano recitals in Philadelphia and in the Met, the latter an all Liszt concert. May I throw these items together under the question: How much music can an individual musician responsibly play and play well? Or, better: How much music do you know?

Back in my training days as an ethnomusicologist, we were taught some of the basic questions to use with musician informants in the course of field work. One of the most basic was "How many pieces do you know?"* There seemed to be a near-universal upper limit of about fifty-or-so repertoire items whenever the question was narrowed to "How many pieces do you know well?" Similar quantitative limits were encountered among musicians of many traditions, which, in our informal survey, included Native American singers, Javanese Gamelan musicians, and String Quartets, who were either asked to list, by name, the pieces that they "knew" and were ready to play.

The answer turns, of course, on how one defines a "piece" and what, precisely, constitutes "knowing" a piece, both knotty topics of their own. Musicians who play in a relatively closed repertoire, one in which new compositions or titles are added largely by assembling elements which are already familiar to members of the community — conditions that apply as well to Javanese or Indian musicians today as they did to European Baroque or Classical musicians in their time and community — have a certain advantage nuancing this limit. A good Javanese player, for example, will be able to sit down, unrehearsed and play an elaborating instrument in a piece that he has never before encountered because all of the component parts of that piece will have been previously encountered, albeit in another sequence or arrangement. But even with this ability to navigate such new arrangements, the player would likely only be able to identify the magic fifty-or-so repertoire items which he or she can presently play on demand as distinct wholes, and even among those fifty, there will be sustantial overlap of the form "this phrase/lick/tune/change/sequence in X is just like that phrase/lick/tune/change/sequence in Y." Likewise, a Saxon church musician in the early 18th century could easily read through (or compose, for that matter) a new church cantata every Sunday because, well, it wasn't ever althogether new, and the extent and limits of their repertoire as a whole were considerably narrow compared with those regularly encountered by professional orchestral and studio musicians of our time. **

Modern studio and classical ensemble musicians do have the quantitative advantages offered by a (mostly) notated repertoire, a broader training in performance practice, access to live and recorded performances in countless techniques and styles, and even a music-historical consciousness substantially different from that of musicians associated with only one repertoire. But I think that when one factors in the depth of style embodied by the performances of monocultural musicians, these advantages may well be a wash. Indeed, I suspect that the limit of fifty-or-so is an upward limit for all but the most memorious to hold at any given time. In effect, taking on a new work that is sufficiently distinctive may mean dropping something else from the current playlist.

(If I seem somewhat pessimistic about performers here, please don't think so! I think fifty-or-so is an extraordinarily impressive number. As a composer, I think that I'll be a success when I have written eight, maybe nine, pieces, that really satisfy me. If I can do that, it will be my moral equivalent to the pieces a performing musician knows well).

*Among ethnomusicologists, the question is associated particularly with Bruno Nettl.
**I should probbaly add something here about specialists in new music who sometimes premiere many works in an evening. Without discounting this — often virtuoso — achievement, I think that such performances are often essentially an audition for eventual incorporation into the works that the player can really cook and take on the road.

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