Friday, March 13, 2009

Standards of (Performance) Practice

Composers depend upon performers to turn marks on paper into real sounds and — when everything works out — music. When the music works, it's often far from clear which party is most responsible. On the one hand, some scores are so robust, they can survive the worst approximation and most dispirited rendition. And on the other hand, I know some musicians who can take my breath away just playing scales, so the actual notes played, or supposed to be played, are beside the point. But when the music doesn't happen, it's just as difficult to assign blame. Performers can sabotage a piece, but maybe the notes were never going to be music in the first place.

I just toured a brand new shopping center in the middle of Frankfurt. Designed by a star architect, it has a great deal of flash and some virtuoso features, and has received a lot of press attention. But almost everywhere there are small details in the construction that have gone wrong: surfaces not smoothly joined together, walls too roughly plastered, light fixtures that are not sealed properly, windows slightly out-of-line, a hinge to fire extinguisher box on crooked so the thing doesn't quite close... all of these small things gone amiss are the architectural equivalent of wrong notes. There is a clear failure in performance practice here, but I understand that the construction industry deals with such failures in terms of tolerance, legally codified as standards of practice. The assumption in the building trade is simply that some percentage of the work will not be done to spec, and the on-going negotiations between client, architect, and contractors during construction largely concern whether or not that percentage is acceptable. The ideal execution — note perfect, in musicians' terms — is just not a possibility and everyone goes into the project understanding this.

I think composers and musicians have some advantages here over architects and builders. Musicians really do come closer, and more often, to the note- and style-perfect reading of a score, than builders come to perfect realizations of ideal architectural plans. Also, the working relationship between composers and musicians is rarely loaded with the monetary considerations that a major work of architecture must have, and, in general, composers and musicians work together with considerable respect and even a mutual cultivation of talents (and even careers). At the very least, a musical error (whether of composition of performance) is ultimately a transient event. We can survive a bad piece or a bad performance and move on to something better. An error in execution of an architectural plan, on the other hand, can carry a risk to life and limb that render any smaller aesthetic considerations trivial. But the greatest advantage of all that music brings is the fact that it is entirely possible for a performance to err from the letter of a score and nevertheless capture the piece in spirit, or even go beyond it. In musical performance, the ideal is not the enemy of the real, but a means to it.


Paul A. Epstein said...

I'm not sure how this applies to composers, but there's an old saying that doctors bury their mistakes, architects plant ivy.

Daniel Wolf said...

Paul, there's a story, apocryphal or not, about the flutist Severino Gazelloni, famed for premiering so much Darmstadt-era repertoire. He was asked how he managed to learn and play so much complicated music. He answered with one word: rubato.

Lisa Hirsch said...


So much of what you describe about the mall construction sounds like sheer carelessness, the kind of thing that should be done correctly the first time.