Monday, February 15, 2010

G if for Gnosis

Beethoven read Kant, Ives read Emerson, Boulez read Mallarmé. We all know about John Cage's interests, with their varying degrees of connection to music, from anarchism to mycology. Milton Babbitt knows tin pan alley song lyrics, baseball and beer. Non-musicological "research projects" have practically become tradition among experimentalists and high complexists. (I've probably told too much around here about my musically tangential interests.) When it comes to the interpretation of the music, whether as performer or as listener, are these factoids important to know?

David Tudor, as pianist, was willing to read his Mallarmé — indeed willing to learn French — as what he believed to be prerequisite to learning a Boulez Sonata, but he was unwilling to read Emerson as prereq for Ives's Concord Sonata (Cage said that Tudor didn't want to "become a transcendentalist"). There are, however, marvelous performances of either work by pianists who have done none of the "required reading." In these cases, I suspect that the musical text itself is adequate for realizing a musical performance or listening to the work. The question is a subtle one: does knowing this information give the player a lift or a shove or an edge in getting into the work? is there added value in having the contextual information? or might there be cases in which the added information actually discounts the work? (There is an excellent discussion 'round this topic at Johnson's Rambler, here.)

For my own modest catalog of music, I don't think that knowing about my extracurriculars is necessary for players or listeners. But then again, there is some middle ground: knowing that I am fond of croquet or poker or mumblety peg, make really good larb or bak bao or that I read nighttime stories to my children out of Finnegans Wake might be of interest, without making it necessary for players to actually take a mallet or jackknife in hand, wager on a lonesome pair of jacks, steam dough, or even laugh at the Prankqueen's misadventure. But then again, who knows?

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