Friday, May 10, 2013

Delicate or robust?

Composing blogger James Ricci, in an item about his mentor, Milton Babbitt, recalls one of the too-many Babbitt stories about a premiere performance shortchanged by inadequate rehearsal.  In this case, an orchestra's inadequate rehearsal time for a Babbitt piece was compared with the apparently over-generous rehearsal for a repertoire warhorse which shared the program, Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade.  The complaint was, more likely than not, justified, but attempting to reconstruct the rationale behind such a rehearsal schedule might be more than an idle exercise and may, in fact, reveal something interesting about how repertoire is handled in real life by the institutions which dominate concert music-making.

From Babbitt's point of view, his work — here, Ars Combinatoria, but the understanding is general to his catalog, not specific to this chamber orchestra piece — was something rather delicate, with every detail projecting and embodying its underlying structures, thus a flawed execution of a detail — be it a wrong pitch, rhythm, or dynamic — is, in effect, a crack through the whole piece.  (The compositional rigor and performance practical demand that Babbitt made strongly contrasts with some of the "new complexity" repertoire, in which detail may be even more dense, but not as structurally integrated as Babbitt's music and may embrace performances  in which approximation and even failure to literally realize the score are acceptable or even desirable practices.  Such works, however complicated on the page, are thus potentially rather robust, performance-wise, in tolerating considerable variation in the character and quality of their realizations.*)

But from the orchestra's point of view, however, it's Sheherazade that's the delicate work. Not because of its technical demands, which are not extreme, but simply because the work is familiar, to both musicians and to larger audiences. And because it's familiar, there is a fear that mistakes — both technical and interpretive — will stand out and reflect more immediately, and poorly, upon the performers. The conductor and the orchestra are probably completely aware that they are taking advantage of the audience's total lack of familiarity with the new work and accepting more than a few wrong notes and, more than likely, they are assuming that the Babbitt has a degree of robustness that the composer himself doesn't recognize  — drop a bunch of notes, mess up some entries or exits, wing the dynamics altogether and fall apart completely here and there, and it's still going to sound like finicky, agitated, serial bebop. So, it's not the Babbitt exactly, but it's something in that general neighborhood, goes the line of thinking, and since we don't visit that neighborhood very often in the first place, the investment in the skills required to get more exact are better spent elsewhere, and elsewhere just happens to be the same Sheherazade that every other orchestra plays every other year.

Yes, there is a real dishonesty here at work, and one unfortunate effect is that the investment and continuous reinvestment in the conservation of the best-known repertoire places ever higher hurdles on the possibility of new work joining the repertoire, up to performances that completely fail to represent the work.   But it may also be useful for composers to reflect a bit on the sometimes contradictory ways in which their work — for example, in terms of performance practical robustness or delicacy — might be understood, and use this, potentially, to help nuance some of these performance issues when, for example, negotiating rehearsal time or introducing efficiencies into the rehearsal, as when, as Ricci describes it, Babbitt quietly accepted a conductor's over-simplified description of the piece's form as a set of variations.  No, it's not quite that, but if it gives the musicians a handle on or a point of entry into the work, why not?    

* Babbitt: "The difference is of a different kind. Mine is an ensemble difficulty, making that ensemble work. The individual parts do not have that kind of virtuoso demand that some of Elliott's parts do. And as for Ferneyhough and Dillon and composers such as that, of course they're not. But we can talk about that in a way that would probably not do either of us any good, because I've checked on some of those Ferneyhough performances. I mean, Brian's a very good friend of mine, and I'm sort of sympathetic too what he thinks he's trying to do. But, you know, Brian Ferneyhough once said that he's satisfied if the performers get one-tenth of his piece. I don't want to settle for one-tenth. If I settle for one-tenth, I'd write only that one-tenth. He said he likes to see performers sweat. Well, I don't like to be near anybody who sweats. That's a totally different attitude towards these things."