Thursday, February 13, 2014

D is for Detail

I use the word "detail" a lot when talking about pieces of music.  It's not a term a get from my Cagean heritage, as detail implies some hierarchy among materials which was not an enthusiasm of  Cage's. I think I started using the word after hearing Morton Feldman use it, but it also could have been following Milton Babbitt who used it in describing Schenker's analytic technique as one which can compellingly describe how details both define and come from their context, belonging to particular continuities or simultaneities. Of course, a word like detail is somewhat fuzzy in the abstract, it has to be identified in its concrete context.  I think of a detail as something smaller than the breadbox of a feature  — compare, for reference, the distinctions we would make between the features and details of a striking face; that nose or that mop of hair is a feature, that freckle or crease a detail —, and although a detail may well puzzle or even be a nagging detail,  a detail is part and parcel of a work, intimate to it, in a way that an ornament may have the luxury not to be.  You can add or remove an ornament, and it may well increase value, but it will unlikely alter the identity of a work, but change a detail...?  You might be removing the keystone in the arch or the yeast in the bread.  A detail need not be some small but remarkable collection of notes at the surface of tonal music, it could be a small breath taken here, at this moment in particular and not another, or it could be a composer's insistence, in the score's notation, that the players of a string quartet be seated just a bit farther apart than usual.  I had friends in high school who were — and some very much still are, as we're talking a Southern Californian high school — serious about their cars. They were devoted to keeping them "cherry", a condition that went beyond merely looking shiny and new. Some of them were real virtuosi at car care, both mechanics and looks, both inside and out.  It was never enough to tune, clean and polish those cars, they had to be detailed, an attention to the smallest element that made the whole much more than a some of the parts.

* This was a response to an anecdote about Schoenberg's supposed exasperation at his favorite moments disappearing in the Schenker analysis of the Eroica.  Babbitt quite nicely put it: "Well, would those be your favorite places in Scheherezade? Would they be your favorite places if they popped up in the middle of The Merry Widow? They're your favorite places in a great big piece called the Eroica Symphony. They're your favorite places, we hope, because they're part of the continuity and part of the context, and who provides a better characterization of the continuity and context than does Schenker?"  (Babbitt, Words about Music, p. 140.)   

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