Monday, March 03, 2014

F is for Fiction

Rather than getting tied down in issues of accuracy and original ("composerly") intentions in performance, perhaps it would be both more convenient and more to the point to think of music in the composer -> notation -> performer line of transmission as a kind of story-telling, an honest fiction.  This may even be inevitable when one considers how much noise there is that line:  first, the actual state of notation, when one considers that there are works in the standard repertoire for which commonly-used sets of scores and parts may have several thousand errors (a thicket for which orchestral music librarians are continually pressed to trim back) above and beyond the continuous changes in editorial styles and standards practiced by editors, publishers, and performers, and that above and beyond the copying inaccuracies, oversights, and just plain mistakes of the composer her/himself,  puts the material identity of many works into question even before a single note is played, let alone heard, second, performer inaccuracy, due to lack of rehearsal, lack of goodwill (between whichever parties), or just the necessities of getting around a score that's awkward or tough to play, of which necessities, faking it, may well — and with surprising frequency — be a (yes) legitimate part of getting the piece played, and third, musical performance practice is full of stylistic languages, dialects, sociolects, and idiolects, some official, some outlaw, and that these themselves are unstable and will reliably be heard to change, in both subtle and gross ways, with place and time is a certainty, but how, when, where, and by whom is completely unpredictable. At its worst, this can be an unfortunate game of telephone, but at its best, all of this accumulated noise creates a chain with depth, connections, and elaboration that makes the storytelling more complex, sometimes stranger, and when we're lucky, sometimes even more compelling.  Think of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, perhaps the most familiar thing in the world, but handed down to us in "standard" performance practice  that is wildly at variance from the notation. Now, it's absolutely possible to play the opening bars both in the notated tempo and reflecting the natural accents of the notated metre, and a few conductors have done this, but the Jinn of the received opening is and remains out of the bottle, and we're only going to hear the opening against that background presence.  So in an sense, we get to have the opening both ways, ambiguously suspended between two irreconcilable versions of that story we still comfortably call the Fifth Symphony. AS LONG AS WE'RE AT F, and we've mentioned faking it, let me stress that I don't buy the distinction some make between accurate and faithful performances.  This is a typical strategem in the new complexity scene when, in the face of performances that are objectively at variance with an accurate reading of the notation, there is insistance that fidelity to the "spirit" of the work trumps the letter.  Yes, there is all that uncertainty in the notation mentioned above, but that doesn't mean the notation we do have is to be played with fast and loose; in that case, just be upfront and identify the performance as an improvisation on the score, or a variation on it, or some sort of new composition altogether and distribute the compositional credits accordingly.  But, at base, I'm not a Platonist, and I just don't believe that there is an ideal form (whether in the composer's mind or in some world of ideal forms out there somewhere)  in which we have "faith" and then attempt to faithfully reproduce in our performances.  Instead, I think musical works are real physical events, constructed in time by real persons, with written notation just one step (and an optional one at that) in that constructive process. My experience has been that it's terribly important to have goodwill between the actors in this process, but I don't think the introduction of faith is either conducive to goodwill or, in the end, necessary at all, particularly when faithfulness is used as an excuse for doing violence to the score.  Far better to identify the work then performed as one's own than to describe it as a faithful but inaccurate reading of the score; by the same token, composers do not invite goodwill with performers when they explicitly encourage the supposedly faithful over the accurate. We're in the business of storytelling here, not lying. This is not an argument against notationally complex music, but rather an argument for a more honest, more musical, and more humane approach to notation: instead of excusing the inaccurate with "faithfulness" let's just be more comfortable with the fact that all notation is, in its own terms, incomplete or inaccurate or so-specific as to be very difficult when not, for most mortals, impossible, and that the approach to the accurate, combined with all the material circumstances of music-making, as well as local and individual habits and practices, is a lively one that in no way discounts the accurate as a musical value. AND THIS TOO, F IS FOR FAILURE:  Ben.Harper has a post wrestling with the terms experimental and failure. I won't go far into this, but I think Ben is missing Cage's eventual embrace — after a long period of initially rejecting and then wrestling with the term which paralleled his own introduction of elements of chance and indeterminacy (and, much later, contingency) into his work — of the experimental label as simply indicating an engagement with actions the outcomes of which are unforeseen. (The consequences of that embrace are not simple, but embraces frequently lead to complex outcomes, don't they?)   I don't think we make much progress when we insist on considering "experimental" in music in the terms of the experimental scientific method, as aesthetic discovery just doesn't map well onto scientific discovery, with the particular know of experiment/discovery/invention/failure/success wound up very differently (indeed, as a scientific experiment always produces information, is it actually very odd to even think in terms of an executed experiment failing; even when the thesis is not proved, the experiment productive of data. (On the other hand, we all know musical failures that leave nothing useful in their wake: indeed, in some scenes, it's practically the normal state of affairs!)  The failure topic is a large one in itself and I will leave it alone for now with the observation that every innovation in music, from fauxbourdon (yes. F is for fauxbourdon, too) to the Vibra-slapTM is a failure in terms of previous regimes of music-making (and the Vibra-slapTM may just well still be a failure AFAIC), just as Rugby was a failure to play Soccer properly, when, as the story goes, one William Webb Ellis picked up the ball with his hands and made a run for it.

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