December 20, 2009

Settling the 'score': Comments and Replies III

I was very happy to get Maready's substantial and insightful contribution to the ongoing discussion of the "score versus musical work" dichotomy, which began with this post.

I have added Maready's contribution to the original "Settling the 'score': Comments and Replies" post.

Here I only want to make a brief comment on the following ontological question raised by Maready:

[Jean Barraque's Violin Sonata] was written 50 years ago and was only published by Barenreiter last year, and then played in public (and disseminated on the internet) two weeks ago. What was the status of this work between 1949 and 2009?

Well...  Suppose that in 1949 Barraque also produced a blueprint for a radically new musical instrument - say, a hybrid of saxophone and respirator (like those used in hospitals).  Suppose further that this blueprint was discovered only six months ago, and the first instrument - saxpirator - was built only yesterday.  What was the status of that instrument between 1949 and today?

The answer is simple: saxpirator did not exist before today, although instructions for building one existed for nearly sixty years.  The same, I belive, applies to Barraque's recently premiered sonata.  During the past sixty years this musical work existed only as a performance (or performances) in Barraque's 'mind's ear'.  (Although instructions for recreating the sound events Barraque heard in his mind's ear - the score - existed since 1949.)
     Not much of an existence, to be sure, but then it takes a human being many years of living to evolve into a rich and complex person.  I don't see why the same cannot be said about a musical work, whose 'personality' evolves, becomes richer and more complex through many performances by musicians with diverse interpretative agendas and aesthetic backgrounds.
    In fact, I see this as the only defensible answer, given the insuperable difficulties with the alternative ontological positions already discussed in an earlier post.

December 18, 2009

Wolfgang Rihm

One reason I like hanging out with mathematicians at work is to hear them "talk shop".  There is so much in it that reminds me of how people talk about sports: there are the superstars, the almost-stars, the burnouts, the unfulfilled promises, the next big things, the rumored moves between universities, the awards and prizes won, the awards and prizes that should have been won but weren't, the eccentricities and hijinks at conferences and in classrooms...
      What I find especially interesting in such talk is its underlaying mixture of emotions and attitudes.  There is the awe of strikingly imaginative proofs and deep, novel concepts, of course, but also the general admiration for the craft involved in producing results of less-than-earth-shaking importance.  The latter, I think, is colored by the gentle melancholy of recognizing that what lies above and beyond craft is simply unreachable to all but the very few, regardless of how much effort one invests in trying to reach that level.
      This admiration for craft seems to exist only in the present.  At the distance of two or more generations into the past all this teaming 'inner life' of the profession is lost to sight.  All that remains visible are the superstars - the immortals whose names are forever attached to theorems and concepts of groundbreaking and lasting importance for the profession.  The mere craftsmen are swallowed by the immense, blurry crowd of their equally non-stellar predecessors - much like in the image at the top of this post.

 I can't resist seeing this as yet another similarity between the world of mathematics and the world of music.  Behind the small constellation of superstar composers, there is the immense and blurry crowd of craftsmen whose output - despite its skill, refinement, technique, and artistic sincerity - is barely noticeable (if at all) through specialized books on music history, or through recordings issued by small labels trying to squeeze themselves into the marketplace dominated by countless releases of Beethoven symphonies and Chopin sonatas.  Perhaps such a star system is justifiable in the training of our future composers (why analyze quartets by Ries and piano sonatas by Hummel when you have Beethoven's works in both genres).  But this star system is doubly unfair to the general music lover: it obscures his access to genuinely enjoyable examples of high musical craft (e.g., Dussek piano sonatas or Erdmann symphonies), while forcing on him uninspired and routine music occasionally (or even regularly) produced by the big-name composers  - e.g., Mozart's utterly dispensable 'Cassations' and early symphonies, the endlessly recycled music in many of Bach's cantatas, the frighteningly numerous and numbingly similar Vivaldi concertos, and more.

Of course, separating the immortals from the mere craftsmen among the living is a notoriously difficult and occasionally embarrassing task.  (Some music writers in the early 19th century expressed doubts as to the longevity of Beethoven's music, but were absolutely certain that Hummel had already established his immortality.)  So I will offer only a speculative bet that Wolfgang Rihm, despite his many honors and prestigious commissions, will eventually join the ranks of the craftsmen. 

December 16, 2009

Settling the 'score': Comments and Replies II

Tassilo was very kind to send me a substantial and interesting addendum to our discussion of the extent to which structure determines the 'musical' status of sound events (and/or the listener's perception of these sound events as 'music').  I have added his comment to that post, and I want to alert interested readers to this addition.  Since in that discussion I've said all that I wanted to say on that subject, I will leave Tassilo's comment as "the last word" there.  Here I only want to preface it with a couple of general remarks, not intended as any kind of follow-up rebuttal.

Tassilo relies very heavily on the alleged analogy between language and music.  I am convinced that this analogy is inappropriate because music is not language in any but the most metaphorical sense.  Language - even a programming language - requires semantics, and semantics is strongly dependent on reference: the relation between symbols and the physical world.  No such relation is required in music.  The series of sounds C, E, G and Bb does not refer to anything in the physical world, whereas the series of sounds "the cat is on the mat" does refer to cats, mats and the physical relation of one object being on top of another.  At best, music can be seen as analogous to the "emotive" part of language, i.e., the part consisting not of declarative or interrogative sentences, but of expressions like "Damn!", whose only purpose is to express emotions rather than to convey or to request information.
    The crucial difference between the two becomes obvious when we note (as I implicitly did in my discussion of Stockhausen's Kurzwellen) that sound events without an underlying systematic structural organization can be perceived as music, but nothing of the sort is possible with language.

Finally, Tassilo points out that naive listeners deepen their musical experiences (and presumably their intuitive grasp of the structure of a musical work) when they "return again and again to the Beethoven symphonies, learning to hear more in the process".  I cannot overstate how much I agree with this point, and it is precisely this point that I made in an earlier post when I insisted that "It is by hearing, say, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in performances by Nikish, Toscanini, Furtwangler, Szell, Norrington, and Eotvos that will give one a comprehensive grasp on that symphony as a work of art."

December 14, 2009

Settling the 'score': Comments and Replies

My preceding post has (so far) received comments from two readers who were kind to share their thoughts on the subject matter discussed there.  Both comments raise interesting, even fascinating music-related issues, which is why I thought it might be well to give these comments - along with my replies to them - a post of their own, rather than keeping them hidden in the comments section.  (After all, the subtitle of this blog promises "Music and Other Food for Thought"...)
If there will be more comments, I will transfer them to this post as well, adding my replies if I can. 


FromBlogger Caleb Deupree (December 10, 2009):

Studying a score is only relevant for music from a certain period anyway, considerably less so for those pieces labeled aleatoric, as well as for jazz or other works that involve improvisation or substantial real-time performer modification. A musical work means something completely different for Bach (who often wrote functional music to fulfill a contract using musical materials that he had lying around), Beethoven (who needed to assert his financial and artistic independence) and Cage (who never wanted to hear the same music twice, and therefore built decision trees into his works).

Boom responds:

I think Caleb is absolutely right to point out that the score/work dichotomy is peculiar to discussions of classical music (which usually, and conveniently, exclude such 'problem' cases as Cage's 4'33"). Our good friend Maready has pointed this out to me as well (in private communication), and I am certainly aware of how less-than-universal the score/work related issues really are.
     I think that philosophers who get into this issue tacitly assume that jazz, rock, folk or non-Western music (where there may be no score involved at all) are genres which do not qualify as real music in some relevant (but never explained) sense.  If so, I think it is silly (or stupid, or arrogant), even if I myself do not listen much to music outside the so-called  serious/academic/classical music.  In any case, I think Caleb's (and Maready's) remark is of great interest because if such genres are accepted as genuine music (as I think they should be, even if such music is not 'sophisticated enough'), then neither the Platonist's nor the nominalist's views would make any sense at all if applied to this kind of music.  With a significant improvisatory (or aleatoric) content in such music, it makes no sense to speak of the abstract structure physically realized by performances - not because of some difficulties of epistemic access to Plato's Heaven, but because there is no uniquely determined structure corresponding to all possible performances of such pieces.  And since there is no score, the score=work thesis of the nominalist would be as nonsensical when applied to such cases as the claim that the square root of 2 is hungry on Thursdays.


From Tassilo (December 11, 2009):
Boom rightly claims that the production of sounds characteristic of a musical performance results in a “sequence of physical events.” Unfortunately, he goes much further and claims that, while the “sequence of physical events may have an abstract formal structure […] this structure is entirely secondary to the physical events[.]” In fact, this structure is NOT entirely secondary: it is the whole point.
      Music is not made up of sounds but of certain kinds of relationships among sounds, including above all syntactic relationships, although it is easier to illustrate my point with language than with music.
      Like the performance of a piece of music, speaking a sentence results in a series of physical events, but, if you don’t grasp the grammatical relationships among the syntactic elements projected by means of these physical events, you haven’t grasped the sentence as such. Furthermore, there are other semantic and even rhetorical structures conveyed by the same series of physical events, and the result is not “language” unless all of these structures are grasped as such. Language is not a mere “sequence of physical events,” and neither is music.


Boom responds:
Tassilo makes some fascinating claims, so I hope to be forgiven for a somewhat lengthy response.
       When I said that abstract structure is entirely secondary to the sound events produced in the course of a performance, I meant this in an ontological sense: i.e., that neither the existence nor the particular physical properties of these sound events are determined by some abstract entity in Plato's Heaven.  All that determines what sound events take place and in what order are the instructions given in the score.
      This is not to deny that we may impose (project) a structure on these sound events through analysis. But structures which we impose on sound events are like colors which we attribute to physical objects: in both cases the 'external' physical world in itself does not have either - there are only frequencies of electromagnetic radiation (which we crudely differentiate and classify via our color sensations), and airwaves with certain frequencies, amplitudes, etc. (which we differentiate and classify via our hearing sensations).

Having clarified my earlier statement, I now want to explain why I think that Tassilo's claim - that structure is the whole point of music - is unconvincing (at least as stated).

1.  Grasping the relevant structure in the series of sound events is not a necessary condition for experiencing these sound events as music.
Plenty of people enjoy Beethoven's Pathetique sonata without having the foggiest idea about any of the formal structural aspects of that piece (i.e., the sonata-form, tonality, counterpoint, modulation, etc).  I claim that these people are having genuine musical experiences when listening to that sonata, precisely because producing certain phenomenologically meaningful emotional responses in the listener is the primary objective of just about every composer who cared to discuss 'the aims and goals' of his trade.
Moreover, all this applies not just to naive listeners, but to highly trained musicologists as well.  After all, it took more than twenty years since the premiere of Le Marteau sans Maitre before some Russian musicologist identified the tone row of that composition.  And because on Tassilo's above quoted view (with 'music' substituted for 'language' according to his analogy) the result is not “music” unless [the relevant] structures are grasped as such, we would have to conclude that none of the performances of Le Marteau in the years prior to the identification of its tone row were "music".  Such a conclusion, I am afraid, amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of Tassilo's view.

It won't help, by the way, to say that folks who simply (non-analytically) enjoy Beethoven's Pathetique or Boulez's Le Marteau are still grasping the relevant structure of sound events, albeit unconsciously. Here is why:
      The only empirically justifiable unconscious cognitive mechanisms involved in processing musical information are those responsible for very low level (rudimentary) structural features, such as pitch interval and direction, identification/recognition of rhythmic patterns and melodic segments, and key apprehension (ability to identify 'wrong' notes in a tonal melody).  Such low-level unconscious structure-grasping is obviously insufficient to support non-trivial philosophical claims about music, e.g., those conferring the status of "music" on the serial Le Marteau, or explaining why Beethoven sonatas elicit vastly stronger responses than those of Ries, Moscheles or Hummel.  On the other hand, grasping the higher-level structural features of music is clearly a matter of conscious learning and practice.  To deny this is to turn every neurologically normal human into an unconscious expert musicologist by postulating unconscious cognitive mechanisms for grasping, say, the sonata form or retrograde inversions of the tone row.  This would be as vacuous as imputing the unconscious mastery of quantum optics to every human capable of emotionally responding to colors in a Rothko paining.

The second reason why I find Tassilo's claim unconvincing is this:

2.  A series of sound events may be (and be perceived as) music without having any formal structure whatsoever for the listener to grasp (or for the musicologist to identify).

No, I don't have Cage's 4'33" in mind here (and anyway, this piece can be conceivably argued to have "the null structure", just as the null set in mathematics is a perfectly good set despite having no elements).
What I do have in mind is something like Stockhausen's Kurzwellen.  In that 'process composition', the actual series of sound events produced in performances consists of
(a) sounds randomly generated by the scanning of short-wave radios, and
(b) the instrumentalists' imitation, modulation, transposition and other modifications of such randomly generated initial sound events according to instructions given in the score.

The only meaningful similarity between the two recorded performances of Kurzwellen that I have (Bremen 1968, Cologne 1969) is in their sonic surface textures: radio static and transient blips produced by scanning between stations, plus the timbral characteristics of the specified instruments.  Otherwise, these performances differ in just about everything else: duration, random snippets of scanned radio programs, the actual sounds produced by instrumentalists in response to radio outputs, and so on.
       Which is as it should be, since there is no prescribed pitch set, no themes, no development procedures - in short there is absolutely nothing in Kurzwellen which could support attributions of higher-level structural properties.  Yet both performances of that piece generated sound events which struck me as being undeniably music (and an amazingly imaginative music at that!): the unfolding of sound events was utterly absorbing over short time spans as well as over long ones, these sound events elicited from me strong emotional responses, and each performance left a generalized phenomenological imprint in my mind vivid and attractive enough to guarantee many repeated hearings.

All this convinces me that what makes Kurzwellen 'work' is what makes any great music 'work': namely, the way in which the sound events produced according to the composer's instructions manage to elicit significant emotional responses from the listener (and to leave a lasting phenomenological imprint in the listener's mind).  And for the purpose of perceiving sounds as music, it does not matter in the least whether the listener can identify higher-level structural properties of the perceived sound events, or even if there is any higher-level structure to identify at all. 

In the end, I think the root of my disagreement with Tassilo is what I see as the mistake of conflating two very distinct kinds of experiences associated with music: the analytic experiences (produced by contemplating the structural properties of a series of sound events) and the musical experiences (produced by emotional responses to a series of sound events).  What makes these experiences strictly independent is not just the fact that many people have the latter without the former.  There is also the fact that if we assume that the relevant physical properties of each sound event  are specified by at most n parameters (pitch, amplitude, duration, etc.), then the entire series of sound events can be thought of as a dynamical process modeled by the motion of a point in n-dimensional phase-space.  And it is entirely conceivable that the relevant formal/structural properties of that series can be represented by suitably chosen mathematical (geometric, topological, algebraic) properties of trajectories in the phase-space of the associated dynamical model.
       A mathematically competent person may then be given the structural properties of a piece of music directly - i.e., in the form of a suitable dynamical model, and without any sound events whatsoever.  For this mathematically competent person, contemplating thus given structural properties will amount to an analytic experience identical to that obtained by expert musicologists from contemplating the structure of the sound events which make up the corresponding piece of music.  But obviously our mathematician will have no chance of deriving any musical experiences from this kind of analytic activity.

To end on a metaphorical note, I'm sure we all agree that whatever joys can be found in contemplating the anatomical (or genetic) structure of reproductive organs will never amount to the joys of having sex.  Lets apply the same common sense to the 'joys of music'.


From Tassilo (December 20, 2009):
I can’t figure out how to reply to your latest comments on listening to music at your blog, but I believe you are fundamentally mistaken about what listening to a piece of music entails.
(1)  A piece of music is not a Rorschach blot onto which the listener projects whatever structure he wishes.  When Wagner wrote the Liebestod, he plotted a series of crescendos leading to ever more shattering climaxes.  Either you hear the climaxes exactly where Wagner put them or you cannot be said to have heard the piece that Wagner wrote.
(2) You write: “Plenty of people enjoy Beethoven's Pathetique sonata without having the foggiest idea about any of the formal structural aspects of that piece (i.e., the sonata-form, tonality, counterpoint, modulation, etc).”

What you mean is that these “naïve” listeners haven’t encountered formal discussions of the Pathétique and aren’t familiar with the technical language necessary to have such discussions.  That does not prove your case.

People spoke languages before there were written languages or written grammars, and, by definition, they spoke those languages “grammatically.”  That is to say, the words they spoke fell into certain kinds of patterns that were grasped by all the speakers of those languages.  To speak a language is to resort to the grammar of a language, and an anthropologist or a linguist encountering a spoken language for the first time is able to derive a grammar of that language from the speech of the native speakers of the language.
Similarly, what a “naïve” listener hears when he listens to the Pathétique IS sonata form, IS tonality.  A listener to the first movement of the Eroica grasps the themes and rhythms, hears the transitions, the points of arrival, the climaxes, etc.   Tie all of them together and you have an instance of what we refer to as sonata form.  Descriptions of sonata form and descriptions of tonal harmony are, among other things, attempts to explain what a listener hears, just as the anthopologist’s or linguist’s grammar is an attempt to explain the spoken language he has discovered.

The speakers of a language are those who grasp the syntactic (and other) relationships constituting the language as such.  Similarly, the Pathétique only makes sense to the listener who grasps the quasi-grammatical relationships constituting the Pathétique as music.  Of course, the native speakers of a language don’t grasp the grammatical structure of their language by reading a book of grammar, and the average listener to Beethoven doesn’t grasp the principals of tonal harmony that Beethoven exploits by studying a harmony treatise.

(3) You write: “II]t took more than twenty years since the premiere of Le Marteau sans Maitre before some Russian musicologist identified the tone row of that composition.  And because on Tassilo's above quoted view (with 'music' substituted for 'language' according to his analogy) the result is not “music” unless [the relevant] structures are grasped as such, we would have to conclude that none of the performances of Le Marteau in the years prior to the identification of its tone row were ‘music’.”
This is doubly mistaken.  

First of all, this is like claiming that the languages people spoke before there were written grammars were not languages: but, of course, they were languages. Which is why an anthropologist or a linguist is able to derive a written grammar from a spoken language that nobody has yet written down.  Theory follows practice in music as in language.

Second, the transformations of a “tone row” are NOT like the quasi-grammatical relationships discussed in a manual on tonal harmony, and the syntax of Marteau does NOT consist of the systematic transformations of a “tone row.”   Discussions of the transformations of a tone row are discussions of abstractions analogous to discussions of tonal music at a fairly abstract level.

Let’s take a hypothetical piece written in a major key that never modulates and into which no foreign elements are ever introduced.  To make life even easier, let’s say that the piece is in C major. In that case, the piece will make use of seven pitch classes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.  [The pitch class C is the class of all those pitches (frequencies) one or more octaves apart that we refer to as C.   In other words, the concept of “pitch class” depends on the assertion of octave equivalence.]  In the abstract, this seven-note collection has certain abstract properties, properties exploited in any music making use of this collection.  Here are just a few of those abstract properties.
  1. You can arrange these seven elements so that an ascending series of perfect 5ths results:  F – C – G – D – A – E – B.
  2. You can create exactly three major triads using this collection, F-A-C, C-E-G, & G-B-D.
  3. You can create exactly three minor triads using this collection, D-F-A, A-C-E, & E-G-B.
  4. You can create exactly one diminished fifth or augmented fourth using this collection, B-F or F-B.
I could go on, but you get the idea: I’m talking about the abstract properties of a collection here, not the quasi-grammatical or syntactic relationships (of, e.g., tonic to dominant) that a theorist would refer to as “functional” relationships.
To discuss the transformations of the tone rows in Marteau is to discuss the specific abstract properties of the chromatic collection exploited in Marteau, and “That doesn’t explain my music, not even the beginning of it,” as Boulez has insisted.

(4) You seem to think I’m conflating the analytic and the musical experience of a piece of music.  I’m doing nothing of the kind.  Nevertheless, and depending on what it is that you’re analyzing, there is much more overlap between the “analytic” experience of music and the “musical” experience than you seem to realize. 
Fluent speakers of a language are adept at manipulating syntax in real time without giving it a thought.  Indeed, they manipulate more than the syntax of their language, resorting to rhetoric, deciphering meanings (in part through grasping syntax), and engaging in often elaborate word play.  They do this both when listening and when speaking.  The listener to music does the same kinds of things.  He or she “analyzes” syntactic relationship in real time and makes sense of them regardless of whether he or she is aware that that’s what it means to listen to a piece of music.  Native speakers of languages made very skilful use of nouns before languages were written down, although the concept, “noun,” wasn’t grasped by any grammarian until after languages were written down.

You presume that the naïve listener only grasps very limited patterns in music, but a gifted folk singer may write a wonderful song without ever having learned to read music, without ever having studied harmony. (In another sense, he has, of course, “studied” harmony through listening to, playing, and writing music.)  Listeners who return again and again to the Beethoven symphonies, learning to hear more and more in the process, would never be content with the low order patterns you enumerate. I remember perfectly well what music sounded like before I ever took a harmony course, and it sounded like what music sounds like to me today: music.  I also remember what Wagner and Boulez sounded like to me the first time I listened to them: noise.  Unable to connect the dots, I could not and did not hear the music that Wagner and Boulez wrote.  I only gradually learned to connect the dots by listening, which is the only way it can be done.  It can’t be done by reading a harmony book or analyzing the abstract structure of tone rows.  Nevertheless, this process of connecting the dots is exactly what is entailed by listening to a piece of music.  What the composer composes is not a Rorschach blot but the connections among the dots that constitute his music as such.
Moreover, small children in human cultures grow up singing simple nursery rhymes and the like through which they become intimately familiar with fundamental syntactic relationships, although I don’t have the patience to explain how “Row, row, row your boat,” “Three Blind Mice,” and “Frère Jacques” project the tonic triad or how fundamental relationships among harmony, melody, and rhythm are exploited in these simple children’s pieces.

BloggerFrom maready (December 20, 2009):
I would like to redirect some attention from Tassilo and Boom's extensive and elegant arguments back to Caleb Deupree's opening response to the original post. Western Classical music is the ONLY music that developed a notational system which relays instructions with enough precision to enable performers, within the shared performance norms they have internalized, to perform a "work" written in 1800 or on the other side of the planet from a piece of paper, with results that are more or less consistent with the composer's instructions.
What began as an aide-memoire became a system of notation precise enough and complex enough that, by the 19th century, Schubert's "Great" C Major symphony, in the decade or two before it was plucked from the wastebasket by Schumann, already existed as a musical work, first in Schubert's ears as he notated it, and, after his death, during the entire period it was hidden away. It was not necessary for it to be played by an orchestra to become a musical work. For an example closer to our own time, take the Barraqué solo violin sonata, posted on your blog recently. It was written 50 years ago and was only published by Barenreiter last year, and then played in public (and disseminated on the internet) two weeks ago. What was the status of this work between 1949 and 2009?
There are two other questions that have been skirted in the otherwise pretty overwhelmingly complete and stimulating arguments from Tassilo and Boom.
First: notation began as a crude way of transmitting music by fixing oral practice in a kind of shorthand. As early as Perotin and Dufay, composers discovered that they could use musical notation for an entirely different purpose: to create music of a contrapuntal complexity that would not have been possible without pen and paper. I am not a trained philosopher, so I can only give you the perspective of a trained composer --- a composer, to some extent, hears music in his mind which, thanks to ear-training he is able to commit to paper, even in the absence of an instrument. But much of a composer's work takes place ON paper ... crude musical ideas take form in the hand of the composer, so to speak, and by the late 20th century, it is not unusual for some of the ramifications of a composer's written notation to reach a complexity that eludes even its creator's ears until he is able to hear it performed. Nevertheless, a composer regards his score AS the work. Once he has written the final note of the final bar, the hard part begins: getting a performance.

Secondly, and most importantly: much of the discussion thus far supposed that one's idea of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is formed by the numerous performances and recordings one has heard in one's lifetime. Before Edison's invention, classical music was only accessible to those who were fortunate enough to live in large musical capitols, with access to opera houses and concert halls. Most people's contact with the 'great works' came about through 'amateur' performances in churches, and, most importantly, in the growing upper middle classes, at the household piano. Before the invention of recording, to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony meant, for the great majority of music-lovers, playing a reduction on the household piano (or other keyboard instrument.) Unless one could read music, or had a family member or friend who could read music, and had reasonable facility at the keyboard, one simply did not have access to classical music. Even famous composers considered themselves lucky to hear a Beethoven symphony more than a handful of times in their life. Witness, for instance, the pilgrimages of numerous composers, musicians and music lovers to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal or the Ring ... an experience that, for most, only happened once, however often they were able to play through a piano/vocal reduction at home.

To sum up my "argument": much of what has been said by Boom and Tassilo is manifestly true, but ONLY in historical context. Yes, in the 20th century it became possible for a listener who doesn't read music to listen to a score as complex as a Mahler symphony or a Beethoven quartet repeatedly, as often as desired, and simply, by putting their memory and ears to work, come to know a piece of music at a profound and meaningful level, without reading a score. And, in the other point that keeps coming up, sound recording has enabled the listener to hear many different interpreters perform the same work; one forms a kind of composite idea of the 'work in itself' by comparison and by the superimposition of aural memory of the numerous performances heard in a lifetime. (Footnote: a warning which should not be forgotten, although it is easy to do so --- much recent music has only received one or two recordings. There is no guarantee that the single recording one has heard of a difficult and recent piece is an adequate one.)

To return to Caleb's original point: only in western classical music is their a score/performance problem, akin to the celebrated mind/body problem. In my opinion, the most important invention in 20th century musical history was not, to take the most commonly mentioned contender, Schoenberg's "12-note" method --- it was recording technology. To make it simple: you don't have to read music or have ear-training to know a piece of classical music anymore. And the greatest contribution that Edison's invention has made has been in non-notated music --- i.e. all the many musics OTHER than classical music. If recording technology vanished off the face of the earth tomorrow, classical music still has the written score, and as I have said, if one is a classical composer, it is with pen and paper that one does one's musical thinking. The past century, however, may not be remembered for its recordings of classical music as much as for the many kinds of scoreless music that was either:

1) documented by recording: jazz, folk, 'world' musics OR

2) created with the recording technology itself, i.e., electronic music, pop music post-Beatles, and --- since the creation of the kind of set-up Varese always dreamt of, with software packages created for the home computer --- "serious" music itself, which, for composers born in 1970 and after, is just as likely to be conceived and notated at a computer as by hand, the result being either a work generated by the digital manipulation of recorded and synthesized sound, OR as a traditional score, printed by notation software, which is, as it has for centuries, then given to performers to recreate (and record!)

One final thing that has come up that is of particular interest to me: a recording fixes a certain group of sounds forever. Using one's own listening skills and memories, ANYTHING --- from a recording of an indeterminate score by Stockhausen to a performance by an improvising laptop ensemble to a field recording of people walking and talking on an esplanade will, if listened to often enough, take on a gestalt that gives the recording, retrospectively, an inevitability. As with notes on paper, recorded sound takes on the status of a "work".

Those are my contributions, as a listener, and an erstwhile composer, to the debate at hand. Back to you folks ...


December 10, 2009

Settling the score

Incoherent language produced by people with Wernicke's aphasia indicates a serious, frustrating, and sad cognitive impairment.  Unless, that is, such people happen to be philosophers of music (not to be confused with musicologists or historians of music).  In that case, incoherence seems to be a professional requirement.  For my money, the most amusingly extravagant offerings from such philosophers concern the nature of the score and its relation to the musical work associated with it.

Some - who call themselves Platonists - assert that the score describes an abstract structure, which exists timelessly and immutably among other 'ideal Forms' (such as numbers, functions, and sets) in Plato's Heaven.  On this view performances of a musical work are only more or less approximate physical realizations of that abstract structure.  To grasp the work itself, therefore, one must study the score: the only direct and uncorrupted path to the musical work.
     Of course, Platonists realize that, thus construed, musical works cannot possibly be created by humans precisely because abstract objects (by their very conception) are causally disconnected from the physical world where composers' brains happen to dwell.  In particular, nothing that the composer might have done in his life - from such 'involuntary' actions as electrical signals in his brain to such 'voluntary' ones as putting ink marks on paper - could have created an abstract object.  Consequently, to speak, for example, of Op.111 as Beethoven's sonata is to credit Beethoven (at most) with a discovery of a certain abstract structure, and this does not entail any attributions of creative ownership.  But Platonists, it seems, are not at all nostalgic about such attributions, and they happily settle for discovery of abstract structures as  the principal task of every composer. 
      Where the Platonist comes to grief, however, is the question about how the flesh-and-blood Beethoven could have possibly surveyed the otherworldly realm of abstract objects, so as to 'discover' Op.111.  Because Beethoven could not have peeped into Plato's Heaven with a telescope (even if he had access to one), or with any other physical gadget, the Platonist has no choice but to postulate an extra-sensory, non-physical cognitive access to the realm of abstract objects - the kind of access, he assures us, that is routinely enjoyed by composers and mathematicians in the course of their work.
      Obviously no details concerning this 'special access' to Plato's Heaven will ever be known to cognitive science, neuroscience, biology, or physics - none of which are equipped to deal with interactions between physical and non-physical objects.  All we will ever get in support of this utterly mysterious access is the Platonist's desperate need to bridge the ontological gap separating musical works in Plato's Heaven from the composers here on Earth.
    A curious outsider who gets this far through the Platonist's story will most likely mumble:

--   Fuck me!  I can get more entertaining mumbo-jumbo magic bullshit from Harry Potter novels!,

and swear never to open another philosophy book for as long as he lives.
Then there are those 'down to earth' fellas called nominalists.  Nominalists resolutely reject the existence of abstract objects, limit reality to whatever can be found in the physical world, and insist that the the score itself is the musical work.  Once again, to grasp a musical work one must study the score: with the two being literally identical, there is no more direct and transparent path to understanding a piece of music.
     The glitch with the nominalist's story, however, is that performances (qua physical realizations of the score) must be note-perfect to qualify as performances of the work in question.  One missed or wrong note, one incorrect accent - and the performance is no longer of the work embodied by the score.  That this is so can be seen from the simple fact that any performance can be in principle transcribed into a score (as the young Mozart once did from memory after hearing a mass by Palestrina).  And if the original and the transcribed scores are not identical, neither are the musical works embodied by these two scores.
        A moment of reflection will convince anyone familiar with the realities of music-making that, according to the nominalist, virtually every advertised performance of, say, Beethoven's Op.111 is actually a performance of some other musical work!  After all, no pianist (with the possible exception of Michelangeli and Pollini in their prime) can deliver a score-perfect performance of Op.111 at each and every concert where he or she plays this work.  And what holds for pianists holds for other instrumentalists, as well as for orchestral performances.  Toscanini - the supposedly legendary literalist score-worshiper - did not really conduct Beethoven symphonies (because he slightly changed the orchestration).  Furtwangler never conducted any work by any known composer at all (because his performances were full of false entries, wrong notes, and unmarked changes of tempo).  And the great 'Chopinist' Cortot never even recorded anything by Chopin (because he missed enough notes in every recording to make up for another one).

No wonder every time I describe the nominalist's story to musicians, what I hear back reminds me of a string quartet by Helmut Lachenmann: a lot of hissing, growling, gnashing of teeth, and other audible manifestations of the primordial homicidal instinct still lurking in the deep recesses of the human brain.

As might be expected, the correct story regarding the nature of the score is philosophically boring because it is devoid of the lunacy expected from 'deep philosophical reflections'.  A score is a specification of instructions (not different in kind from a recipe or a blueprint) for creating a sequence of physical events (temporally organized sounds of specified pitch, amplitude, timbre, etc.).  The specified sequence of physical events may have an abstract formal structure, of course, but this structure is entirely secondary to the physical events (just as the mirror image of my body is entirely secondary to my body itself).  And the composer surely need not be aware of such a structure in order to produce a score (just as the father who puts together a swing in the backyard need not be aware of differential equations specifying the abstract structure of pendulum-like periodic motion.)

A performance, then, is just carrying out the instructions specified by the score, and this process can never be absolutely perfect, even if the score has the precision of a computer program (which it never does outside computer music).  After all, even in computation - the most precise example of "carrying out the instructions" - the sequence of physical events (at the most basic hardware level) specified by the program is never perfectly deterministic because of random transistor failures and other kinds of random interferences.  And when a program is complicated enough, it is impossible to be absolutely certain even about the kind of physical operations specified by this program.  (Because program verification will require even more complicated programs whose internal consistency will be open to doubt - a logical limitation established by the celebrated incompleteness theorems of Kurt Goedel.)  Once it is clear that every physical process of carrying out reasonably complicated instructions is essentially probabilistic in nature (and, in music, also fuzzy, because of inherently imprecise instructions in most scores), we can exhale with relief and accept performances by Cortot, Furtwangler, Edwin Fischer and other error-prone musicians as indeed performances of the advertised musical works.

Finally, the musical work itself is just the sum total of performances according to the score, where 'performance' is understood to include what happens in 'the mind's ear' of those few who can by-pass the services of musicians and 'hear' the music by reading the score.  Studying the score without hearing the whole work in the mind's ear (e.g., following just the cellos part) allows you to understand the instructions in greater detail, but gives you no access to the work itself.  You can't satisfy hunger by studying a recipe; you can't fly from New York to LA by studying the blueprints for Boeing 737, and you sure as hell cannot grasp (understand, appreciate) a musical work by studying the instructions specified in the score.  What one needs instead is to hear a sufficiently large number of diverse performances of that score.  It is by hearing, say, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in performances by Nikish, Toscanini, Furtwangler, Szell, Norrington, and Eotvos that will give one a reasonably comprehensive grasp on that symphony as a work of art. 

If you got this far, you will understand why I strongly disagree with my friend (and fellow music blogger) who accepts the widely circulated claim that Debussy's Jeux exerted a strong musical influence on Stockhausen's so-called moment-form compositions.  My friend mentions the 60 (or so) tempo changes in Jeux, its juxtapositions of "here and now" sections whose content is not related by continual development of some basic thematic material, and then exclaims: "But that's just what Stockhausen did with his moment-form pieces!".  To me, on the other hand, this score-derived conclusion is analogous to saying that Ford Taurus and Boeing 737 have something 'transportationally' important in common, because the blueprints for each specify certain identical welding techniques.  In other words, I tried to convince my friend (so far unsuccessfully) that similarities at the level of instructions - whether in recipes, blueprints, or musical scores - need not translate into meaningful similarities at the level of food, mechanical devices, or musical works respectively.