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.


maready said...


Thanks for not being too hard on me!

I must disagree, although not at length, on the differing ontological status of the recently-discovered Barraqué Violin Sonata and the "saxpirator." On this point we will have to continue to disagree: as a composer I can assure you that a score is both a set of instructions for the (hopeful) future use of performers AND the work itself --- the painting in Balzac's "The Unknown Masterpiece" is a work ( a masterpiece, even!) despite never having been seen by anyone but the painter. The musicologists who are editing and publishing some of Barraqué's juvenilia are making decisions based on their examination of the works in the Barraqué archives --- it is not necessary for the researcher to pull out a violin and play the sonata to declare it a work.

I understand the metaphors you are employing and agree with you about the shaky notion that a "work" exists in a Platonic ether before it is written down by a composer as a score --- no, it doesn't. However, a (classical) composer works out the implications of his chosen material by putting pen to paper, exactly as a novelist does. A novelist does not transcribe a Platonic essence of his story in a notebook as he writes; it is the writing of words on paper which first become sentences and then paragraphs that constitute the work, just as arrangements of notes do a composer's work, whether it is published or ever finds a readership.

For someone trained to read music and to hear with with pen in hand and a supply of score paper, the situation is exactly the same: it is not necessary to hear a performance for one's creation to exist, both for the composer himself and for others who can read scores. Fiction writers hope for readers just as composers hope for performers and audiences: the sole difference is that language is the property of all and so the reader of the novel is also the interpreter of the novel: he makes sense of it as he reads, just as a trained musician makes sense of a score by playing it. The writing analogy becomes much more interesting when the translation problem is brought into it: most English speakers who claim to have read Tolstoy have done no such thing. They have read a translation of it by a trained interpreter of the Russian language into novelistic English.

I can anticipate that you will return to the "blueprint argument", but I can only speak from my own experience as a one-time composer and a still-writing novelist: the work is what is on the paper. The rest is interpretation, and a good interpreter, be it the "inner voice" we hear when we read either a novel or a score, or a musician who makes a score an acoustic reality, simply conveys what is there, although there is always an unpredictable "swerve" in the reader's or performer's interpretation.

Again, these arguments are completely beside the point for the 98% of music that is NOT written classical music. In the cases of improvised, popular and other non-scored music, your argument is completely and unambiguously valid: the work IS the performance. And, thanks to the invention of recording, such works are now preserved for later inspection and analysis. Classical music is a very unusual phenomenon, which is what has led to these lengthy debates. The only other art form that can provide a useful comparison is theater. Shakespeare's plays are intended to be performed, as are Elliot Carter's Quartets. It is not necessary to have ever seen a performance of Shakespeare or heard a piece of Carter to appreciate it as a work IF one can read Shakespeare's language or Carter's notation. That is not a disparagement of the art and craft of the actor and director OR the musical performer, just a statement of fact.

sasha said...

Saxpirator did not exist before today, although instructions for building one existed for nearly sixty years'. Perfectly put..Can't state it any more perfectly than that..The realtionship between composer, score, performer and listener is an interesting one..Worth pondering..And the analogy with dramatic work is also one I like..One area of contention though over performance and study of a score: For my penny's worth in so much as music is an acoustical phenomonem and takes place over real-time the reading of a score, however successful, cannot surely be said to be analogous to a performance of that music (the same goes for a reading of a play)..And anyway could someone really 'hear' say Farben by Schoenberg by looking at the score? Then again I suppose Schoenberg did..Not easy stuff this Boom!.As regards other forms of music (as distinct from scored music) they can, as maready points out, exist quite happily without a complex set of instructions..And, of course, aural traditions continue to flourish..Thought-provoking stuff.

Boom said...

Blogger sasha said...

>> so much as music is an acoustical phenomonem and takes place over real-time the reading of a score, however successful, cannot surely be said to be analogous to a performance of that music (the same goes for a reading of a play). <<

Ah, Sasha, I wish I thought of "reading a play" example! A novel needs nothing more than my reading the words on paper (manuscript, book, whatever), but a play is indeed a set of instructions for re-creating something on stage. (E.g., "Karl enters from the left, holding a cane in one hand and a newspaper in another"...)
I've read lots of plays as a kid, and I still remember that I had to "recreate" the events (to some extent) on my 'mind's stage' to get "into it". Of course that was far from adequate, as compared to attending a performance of, say, a Chekhov play given by BDT (and directed by Tovstonogov). If your username is any indication, you'll know what I am referring to :))