musicology

On Writing and Music Performance

“And yes, [writing]’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.”

Do you read MJ Wright? If not, you should consider it. He’s a New Zealand historian and writer who has a lot of smart things to say about writing, history, and science (among other things). Last week, he published a post called “Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing.” I have no problem with the thesis of that piece: writing requires practice and, to do it well, you must get beyond “rules.” Experience counts. There’s truth in that, but that much is true of any art. I’m less curious about why Wright compared writing to piano performance than I am with the semantic leap from “translating and transferring emotions” to “performance.”  Where does the composer fit into the equation? Where, for that matter, does a reader?

I’m in a rare position regarding this question: I’ve written lots of text, I’ve written lots of music, and I’ve put in my time performing music (and on much rarer occasions, words). A caveat, though: Wright’s post was just a springboard for this one. I’m not trying to “refute” his argument or really even comment on the post’s content. Said post makes a convincing case for the importance of practice in writing, and I wholly agree with Wright on that point. My quibble is with “performance” and just how well that idea applies to writing.

“If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid.”

This is true. It’s also true, though, that Western music notation has always been a kind of shorthand—there’s a whole branch of music scholarship devoted to studying manuscripts and decoding the actions the blobs of ink were meant to prompt. (If you’re interested in some of the uses and abuses of ‘performance practice’ studies, I’d suggest Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act, though I’d also suggesting looking directly at some of the essays he engages with. Taruskin habitually pursues his arguments…aggressively.)

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that “composer” became a job of its own. Prior to that, writing music was a part of other jobs—Kapellmeister, for example. The Kapellmeister managed all the musical activity for a church and wrote more as necessary for performance. As the patronage system broke down and professional music-making moved away from the church and the estates of the aristocracy, composers stopped having house or church ensembles to work with. Simultaneously, music came to be treated more as an art than a craft.

Notation was getting more precise, too, because composers were less likely to be in direct control of performances. Dynamic markings (for loudness) grew in importance. Composers indicated tempi, eventually with metronome markings. Articulation marks and phrasing marks and all sorts of indications telling a performer how to play a particular note became common. The more seriously composition was treated as its own distinct art, the more precisely composers worked to guide (or control) performers.

By the middle 20th Century, this had pushed some composers to abandon performers altogether. Electroacoustic music was driven by new sounds and new technology, but it also allowed the composers to create exactly what they wanted to without the necessary mediation of a performer. Some composers—famously, Igor Stravinsky—railed against performers’ “interpretation” of music, instead preferring “execution.” The ladies and gentlemen with the instruments in hand were, Stravinsky argued, just there to make his artistic vision a reality, without any input on the process.  They had acquired a history’s worth of bad performance habits that needed to be scrubbed away. (See the sixth of his Norton lectures at Harvard, published in Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.)

To bring this back around to Wright, of course playing Beethoven as if the blots on the page were the whole piece sounds “plonky and stupid.” The score was never intended to be the music, only a vehicle for transmitting it.[1]

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And here the comparison of music to writing gets fuzzy, because writing is also a vehicle for transmitting ideas. We use the written word to tell stories, to explain scientific research, to philosophize, to do a hundred hundred other tasks. The words, though, are not the stories, are not the ideas, are not the philosophy. (You can make a case for that, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.) Stories live closer to the words than music does to the score, but there’s still a significant degree of difference.

The gap between (Western) music and writing comes in the way that gap between sign and signifier is bridged. With words and ideas, it’s essentially a direct process of semiosis.[2] With traditionally-notated Western music, you need a performer and some kind of semiosis to accomplish Wright’s “translating and transferring emotions;” the semiosis is mediated by the performer. The performer translates the score into reality—that’s performance. Like translating from one language to another, though, there are necessary injections of the performer’s ideas into the final product—the difference between dumping a chunk of text into Google Translate and using a professional translator is much the same as the difference between “plonky and stupid” Beethoven and the performance by Tiffany Poon Wright uses as his counterexample.

You can make the case (as reader-response theory sometimes does) that the “translation” of words into a story or idea—into meaning—is a kind of performance by the reader rather than the writer. It is the reader who controls the pace of consumption, who consciously or unconsciously glides over the boring bits or lingers on a particularly artful turn of phrase. Readers are, at the least, participants in the construction of the meaning of a text. Communication is between the author and the reader.[3]

Musical performance—as with other performance arts—takes place in time. Scores can and do hang around for centuries. What we have on the page of Beethoven’s Op. 27 No. 2 now isn’t much different than what was on the page 200 years ago, but to turn it into music we need a performance now, something to thaw Beethoven’s calcified intentions into flowing sound. By controlling the pace of production (of sound), the performer controls the pace of consumption. The performer, of course, also controls the innumerable nuances that create the music for the audience.

“The trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer.”

As a composer, I have to respect performers—their skills make my ideas reality (and often improve upon them in the process). I don’t agree with Stravinsky’s notion of a hierarchical, unidirectional movement from composer to performer to audience. I believe that the relationships are reciprocal and that the musical work exists somewhere in the vague middle of the performer-audience-composer triangle. Performing is creative work regardless of how much or how little the composer has written down. (Any quibble with “which was always envisaged by the composer” must be saved for a separate post.) It’s the composer, though, who takes the first step of creating something from nothing, of recording some idea or intention to give to a performer and ultimately to the audience. That stage of creation embeds Wright’s “emotions” (I would add “ideas,” too) in an artifact. Only then can the performing artist “transfer and translate” them for the audience.

Writing is creating something from nothing. Performing a score is creating something out of something else. That doesn’t mean that writing and music are wholly discrete: words are sounds. Sentences have rhythm. We can talk about pace and tempo and structure in novels in much the same way we do in symphonies. One of my favorite composers (and subject of my master’s thesis) justified his musical style and the creation of a whole new tuning system on the basis of its presumed relation to human speech and song—to embodied words.

My favorite description of what defines a story is the Kalahari proverb “it comes from a far off place and you feel it.” Music is much the same way. I’ve been thinking about and writing about both for years. They’re arts. They benefit from from practice. Sometimes you create texts or scores or performances that suck. You learn from them and you move on. That doesn’t make writing  performance, and that’s okay. [4] Go practice, go write and, as Neil Gaiman puts it, make good art.

1—It’s tangential but important to note that the majority of the world’s musical traditions lack notation altogether. We have to be careful when we talk about music to remember that there is more to it than Western “classical” music. Many Western music philosophers and music semioticians build their work entirely on the Western canon, sometimes narrowing it further to Western instrumental music. That leads to some conclusions that look truly idiotic the moment you step out of the concert hall.
2—…and semiosis is marvelously complicated even before you get neurocogs involved.
3—As somebody whose dissertation was on the presentation of music and all of the practical levels of execution that go with getting music composed and performed, that sentence was a little painful to write. The communication is never going to be perfect and, as soon as publishing enters the equation, you add all sorts of competing pulls that influence both what is said and how it is said.
4—And, as I mentioned at the beginning, the fact that I don’t believe writing is performance does nothing to discount the other elements of Wright’s analogy. Writing is still art!

Knowing is Half the Something Something

G.I. Joe taught me that knowing is half the battle. The Joes were suspiciously silent on what the other half might be…maybe it was “fight enemies with extraordinarily poor depth perception.” Two different events this weekend, though, got me thinking about what I know, what other people know, and what I sometimes expect other people to know.

Saturday: The Known Knowns

Most of the time, I think that signing up for the face-to-face teacher training sessions was a good thing. There’s legitimate networking that happens at the classes, the people are nice, and the air conditioning keeps the conference rooms colder than I can responsibly keep my apartment. (I also can’t put them off as easily as the purely on-line sections of the training.) By the end of Saturday, I was not so sure.

The material, taken out of context, is often interesting. Primary and secondary educators like to dabble in neuroscience, taking bits and pieces of things (like different loci of activity for different kind of learning) and concocting theories to support them (like “learning styles,” which do not actually work the way you might think). There are practical tips about applying for jobs and navigating state mandates once you’ve got one. We spent time addressing the standards that go with the state’s academic achievement exams. We also discussed how to convert those into objectives for one or more lessons.

That’s where things went off the rails. The distinction between items on the state guidelines and objectives for lessons just…escaped…some members of the class. First the instructor, then other members of the class, tried to guide the lost back to clarity. No dice. For forty-five minutes, we circled and circled what was basically a question of semantics.

It reminded me of graduate school.

Actually, it reminded me more keenly of some of my undergraduate classes. Those drove me crazy when we had to go over material more than once. Most of the time, I got it on the first pass and had little sympathy for anybody who needed to repeat it. By the time we hit the third or fourth repetition, I had generally begun writing nasty things directly into my notes or into the doodles that fill the margin. Until this last weekend, I hadn’t thought of those moments for years. As a room full of aspiring teachers tried to restate the information in as many different forms as possible, I found myself writing unkind things in my notes. (In German, even.) Intellectually, I don’t blame them. Asking questions is the responsible thing to do, especially when understanding the answers will affect how you deal with the young people you’ll be responsible for. Emotionally? Man, was I bad at mustering sympathy. That’s one of many things I need to practice.

I wrote a while back about being “the smartest one in the room.” There are some very smart people taking this alternative certification course, but it’s a much truer cross-section of the population than graduate school was. It is taking some time and effort to adjust to that, to sort out what I know because I’ve taught before, what I know because of my general level of education and, most importantly, what I only think I know. That’s the vital part for me, because I, too, am going to be responsible for young people. It doesn’t matter if I already know 75-90% of what we spend any given Saturday plowing through; it matters that I get a grasp on the 10-25% I don’t. In this case, the other half of the battle is biting my tongue and keeping my attention in the right place.

Sunday: The Unknown Knowns

I spent all day Saturday in class. I spent most of Sunday doing other things—first dishes, then a day trip out to  visit some friends. On the way home from that day trip, I caught the tail end of the local folk music show. The guest host was doing a special episode with, of all things, a musicologist. Even better, the show’s focus was on Texas music in the 1970s (particularly the “cosmic cowboy” scene in Austin). My daughter really wanted me to turn it off, but I couldn’t.

The last musicological thing I did was a book review that may never see the light of day; that was back in December. Hearing a musicologist on the radio, one who studied the same historical period I dissertated on, was awesome. I was familiar with some of the broad historical background the musicologist discussed, but the details about the Texas scenes were new to me. The interview was broken up with appropriate music. It was interesting, practice-oriented musicology. I loved every moment of it.

This was what I knew. This was the kind of discussion that I had spent years of my life training to participate in. I could have talked just as fluently about my own work on New York. Even better, it was quality scholarship pitched for an interested but general audience…the kind of thing I’ve always particularly enjoyed.

It would fit the narrative to say that 20 minutes on the radio awakened my old desires, that I’m again wrestling with the loss of the career I abandoned. That might be true, ephemerally. I miss doing scholarship. I miss research and I miss talking to my fellow scholars about their work. I even miss the esoteric stuff. A little. I miss them, though, like I might miss an ex-girlfriend long after the breakup. The times were good, but they’re done. I’m with somebody else now. (Happily!) Might-have-beens will linger. I can, to push the metaphor one step further than it ought to go, be Facebook friends with academia these days.

The other half of this battle? I don’t think there is one. It’s fun to know things, but I know that, for me, this particular battle is over. I’m getting better at embracing the “post” in “postac.”