Saturday, July 23, 2011

Musical Expertise

This sort of comes out of the last post. Let me recount some examples. I once attended a chamber festival on Hornby Island off the west coast of Canada. A string quartet was giving a concert and played one of the quartets by Janacek. I knew the first violinist because we both taught at the same conservatory. Afterwards I went up to congratulate him and we talked about the piece. Suddenly he paused and asked me "do you know the piece"? I had just heard him play it and I had a recording at home that I had listened to quite a few times, so it could be seen as an odd question. But what he meant was "have you studied the score of the piece"? Which I had not, so I answered "no". I didn't have the requisite knowledge of that piece. Another time I was at a musicology conference in Baltimore where a Russian musicologist whose name I forget, alas, was giving a lecture on modes in Tchaikovsky. I happened to be standing near a truly great musicologist, Richard Taruskin, who is a specialist in Russian music. He asked the lecturer "can you give us an example of such and such a mode"? The Russian paused in thought a moment and replied, "yes, there is a choral piece in the collected works of Tchaikovsky, volume six, page, hmmm, I think, eighty-two". Stopped us all in our tracks. Now that's expertise. Another time I was in the photocopy room in the music library at McGill, copying a motet by Machaut (1300 - 1377), when one of the professors came up to use the adjoining machine. He glanced over and said, "ah, Machaut". There was nothing on the page, such as lyrics or other text, to identify it. I asked him how he did that and he said he had spent many hours studying Machaut as a graduate student and, believe it or not, recognized the musical typeface. Another time I walked into the photocopy room whistling a theme from the first movement of Shostakovich 5th Symphony and a different professor walking by immediately said, "Shostakovich 5".

This reminds me of a game. I was at the Banff Centre once, taking in a master-class given by Oscar Ghiglia. There were perhaps twenty guitarists in the class. Several of us were hanging out in a dorm room one evening and there was one guitar there. Of course, everyone wanted to play the guitar. The game was: whoever had the guitar had to play the first four bars of whatever piece someone named. If they could, they kept the guitar for a few minutes. If they couldn't, they had to give the guitar to whoever had named the piece. "Ponce, Prelude 7". "Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Sonata, minuet". And so on. One guy was almost impossible to stump. He knew virtually the whole repertoire. I think he is guitar professor at Cornell these days.

I was able to demonstrate an interesting kind of expertise once. A friend of mine, the fine Beethoven scholar Bill Kinderman, who had just published a study of Beethoven with Oxford University Press, had given me a copy. Somewhere, if I recall correctly, he quotes, without attribution, the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein saying something like philosophy is like a ladder you use to climb up onto the roof. Once you are there, you no longer need the ladder. I had actually read some Wittgenstein so the next time I saw Bill I mentioned that I recognized the quote. He looked at me with some surprise and ever after did not regard me as just another performing musician.

Knowing stuff is cool. Another quote from him concerns music (Ludwig Wittgenstein's older brother Paul was a famous concert pianist):
It is so characteristic, that just when the mechanics of reproduction are so vastly improved, there are fewer and fewer people who know how the music should be played.

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