Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Composition and Control

I had a post a while back about what I called "overdetermined" vs "underdetermined" scores. Here it is. There was a steady trend towards more and more precision from minimal scores that barely showed the rhythm a thousand years ago, up until the insanely overwritten scores of the 1950s and 1960s. Total serialism demanded an excessive complexity in the score. I say 'excessive' because that is what I think. As I was saying in the previous post, overdetermined scores over-control the performer. There was a reaction to this, that I also mention in the previous post, toward scores that allow the performer extreme latitude. Of course, that raises all sorts of problems of performance practice. This is the weakness of bare or graphic scores--you really need direct contact with the composer to know if you are on the right track.

But I think there is another issue lurking behind here and that is that an overdetermined score is an attempt to control the performer, to allow him little or no latitude for musicianship. A good example of this was Stravinsky. In a famous series of reviews of recordings of his music in a magazine back in, I think, the 60s, he was scathing in his dismissal of any departure, no matter how slight, from the exact metronome marking, dynamic or any other feature of the score. The words "narcissistic control-freak" come to mind. Other composers see themselves in a kind of creative partnership with the performer in the realization of the music. The composer is where the piece begins, but certainly not where it ends.

After all, no matter how much you try and control performers, they always have the last word. And if one day, at the end of a concert, a pianist offers to improvise on a theme from the audience (as many did in the 19th century), he might get a request to play the Rite of Spring in the style of Mozart. Nah, that couldn't happen...

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