Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Not Listening to the Performance

I was just reading an essay by Richard Taruskin about various "historically informed" or "authentic" performances of the symphonies of Beethoven. Those scare quotes have been specially applied by Taruskin to indicate not that these performances are not "historically informed" but rather that the whole notion is questionable. But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

No, what occurred to me is that Taruskin gets rather more worked up about spurious justifications for this or that performance practice than I would. And I was wondering why. And that reminded me of an occasion when I said to someone that I don't actually go to the concert for the performance so much as for the repertoire. Huh? I mean that, assuming the performance is reasonably accurate and not too odd interpretively, I am quite prepared to largely ignore it. What I am listening to is the piece of music, not to the performance. Huh again?

Frankly, much of the time, I'm not so terribly interested in the particular performance, but much more interested in the piece. This is why the most important factor for me in deciding what concerts to attend is the program even more than who is playing it. I am perfectly happy to listen to Murray Perahia play Mozart concertos--or Maurizio Pollini or Grigory Sokolov or Mitsuko Uchida or lots of others. I find they all do a pretty good job in different ways. What I am really interested in is the concerto itself and how it is received by the audience. What did the composer do and how well did it work?

I did not come to this idea right away, it took quite a few decades. When I was principally a performer I was deeply interested in my own performances and deeply worried about them, but as time went on I was less and less interested in other artists' interpretations. Now I'm really just interested in the piece and as long as the interpretation does not seriously obscure the piece, I'm ok with it.

This might relate to something I ran across in another Taruskin essay where he talks about the problem of just what is a piece of music anyway? Is the "Moonlight" Sonata the published score? If so, which score? The original manuscript? A printed edition? Which one? Is it the performance of that score? If so, which one? Beethoven's (which we don't have)? Horowitz? Wilhelm Kemp? Artur Schnabel? Pollini? Lang Lang? Is it just a silly question? Surely the "Moonlight" Sonata, or any piece is, as Taruskin points out, an "intentional object", something that does not exist on a particular piece of paper or in a particular set of sound waves, but as a kind of object in our imaginations. The score is how we create a performance, but any one performance is simply an instance of the ideal object. This is all rather Platonic, isn't it?

So when I go to a concert, I go with the goal of hearing a version of that ideal object. The performance can make that more or less easy, but the performance is not the main thing I am listening for. Let me give an example. Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C major audaciously opens with three cadences, all three of which are in the wrong key! Well, actually the second is in the correct key, but it is deceptive. I wrote about this here. What I am listening for is how Beethoven is fooling us with those cadences. As long as the orchestra delivers them reasonably intact, I'm happy. For me, it really isn't about how lovely the tone of the flute is, or the violin's vibrato or the crispness of the conductor's beat. It is about the harmony. So that's why I am listening to the piece more than the performance...

Here is that movement:

And here is a performance of the "Moonlight" Sonata:


Rickard Dahl said...

I agree with you on this one. I usually don't care about who the performer is as long as it's well played. Sometimes though I find versions I prefer.

By the way, are you going to write some about Benjamin Britten? Much focus in classical music world on Britten to celebrate that he was born 100 years ago.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh absolutely! Sometimes you hear a performance that just knocks you out.

Now there's an idea! I have hardly mentioned Britten. I have given several performances of his song cycle Songs from the Chinese and have studied his Nocturnal for guitar a bit.

Damián López-de Jesús said...

I'm going to go on a tangent here, but it's fairly related to this article: have you read anything from Christopher Small? I'm currently reading one his books, "Music for the Common Tongue", for my African-American Music class, and I can tell you, he has quite a distaste towards the classical music tradition (i.e. the concept of music as being a preserved "object" rather than a ongoing creative "process", the performers having little role in the creation of the music, simply being interpreters of the composer's ideas)

I would recommend you read said book, for I would like to see how you would react to his arguments about classical music (and its inherent problems).

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome to the Music Salon, Damián. I can't promise to read the book by Christopher Small as I am trying to finish a string quartet at the moment! I see that there is another, more-recent book by him that also looks quite interesting: "Musicking". I am not unfamiliar with the basic idea, though. In another post, I argued exactly as he does, that music is something you DO: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2012/01/experience-of-music.html

The idea of music as an "intentional object", which comes from the work of Roman Ingarden on the ontology of music, is a solution to the problem of just what is a piece of music? A copy of the score? A particular performance? Or rather a somewhat more abstract entity that joins all copies of the score and all performances together?

Without performers, music would simply not exist. Their role is far more important than being merely re-creators of a fixed score. When I mentioned those different pianists and said that they all do a pretty good job, I was quite sincere! I could have said they do a marvelous job. But my main motivation is still to hear the piece of music. This is because I am a composer. What I suppose I was doing in the post was to give some insight into the way composers look at things.

As for having a distaste towards the classical music tradition, I wonder what tradition it is that he prefers?

Buxtehude said...

Majorly off-topic: I wonder if you've heard of Jan Dismas Zelenka (http://convozine.com/music/14756). Baroque composer and Bach contemporary. Just discovered him - quite a delight!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Buxethude! I have certainly heard of the Czech Baroque composer Zelenka, but couldn't even recall if I had heard much of his music. After listening to a couple of samples, it seems clear that he is one of those numerous, capable Baroque composers. If it weren't for Bach, working just down the road in Leipzig, we would probably know him much better. He certainly seems to be as fine a composer as, well, Buxtehude, for example!

Augustine said...


Thought you'd enjoy this haha!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the link. I did a post on last year's list: