Wednesday, September 18, 2019

What is a Piece of Music?

It's not a trick question, or not quite. It has been discussed on this blog a few times. But I just ran into a very concise answer to the question and thought I would post it. It is in Taruskin's collection of essays Text and Act:
a piece of music does depend on the prior existence of score or performance or both, but the piece cannot be wholly identified with either. The score is a plan for the work and the performance an instance of it, but the work as such is a mental construct only.
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 2531-2532). Kindle Edition.
Yep. My emphasis.


Anonymous said...

Not sure if you've heard of or read Andrew Durkin's 2014 book, Decomposition: A Music Manifesto, but he explores what 'music' and 'sound' are amongst other things, including authenticity. It's worth a read.

In a chapter titled 'Dots on a Page', he explores 'the score' versus 'the performance'. He quotes Carolyn Abbate: "The text of music is a performance."

In my opinion, music's ineffability is indeed one of its greatest qualities, which is why the lay man can derive as much enjoyment from it as one who is schooled in musical notation.

Also, writing about music with any kind of authority is incredibly difficult, which makes Taruskin's many essays and books a truly great contribution to musicology. When I have the time and/or money, I will try to get a start on his Oxford History of Western Music!

Bryan Townsend said...

No, I haven't read the Durkin book, thanks for the tip! I'm just reading Abbate's history of opera right now. Yes, exactly, the ineffability of music is a magical aspect.

I read Taruskin's Oxford History a few years ago and it was indeed worth the effort. I'm due to re-read.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I read Decomposition a few years back and the two main ideas Durkin argued against where the viability of "authorship" and "authenticity". Maybe Durkin thought he was taking aim at the cult of genius that evolved in the Romantic era but that's never where the book actually goes. I'm very sympathetic to a full frontal assault on the cult of the genius and Romantic era notions of scores as some kind of sacred text but Durkin's points were more invocations of how vague notation is and how it's impossible to have an "authentic" score or recording.

The other thing to bear in mind is the book Decomposition is in key ways a reworking of a PhD dissertation submitted to an English department rather than through more "traditional" musicology studies

I was left unconvinced that a post-Barthes death-of-the-author take on the end of "authorship" accomplished anything for Durkin's case; I was also not convinced that invoking the vagueness of Western notation accomplished anything either. Living as we do in an era in which Michael Jackson could buy IP rights that used to belong to the Beatles highlights a conundrum of our era, as does Taylor Swift's recently announced decision to re-record her first five albums, we can have musicians who don't legally own rights to their own work depending on which corporate or wealthy party has bought the work or secured the rights to its use. If Durkin had spent more time arguing that IP laws have been too heavily dominated by corporate interests I would have found the book more intriguing than recycled notes on the B flat or B natural in the Hammerklavier stuff.

It wasn't exactly a bad book but I think we're better off doing a more full-scale frontal assault on the legacy of German Idealism in musical culture as doing some damage to Anglo-American musicology rather than invoking the vagueness of notational conventions to question "authorship" and "authenticity". Or to put it the way Taruskin might, we'd be better off explicitly dispensing with Matthew Arnold style art religion because of its hegemonic tendencies in arts education.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the link, Wenatchee. I'll have a look and maybe comment later.