Sunday, September 22, 2019

Work and "Werktreue"

Nothing so illustrates the gulf between the classical genre and the pop and jazz genres so well as the ontology of the musical work. As Richard Taruskin describes in an essay in Text and Act:
Pop (or jazz) culture, in starkest contrast to classical, has a concept of work-identity so fluid as to be practically indefinable. (It is a famous unsolved problem of musicology, in fact.) Classical performers are constantly exhorted to make themselves into transparent vessels: Zaslaw rails at one point against ignorant performers who are "reduced [!] to ... seeking a personal 'interpretation' based on such necessary intangibles as musicality, taste, instinct or inspiration." These, of course, are qualities pop or jazz musicians, and their audiences, prize without irony or apology. Indeed, they are an absolute requirement.
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 3589-3592). Kindle Edition.
When we listen to, say, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 by Schoenberg, the performance is certainly of some passing interest, but the real focus is on the musical structures and expression presented by the score, in other words, it is the "work" that is foremost. What is Schoenberg doing with, say, the imitative counterpoint? On the other hand, with pop and jazz music, the "work" is of surprisingly little interest! It is the nuance of how it is performed that attracts the greatest attention. It is hard not to see this as a focus on what is perhaps the more superficial aspect, to the neglect of the more essential aspect. But as Stravinsky averred somewhere, the most interesting thing about jazz is how it is played, the compositions themselves are of little interest. Sorry for the haphazard recollection, if someone knows the source of the quote, please let us know in the comments.

In regards to the exhortations to classical performers, they used to be asked to be transparent vessels, but nowadays they are exhorted to develop their personal "brand" to pay more attention to marketing and so on. To be, in other words, like pop performers.

But let me quibble a bit at Taruskin's subtle implication that things like "musicality, taste, instinct or inspiration" are prized more by pop and jazz musicians and their audiences than by classical musicians and their audiences. Au contraire! The best classical musicians, of course, are chock full of musicality, taste, instinct and inspiration, but these elements are used to reveal and present the musical work and not just for the glorification of the charisma of the artist.

And composers? What are composers supposed to be or to do these days? God only knows...

The essay the above Taruskin quote is taken from is on Mozart and how his compositions were much more for a specific occasion and the use of the performers, including Mozart himself. The specific occasion of the essay is that it is actually a review of the, at the time, new complete recording of the Mozart piano concertos with Malcolm Bilson on forte piano and the English Baroque soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. One of my favorite Mozart recordings, by the way, and one of Taruskin's as well. Let's listen to K. 449 from that set:

Taruskin's best point in his essay is that recordings like the one above are really more monuments and exemplars of our time than Mozart's and one of the reasons he says so is that our commitment to "werktreue" or fidelity to the work, i.e. score, means that we simply don't embellish the notes and improvise cadenzas as Mozart provably did.

Taruskin doesn't mention it, but there are some isolated examples of "werktreue" in pop and jazz. I recently saw a clip of a live performance of the entirety of the Sgt. Pepper's album of the Beatles by a tribute band. Recordings themselves are an interesting example of "werktreue" in pop and jazz. Miles Davis' album Kind of Blue has great renown as a musical "work" as do pop albums such as Sgt. Pepper's and Revolver by the Beatles. The recording is both the "work" and the ideal interpretation all together.


blah said...

Maybe a good spot for this quote, maybe not -- and I must paraphrase:

"I'd rather have nothing but businessmen at my parties. They love art and music. Musicians - all they want to talk about is money."
-- Jean Sibelius

I once found this on, though I can't find it there anymore. Which is a pity, because I like to send it to everyone I know who thinks about or plays music.

Bryan Townsend said...

That is a very characteristic quote and I quite believe it. Music is what we do, so when we are relaxing at a party we like to talk about other things and money is always a topic of conversation. Unless, of course, you are trapped in a car with two flute players driving from Vancouver to Seattle to play a concert. Honestly, all they talked about was C# trill keys and similar items! Mind you, being trapped in a car with a couple of guitarists obsessing about nail wear would be even worse!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Theodore Gracyk has written about how cover bands suggest that something like a "classical" devotion to a perfect, completed work exists in popular music, both for specific albums and for bands more generally.

There was a stunt album by Mostly Others Do The Killing where the band did a note for note recording of Kind of Blue, just ... kinda without swing ... on purpose.

Times change and I have found myself hearing parts of Kind of Blue as ... hold music. I think some of the contemporary loathing of jazz by rank and file Americans has less to do with the music itself than the way it has become the hold music of American customer service phone trees. Kind of Blue is still a great album ... it just becomes a bad experience if you're hearing it waiting to talk to customer support about something.

Bryan Townsend said...

Huh, nice to hear someone else had the same idea. I should look for the writing by Gracyk.

Wow, I am amazed and kind of sad to hear that Kind of Blue has been repurposed as hold music! Down here they always seem to use that silly minuet from the Anna Magdalena Bach book that is actually by Pepusch.

Patrick said...

Re: "But as Stravinsky averred somewhere, the most interesting thing about jazz is how it is played, the compositions themselves are of little interest." 1. The key to what makes jazz interesting is the rhythm - the swing, the syncopations. A piano teacher said you could play a classical piece note-for-note in jazz rhythm and people would think it was jazz. 2. As far as composition, jazz harmony borrowed heavily from the modal approach of Debussy (see Bix Beiderbecke). So I guess Igor found Claude D.'s work uninteresting? Then there is also the improvisational element where the relation of the performance to the 'score' is much more distant than in classical, the jazz score containing a sparse outline of the piece.
Nice quote of Sibelius earlier. I think Stravinsky would definitely fall into the "I want to talk about $$" category of musician. Things like him making limited changes to a composition when the copyright ran out so that he could then renew the copyright lead me to that conclusion.

Bryan Townsend said...

I attended a paper presentation on Stravinsky and copyright once. I don't think he was a money-grubber exactly, but he certainly did look after his own interests, as do we all. He had some unique problems. All the pieces he wrote when he was resident in Russia and the Soviet Union, lost their copyright after the Revolution and these were some of his most popular, i.e. revenue-producing pieces, like The Firebird, Petrushka, the Rite, etc. So he had to recover the copyright somehow which he did by revising the scores. A similar situation applied to Shostakovich's music after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yes, it is the rhythm that is one of the main interests of jazz.

Will Wilkin said...

Before there was the dichotomy of classical vs. pop, there was sacred vs. pop. Learned musicians who read notation were mostly employed by the church, and dance musicians populated the countryside. This was a medieval distinction when music was mostly defined by vocal lines, though peasants and lords alike must have enjoyed musical movement when not at music. Secular courts mostly enjoyed dance music formalized, and soon composer-instrumentalists evolved fantasias and sonatas to make full display of their virtuosity and expressiveness...a far journey from the restraint of medieval and renaissance sacred vocal music that had been the fare of professional musicians for so long before. Continuing from then, at least through Paganini and Liszt...weren't these musicians known for their exuberant personal style and expression? Beethoven too played hispieces. It seems only later did composition and playing separate, and the playing become forensic of the score. But I think for a long time, one could BOTH compose excellent formal works AND play with personal style.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Stravinsky was known to make really minor changes to existing works and then litigate against whoever used the wrong versions of his published works. It wasn't exactly money-grubbing but it did mean he felt obliged to be ruthless about which versions of his scores people performed in the West since that's what he could exert some control over.

Villa-Lobos would take a piece and arrange it two to four different ways and so his published works look way bigger in terms of sheer numbers than what he actually composed, which was still, don't get me wrong, a staggeringly large amount of music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, you bet, you bet, you bet! And that is exactly the point that Taruskin is making in a number of places.

Right, Wenatchee! Didn't know about Villa-Lobos as I really only know the guitar works and I don't think anything similar was going on there. Sibelius was also seriously deprived of his livelihood during WWI because most of his publishers were German, who were enemy combatants, so no royalties there!