Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Audio Files Part III of III--Music of Talking and Music of Playing

“There are two musics (at least so I have always thought): the music one listens to, the music one plays. These two musics are two totally different arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic; the same composer can be minor if you listen to him, tremendous if you play him (even badly)—such is Schumann,”
writes Roland Barthes in the (famous? the term is relative) opening to his essay "Musica Practica." Barthes is maybe a tad too glib to be of concrete use on many musical topics, but his general thesis about music and the body seems to have been borne out in the much-talked about (unread by me except in various reviews and a couple excerpts) recent book Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology . Boccherini is perhaps a better test case than Schumann, because—frankly—poor Mr. Schumann had a sad enough life without being on the business-end of a cheapshot.

(Let me pause for a moment: how is it that MS Word recognizes Schumann and Boccherini as words, but still does not believe that anyone would have reason to use the word “chromaticism”?)

I won’t get into the Boccherini book (since I only perused it once while babysitting at a professor's house), but I will propose an emendation to Barthes’ division of musics: it is not the music one listens to, perhaps, but the music one talks about. Now, an eminent Liszt scholar swung through Iowa City a couple of weeks ago and gave one of those delightfully casual British chats during which I found myself trying, in vain, searching the room for a servant to fill my empty sherry glass. He had some dismissive words for “musicology” as a discipline that ignores performance—and, frankly, he has a point. A musicology professor then came in the next week with a prepared quotation from this scholar to rib the theorists: “Music needs music theory like birds need ornithology.” That statement is, of course, silly on its face: if birds didn’t have ornithology, then how would we better protect their habitats in an age of industrialization? Clearly birds need ornithology this day and age. As for the music, I don’t know.

But is the music we don’t play really the music we “listen to”? I think, rather, it’s the music we talk about. Some music—like Kazdin’s, or the more elegant structures of Babbitt—are not exactly sounding documents as much as they are living artifacts of a practice, or animations of a pedagogy. That’s of course a very reductive way to consider Babbitt, but I don’t mean it reductively: in Babbitt’s early piano works through Philomel through his goofy, raggedy faux-jazz, a certain manic joy, contained by means of a charmingly put-on decorum, sneaks out, and that—when I listen (instead of read or write) to his music—has been creeping out in increasing measures. It is idea manifest, and it comes to life not in our puny little ears but as a memory to be subsequently taken in at deeper and deeper levels. It’s as if a special species of bird evolved, a bird with the most elegant innards one has ever seen, a bird that evolved according to our ornithological fetishes, a wondrous bird that exists as if only to give bird-watchers a peculiar pleasure, a bird eager to be dissected and reassembled according to our wishes. Perhaps Kazdin is not on the same level, as a composer, but it too seems to belong in the realm of talking-music—although, one thinks, that combination of instruments is so specific that it was probably written as a gift, to be a slight sort of playing-music. (Hmm… he did an awful lot of engineering for the Philadelphia Orchestra brass…)

Albrechtsberger and Saint-Saens: when are the last time that you have heard these discussed in an academic context, without—in Saint-Saens case, at least—a pre-emptive apology of sorts? What Perspectives of New Music issue doesn’t mention Webern, and—perhaps I’m missing something—how many “John Rutter Issues” has PNM had? Now, do some crazy math with me, new-music lovers: have you ever tried to imagine how many people, per composer, have actually performed Webern in concert in public, even badly? How about Babbitt, Boulez, other warhorses? My guesstimate is: 20,000, 600, 1,200, respectively. How many have sang Rutter works? If you count congregations, I would guess the answer would be in the multi-millions. That doesn’t make either one any more worthwhile; my hypothetical is just meant to underscore the split between music we prize for what it sounds like and music we prize for what we can say about it.

Think about the practical utility of a Voxman publication, for instance: wouldn’t it be a trip to analyze an entire book of Voxman duets—like, really analyze it with lots of silly charts and graphs that find some sort of John Nash-style “hidden tonal network” within a collection? And yet, it would be quite a fine dissertation in some ways. I remember hearing a job talk a handful of years ago where a Doctor of Trumpet presented his dissertation research while applying for a job. He was a very nice guy, and I’ve forgotten his name, so I’ll try to keep identifying information to a minimum. His dissertation was on a serialist trumpet concerto written in the eighties by a composer whose anyone still reading this blog would recognize. His thesis? “This is a masterwork that deserves a permanent spot in the trumpet repertoire.” When politely asked about his experiences playing the masterwork that deserves a permanent spot in the trumpet concerto repertoire, or a real-time sample of his favorite bit to play, the nice man politely demurred. There’s nothing wrong with those dissertations; somebody’s got to be the expert on Composer X’s trumpet concerto, and that is a useful purpose of the dissertation as a genre. And it should be added that, from what I saw of the score, I would never be able to play it, half-tempo, down an octave, or otherwise. But that’s certainly one dissertation archetype that demonstrates a split between playing-music and talking-music. (The guy who got the job didn’t have lots of charts and graphs; he just came in like he owned the place—because he did—and taught his butt, and our butts, off.)

As I’m drawn to kitsch, that sometimes takes me dangerously deep into talking-music territory. I’m thinking of a composer like the Bohemian-born American composer Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861). I may very well be the only person under the age of 40 in the world today who owns a copy of William Treat Upton’s definitive (er, only) biography of Heinrich. Heinrich is terrific fun to talk about. He’s a swindler, a liar, a scammer, occasionally showing an erratic streak that could possibly intersect with “genius” if one constructed a Venn diagram of the two topics side-by-side. His music is self-absorbed, amateruistic, but overblown and impossibly fussy. As kitsch, it’s a terrific listen. (I also own, I confess, the one CD release of his orchestral music. I found it on a library discard pile for a dollar.)

And as an exercise, I tried playing and singing selections from On the Dawning of Music in Kentucky, his seminal song collection. Maybe in the back of my mind, I thought it could be a Harry Partch, corporeal music kind of thing, that the music would only come alive if I tried to understand it from the point of view of a singer. Now, I’m not a great singer, and I’m a worse pianist, but this was the most awful experience I’ve ever had wading through a piece of music. I’d rather sing a Latvian phone book set to the tune of Babbitt’s Philomel than wade through Heinrich’s awkwardly-phrased, compulsively over-ornamented melodies ever again--as "the music one plays."

My good friend and office-mate Stevie last year is a singer/musicologist, and I think I tried to convince her to sing them at one point, but it’s music that resists performance—and yet Heinrich published these songs in aggressively over-promoted collections available through subscription for the express purpose of domestic music-making. If Sherman’s March To The Sea torched some Heinrich songbooks along the way, it was in that respect a merciful act indeed. Denise von Glahn performed a virtuoso feat by saying something meaningful—nay, illustrative—about Heinrich’s skills as a tone-painter in her The Sounds of Place, leading me to the false hope that I too could say something meaningful about Heinrich’s music. But some obscure composers are notable more for what we can say about the fact of their existence rather than the content of their music. That's not right; but to do it justice, you need some mode of understanding (like von Glahn's spatial/landscape metaphors) that can vindicate the music, in a sense, or free it from its failings in one context or another.

Still, I feel a compulsion to unearth, edit, publish, and yes—YES!—perform Heinrich’s storied Klappenflugel (keyed bugle) Concerto, storied in that it… exists. It gets a few lines in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments and had a modern premiere a decade or two ago in Australia. Again, great fun to hear, and so many things to talk about concerning Heinrich.

Then again, I could even talk about Glen Campbell.

Well, last weekend I saw an awesome Boulez/CSO concert from the terrace, so I might post about that in the future. Also, my dog Maddy's been begging quite a bit, and there are some funny stories about that that I might blog. And finally, I just bought one famous and fearsome musicological giant's latest collection, many of his "public writings" and occasional reviews. (I've purposely avoided putting his name in the post itself for fear that GoogleAlerts would trigger... nevermind.) It's such wonderful reading, but I don't know if I dare post about it. My one favorite so far, that caused me to excise a large section of this post and re-think it for later, was the dead-on essay "'No Ear for Music:' The Scary Purity of John Cage."

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