Interpretive space

This series of columns started by addressing what I consider one of the major crises for art music in the age of recordings & Internet, namely the preservation of interpretation and variety thereof in re-creating musical composition. It proceeded to statements on sustainable variety as a measure of greatness. In the face of growing anti-variety dogma and increasingly restrictive listener expectations, not to mention general loudness, how does one actually maintain space in which to create an interpretation? Why indeed should one care? One can begin by answering the latter question in a naïve way: If musicians cease having a reason to recreate music, there will be less reason to have musicians. The culture of definitive recordings, and especially ideas on authenticity, work progressively to make creative performers obsolete, doubly so as amateur music-making disappears in the wake of increased options for passive entertainment (and corresponding laziness). It is a dangerous situation, first for the future of general musical knowledge, and second for the stature of music itself.

As music becomes less something to be done, and especially if interpretive possibilities contract, it becomes a lesser artform. This is a bald claim perhaps, but a claim supported by the unique creative aspect of music as a recreated art, and what has been a critical role for performers and performers' own ideas regarding how to interpret. The rallying cry of "composers' intentions" brings us squarely to thoughts of anarchy and inherited property. First of all, I want to forcefully acknowledge that attempting to uncover "composers' intentions" frequently results in knowledge which is interesting both as history and as it applies to musical expression independent of intent. The question here is: Once we learn what we can learn, to what extent are we obliged to respect any intentions discovered? For that matter, positing that if nothing else the historical information is valuable, to what extent is every interpreter obliged to attempt to discover such intentions? Explored to the depth of its implications, the "composers' intentions" notion reveals itself as a postmodern construction with an ephemeral existence. How one approaches the question conditions the answer one finds, a fact which certainly does nothing to diminish the value which can be extracted from such a process. So the situation for interpretive variety is not as dire as it might be, since different people can come to different conclusions with full sincerity. It requires a second round of browbeating before the idea of "one true interpretation" can be reached, although the browbeating does occur.

To what extent are we obliged to embark on this chase at all? There are two levels to the question: With today's continual extensions to intellectual property rights even beyond death, and especially with the growing de facto corporate ownership of creativity, we can indeed become legally obligated to interpret a certain way. As much as I find comfort in the idea of intellectual property, allowing heirs (or corporate "heirs") to have this kind of control in perpetuity jeopardizes full actualization of artistic ramifications and consequently merit. However, I object to the rationalization employed by such shady characters as black market music supporters, namely that artists got bad deals from corporations and so stealing from corporations is justified. Such acts only undermine artists' freedom of choice, including freedom to make bad choices. Enough of that. The second level is a matter of ethics and real respect. In my opinion, it would be rude to interpret against a composer's intentions right in front of him, or by extension when he is alive. That same dynamic should persist for a sensible mourning period, but then my feelings change. At some point, the composer is simply gone and it is our music (if we want it). Any composer who attempts to ensure otherwise is being either short-sighted (in the sense that no matter how talented, he cannot fully predict the future) or egomaniacal or both. At some point the performers simply know better whether they are genuinely respecting a composer than any checklist-style "appropriate performance" algorithm can determine. We need creativity on the shoulders of creativity, and that is why we need space in which to create an interpretation, in which to project originality onto something old.

I recently claimed that a museum-style interpretive stance is a "simulacrum" and not really art. This is an inherently anti-Platonic view (although I will note my belief that many of what are regarded as Plato's views today are actually views Plato was satirizing). In other words, there is no "true" version of the piece lurking behind the received score, no dual nature in that sense. The composer himself may have had an ideal version in mind, but not only do I think this is true far less often than many people imagine, but it is fundamentally inaccessible to us. The fundamental reason such a version is inaccessible to us is that the composer's ideal is (presumably) living, whereas a museum precludes life. Aside from the document-as-musical-end possibilities which come into existence (or which a written score already supplies, if we leave it at that), the only way to remove misdirection from an interpretation is to attempt to make the piece truly one's own. There are nonetheless innumerable ways layers of images can enter, from the isolated listener with a recording, to the various images which form a basis for interpretive sincerity in the first place. Even in the sixteenth century, Zarlino found his "received" rules of medieval composition far more binding than real composers of previous generations did. Any tradition becomes an image of itself in this way, as what were organic rules become codified. The notion of the "early music voice" is doing so before our eyes, and in the process losing both its radicalism and its "oursness" (but not becoming any more historical, rather becoming less of either, i.e. pure simulation).

When composers such as Scelsi change the paradigm of composer, might not we hope to change the paradigm of interpreter as well, not just for this music but for all music? In some sense it has happened, but whereas the possible stances open to a composer have been expanding, those open to an interpreter have been contracting. The authenticity focus is a change, but it is less a coevolving change than a reactionary change, working to increase the divide between composer and interpreter. Is such an increase an oblique attempt to distance Western art music from the improvisational focus of some other traditions or indeed from popular music? A further reaction to that reaction is the drastic increase in performer involvement in chance composition. We have lost the center somehow, a situation which has little to do with musical style per se. Even the dubious adherence to score of many surviving composer-as-performer artifacts is rarely seen as advancing a simple freedom to interpret. Instead musicians of such temperament have turned to some of the least understood medieval repertory for that freedom, lending it a sort of paradoxical centrality. I started by writing "maintaining space" rather than "creating space" for interpretation, since actual effort put into space is counter to letting an organic interpretation flow, even if one cannot let one's space simultaneously disappear. The dynamics of thought and feeling are such that one cannot stray from the path of one's interpretation, even to fight for it. This must be left to others, in order for the various forces to remain balanced and enable one to go on to create listener space.

Administrivia: Next column in three weeks, and then back to the non-Summer schedule of every other week.

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Todd M. McComb