Dynamism in score

The nature of music as an interpretive art is going through a radical change in our time, as listening to recordings becomes not only a way to supplement concert experience but also a way to supplant it. For repertory of any erudition, the relative costs virtually dictate the victory of the recorded media. The creative challenge arising from such a change is overwhelming for music as an art, yet simultaneously self-stimulating. One natural reaction for the composer/performer is to place the act of composing not into a written score, but into a recording intended to propagate and survive. The resulting questions seem a natural place to start this column, as it moves into a new medium.

The human element

Computer composition has been going on for some time, and I do not pretend to follow the work in that direction. Well, the science is clear, but the motivation is lacking... for me. Of course, one can equally argue that the computer is simply another instrument behind which stands a human performer. Maybe so. Certainly the eventual product of digitized sound is not so different from what one might achieve when a regular human ensemble of old-fashioned instruments makes a CD. Such a result still raises questions, in so much as the composer participates in its preparation. Is it definitive? Indeed, is it superior to a written score?

If we grant the possibility of performing as directed, the answer to the latter has to be "yes", in some sense. When it comes to notation, one can either follow closely behind or work on stretching it, or even restart from scratch as so many modern composers have done. With a recording, there is a score in sound, capable of preserving musical detail without the misdirection of writing. Yet for postmodern composers, the notation is often stretched with new constructs such that each performance demands the participants make their own decisions. Perhaps this could be called a forcible way of retaining the human element, and it gives us examples of cases for which the recorded "score" captures too much.

In the end, great music demands interpretation, or so it would seem. The endless potential for personal involvement from the performers has sustained it and continues to do so. Yet what of the museum portrait? Might not the culture of definitive recordings give us a different view of greatness, where the end of composition is not to admit of variation but to reject it? Such a thing is now possible, whereas it was delusion not so long ago. It makes me uncomfortable.


The documentary has its value, to be sure. Especially in world music, the opportunity to preserve a tradition which would otherwise disappear is something for which we can all be thankful. But that is not an end in itself, not by any means. Indeed, to call a recording a representative of a human tradition could be insulting to the very people recorded. Such is the risk they take, because their traditions are not amenable to the snapshot, but face real dangers all the same. It is an uncomfortable position, and thankfully one the contemporary composer faces only in ameliorated fashion.

If the creator develops the tradition specifically for the snapshot, it is something else entirely. So far this is not something done to any degree, since the written score implies its own continuous extension. This is true at least in the core classical tradition, where the score was prepared with full knowledge of such things. If it is suggested otherwise, I cannot abide pretending superiority to those who came before me, by implicating their misunderstanding of process. For that core, we have seen the performance traditions take on the weight of history and perpetuate themselves, eventually coming up against the weight of their own permanency. This is what crushed classical performance to sterility, in my view.

A natural course is to return to the roots, so to speak, and look at the score with fresh eyes, trying to see what it might say without the haze of past interpretation. Or so we might strive to do, since perfection in such an endeavor is beyond our reach. Even better, we get to hear earlier music which was previously sitting alone on a shelf. In neither case can we claim to be authentic, because our approach is not authentic, but that is all old news.

The historical performance of past traditions easily finds its own merit in the ideas recovered. If the result is not aesthetically satisfying, it has failed. It has failed because the museum piece is impossible here, as our knowledge is insufficient for such a thing. But the whole affair has been very successful, especially for early music, and unsurprisingly some of the ideas recovered prove more idiomatic for the music. The approach has even been imported into some alcoves of traditional world music. Yet the exhaustion of sources dictates an end to that momentum.

For earlier music, we can rightly ask how the composer regarded the score. Far more often, it was a reflection (a "snapshot", even) of a performance conceived for a particular event, and one might argue in that direction more generally. Yet rarely have we seen such a determination to write for eternity, and it is hard not to imagine the act of composition in this sense. Perhaps we delude ourselves. Nonetheless, the musical experiences obtained are powerful, and justify themselves against what might be demanded strictly out of respect for the past. The manuscripts are ours now, and we will see them as coming from proto-Beethovens, as we must.


Nothing prevents interpretation so much as lack of understanding, and for early music we can believe that the interesting requires the bland to proceed it. Such thinking is flawed, fundamentally, because the bland perpetuates itself. This is what makes the leap from manuscript to sound so large, and of course it is what suggests to us that we compose in sound and forego writing. How might we view medieval music if it came to us as a motley collection of partially preserved recorded media? More significantly, how would we interpret it?

In the end, the degree of specification will vary depending on the individual composer, as will the amenability to suggestion vary in the performers! I hope that the score will not become a static object, even if it is to become a document in sound. This is a two-edged sword, one which the talented & creative performer will straddle. Great art creates its own life, a life which can rise above the most precise restrictions. Perhaps the only thing under consideration here is mediocre art, something which will clearly change dramatically as the musical medium evolves.

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Todd M. McComb