In my earlier posts I had argued that the concept of the musical work not only regulates and guides our formal study of Western art music, but also ends up ignoring a good deal of our actual musical experience. Then why study only musical works? Why just study compositions? Why not study performances of compositions? And of course a lot of scholars have started doing just that.
I’m listening to a recorded musical performance — the Vladimir De Pachmann 1907 recording of the Chopin Barcarolle
. At 1:06 De Pachmann starts playing a new theme (those of you who know the piece will notice a big cut). The melody starts on scale degree 5, slides down (by way of a chromatic passing note) to 4, then skips down to 2 and curls back around, landing on 3 and moving upward through an arpeggiation of the A major triad. The apex of this arrival is the tonic pitch (1). When De Pachmann gets there, he gives a little pause. It’s a nice little pause, an apt way of marking a short-range melodic and harmonic destination, and De Pachmann makes the pause in a very characteristic way, articulating the highest note of the chord a little after the accompaniment, so that the hands go slightly out of phase for a moment. One might be able to map this moment, perhaps on a temporal graph. (There are problems with this approach, but it’s certainly practicable — tempo graphing is common in musical performance studies, if only because tempo is more quantifiable than other parameters of performance.) If we gathered enough information about similar moments of rubato, we might be able to start talking about De Pachmann’s general approach to rubato. We might use this general understanding of De Pachmannesque rubato to understand certain exemplary moments of interpretation, moments where De Pachmann makes some interesting decision — for example, when he does something especially noticeable to mark the boundary between sections or the end of a piece.
And when we do that, we will be talking about De Pachmann’s interpretation as if it were like a work, but just a different kind of work. Instead of being a notated composition, this kind of work is a creation of sounds, gelled into some kind of permanence by recording technology. It’s the special ability of recorded sound to allow us to repeat a moment of time endlessly, to take what is evanescent (music played on a piano more than 100 years ago) and make it permanent, so we can review and analyze the minutest details of a performance in the same way that we can go through the score of a piece of music and look at long-range connections between different themes separated by hundreds of measures. To analyze music in this way you have to be able to freeze and reverse time — otherwise it doesn’t hold still long enough for us to nail it down. Recordings and scores freeze time in different ways, but in either case they are technological contrivances that give us an object for analysis.
Now if performances are works, performers are their authors, so we naturally will start interpreting particular moments within a performance (like that little hitch at the beginning of the new melody) as authorial utterances. Notice I used the phrase “interesting decisions” in a previous paragraph to describe the sorts of things we might want to go looking for in an analysis of a performance. But to what extent are performative gestures decisions
? Are performances the result of conscious choices that performers make? We don’t ever really ask this question when we’re thinking about things like the Chopin Barcarolle that De Pachmann plays. We speak of the composer’s intentions, which performers are enjoined to realize; we speak of tonal structures, phrase lengths, motivic relationships (etc.), everything in a composition we might be inclined to analyze, as the result of a conscious application of mind. Chopin chose these things, they didn’t just happen. This is not usually something we argue, but rather something we assume, and this assumption enables us to write sentences like “Beethoven shortens the lengths of his phrases as he approaches the modulation to G major” (or whatever). It feels natural to assume the same thing of the distinctive features of a performance. (“Serkin slows down as he approaches Beethoven’s modulation to G major.”) On this account, a performance takes the form of a virtual conversation between conscious subjectivities. And indeed I have assumed just this sort of thing before
But here’s the problem. If you have ever performed music professionally you have probably had this experience where you’re playing and everything is going really well: the music is just flowing out of you without anything to block it. You’re not thinking, “I am am playing this thing,” you’re just playing it. And in such states — “flow states
” — you aren’t exactly making conscious decisions. In a really good performance, you’re just kind of going with it; your subjectivity merges with “it”, the thing you’re playing, or whatever it is that lies behind what you’re playing. And time has a different meaning; you begin a piece, you end it, you begin another one, and so on to the end of the program, playing as if in a dream where time is mysteriously dilated. Your concert is over in like five minutes (or so it seems) and you can’t really remember what you were playing. The worst thing that can happen is that you’re kind of flowing along and then suddenly your conscious mind, your ego, the thing that makes conceptual statements, suddenly interrupts and says “oh shit, we’re in the recapitulation! how did we get here?!” And at this point, as you well know if you’ve ever played Western art music from memory, you are most in danger of having a memory slip. In these moments you become aware that there are at least two kinds of consciousness that come into play when you perform — the state in which you stand apart from what you’re playing and can make little comments about it (oh god, here comes that leap, don’t fuck it up now; well, you fucked it up, didn’t you? hope it goes better in the exposition repeat) and flow state, where you are fully integrated to what you’re playing. And it’s in the boundary between the two — coming out of flow and into critical consciousness with a jolt and possibly a memory slip — that the distinction becomes clear.
My point is this: the kind of interpretation of performances that I’ve described here, where we treat the recorded performance as if it were a new kind of work, treats everything in a performance as if it were the result of a critical consciousness. We tacitly assume that when (for ex.) De Pachmann makes that little hitch of rubato that I described he is actually thinking something like “OK, here I am, coming to the apex of a melody — I’m going to take some time.” But anyone who’s ever played music in flow state knows that you don’t necessarily think any such thing. In a flow state, it’s almost as if someone else is playing the music. This explains why musicians are often surprised (sometimes pleasantly) by what they hear when they hear a playback of their performance. Ornette Coleman’s liner notes for Change of the Century mentions this experience: