Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Theory of Music: The Historical Art

Every art has its own relationship with history. Literature is stuffed with allusions to previous works. Visual art, in a sense, preserves history by catching a solitary moment and freezing it indefinitely.

All music turns to the past. Once a melody has been written down, it becomes one of the most authentic ways to transport us back in time. The tint in a painting may fade over time, language changes over the centuries, but once we have a written record of music, it stays more or less the same. The harmonies in Thomas Morley's madrigals are the same as when he penned them almost five-hundred years ago.

Even impromptu must be conscious of its own past, since music is an inherently sequential experience. So even music that is created in the moment is still of necessity tethered to a history. Otherwise, the music would be nonsense.

As the craftsmanship behind making instruments advances, there will naturally be a few changes in timbre. Violin strings, for instance, are almost universally made of metal today in place of the older gut strings. But to the untrained ear, there is little significant difference in the sound. Of course every orchestra will play Beethoven's symphonies with a slight variation, but consider how much more similar every performance of Beethoven will be than the various stagings of any given play.

Musicians have to play the role of the historian. Unless they're performing their own composition, they must try to understand how the composer intended the piece to be played. Unlike a novelist or painter, a musician creates a unique moment by pure interpretation rather than inspiration.

In this sense, musicians must be connected to the masters of their art in ways that sculptors, poets, etc. cannot be. The entirety of their art is to be immersed in the work of the masters. One writer may read the work of another, but they are not a participant in its creation the way a musician is when he or she first begins to play. There is an intimacy that accompanies the practicing, memorizing, and performing of a work of the masters.

I think theater comes closest to music in this regard. In fact, I've recently noticed some shocking similarities between performing Bach and Shakespeare:

1—Both of them write exceptionally technically complex works. To be able to enjoy or perform the works of either, the audience as well as the performer need some training. It would be difficult to understand just the sequence of events in King Lear, let alone all the competing themes, if you had no previous experience with Shakespeare. This is not so for Moliere. And consider how chaotic Bach's violin concertos would sound to the uninitiated. In fact, the first time I heard that particular concerto it put me into a panic. I had to turn the stereo off because my ears were so overloaded. But once you have become used to each artist's style they are quite possibly the most rewarding artists in their field.

2—Both of them write exceptionally emotionally complex works. Take the prelude to Bach's second cello suite. This is not a technically difficult piece to perform, especially when compared to his other works for cello. But in the wrong hands, this piece can be a disaster. We have virtually no dynamic or tempo markings for this prelude, so all expressions and articulations are left up to the soloist. That may sound like not a big deal until you start trying to interpret it yourself. The piece is not at all straightforward. It wanders and meanders around, held loosely together with the simplest of all themes: a minor triad. The prelude has to be judiciously examined measure by measure to see what the soloist wishes to bring out and emphasize. Consider the pause after the climax of the piece around 3:35 in this recording. How should the cellist play the next few notes after the pause? Yo-Yo Ma chose to more or less continue on with business as usual. But there are a hundred different ways you could play that measure, and each would show as much about Bach as it would the performer. Yo-Yo Ma's interpretation works for him and is frankly beyond reproach. But I choose to hold that first note a little longer and quieter to ease the listener back into the flow of the music.

The liberty of interpreting Bach is increased exponentially when one plays his organ music, since the registration is left completely up to the soloist.

Shakespeare's works have the same ambiguity and emotional flexibility as Bach's. He provided next-to-no stage directions, so an overwhelming degree of interpretation is left up to the performer. Is Iago laughing as he divulges his plots to the audience, or is he sneering? Is he amused or disgusted? It depends on the Iago. And just as a violinist could change the whole meaning of a phrase from the Bach partitas with the slightest variation in articulation, an actor can imply an entirely different world of meaning with a subtle shift in inflection. Think for a moment about the scene where Gertrude says to Laertes, "Your sister's drowned, Laertes." Laertes' next line is, "Drowned! O, where?" There are an almost infinite number of ways that Laertes could say those three words. Or, take a more well known example from the same play, "To be or not to be. That is the question." How on earth is an actor supposed to decide how to say those most famous lines? So much hangs on them!

3—Both Shakespeare and Bach cross over into each other's field. Shakespeare is the most musical author I have ever read. The man obsesses over sound and rhythm. And no one in the history of our language has done so much with word play.

Bach, on the other hand, is the most poetic composer I've studied. His use of numerology and musical symbolism is unparalleled. He crammed an astonishing amount of meaning into a measure.

To sum up, music, even new music, is always historical. Because of this historical dimension, musicians are linked to composers in an extraordinary way. They are the voices of these men and women who can no longer speak for themselves. The discipline that comes closest to music in its links to the past is theater.


Here are some different openings to Hamlet's soliloquy.

My personal favorite:

And, quite easily, the worst of the lot:

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