To play a piece well, I should imagine that I made it up, guided by my ear and sense of drama, became accustomed to playing it, and eventually decided to notate it, only then discovering what it looked like on the page. When I encounter a score I tend to think of it in whatever terms the score implies, visually, but that’s a mistake. It allows me quick access to the piece because patterns are already arrayed visually and can be comprehended almost instantly, but ultimately those aren’t the sorts of patterns that make a musical performance come alive.
Charles Ives said that he wasn’t exactly sure how to notate his music and that he thought maybe someone else could do it better; his scores were the best approximation he could manage. What he meant by “better” was “in a way where the patterns revealed notationally correspond more closely to the patterns that govern the music itself.” His music is certainly difficult to make sense of, but – and I’m thinking of the Concord Sonata, here – I’ve found that the greater difficulty is in finding the sense behind a notation that tends to obscure that sense, even while it forms a record of it.
I’m trying to articulate a principle here that is very basic to the way I think about musical scores. There’s the kind of sense a piece of music can make to the ear, and then there’s the kind of sense that music can make on the page. I tend to think of most classical music as inaccessible to me if I don’t have the benefit of a score. I can also usually make sense of a piece – if it’s traditional enough – after some 15 hearings, but I’d say that over the course of those 15 hearings I’m constructing some sort of mental map that serves the same function as a score. Without a map, I’m lost.
I think there is a philosophy-of-music mistake that gets made a lot. I’m not sure whose mistake it is – historian, composer, listener, or just me – but I do think it has a lot to do with why almost nobody wants to listen to the classical music I burn to CD for them. The mistake is thinking that to make interesting music one should make things interesting in the “map” sense. I’m not specifically talking about notation here – the map can also be the mental map that one builds over 15 listenings. Better, I should say: the mistake is, in one way or another, not taking account of the discrepancy between an aural experience of music and a “mapped” experience.
Metaphor: If you are in a hedge maze shaped like a toucan, you are not having a ‘tropical’ experience. That would require small toucans stationed inside the hedge maze.
Remember when I said I wasn’t going to waste time explicating everything so that I could touch on all my points?
A good deal – a great deal – of classical music only makes sense to me on the “yes, but look what the maze is shaped like” level. A hedge maze shaped like something might well be an unsatisfying maze to solve – too few choices, or too many long dead ends – and listening to classical music I often feel like I compensate for the lameness of any given turn in the maze by reminding myself of the lovely overall pattern of which it forms a part. The problem is that, frequently, that pattern is itself not visible from the vantage point of one in the maze. Or, to extricate myself from this metaphor: the musical structure that not only underlies and orders a piece but also thereby serves as justification (or consolation) for any indifferent or obscure details is not always accessible to a listener without recourse to some kind of extra-musical aid. And maybe it’s appropriate to think of “knowing it from having heard it 15 times already” as extra-musical – it’s cumulative knowledge, but experientially cumulative, not musically cumulative. It’s possible that what I just wrote is nonsense, but for the time being, in the context of this thought, it convinces me.
The kind of sense that I find in a score is generally inaccessible to me by ear, and complementarily (as I was saying at the beginning of this), the kind of sense I find with my ears is generally not what pops out of a score.
This goes into deeper waters – the larger issue is that of what Nicholas Cook called “the two sides of the musical fabric” in that book I read last year – and is something I wanted to write about in my very-long-delayed entry about John Williams, the point of which was going to (and may still someday) be that my ears have a very particular and nuanced understanding of certain snatches of movie music, and yet when faced with the long-inaccessible scores to same, my eyes instantly found and perceived the inanity that I had always felt obliged to claim that I heard but really never had. That is to say that the ear-regulated marketplace of movie music has sifted to the top the styles that work for the ear, regardless of what they might seem to mean when parsed by the eye (or, if you prefer, the mind). More on that, as I say, later, hopefully.
I’ve been playing the piano for a certain piece of musical theater for several months now, and almost none of what I play has ever been notated. It’s always been quite rudimentary stuff but has evolved, ever so slightly, under my hands as I play it over and over. Recently I thought that it would probably be a good idea to fix in notation just what it was that I had been playing, and I created scores for a couple of the songs, doing my best, like Ives, to capture the things that I had worked out in a realm far from notational thought. Ives had trouble notating because he was writing weird, tumultous stuff, whereas I was doing absurdly straightforward, simple, traditional things. And yet I felt befuddled by the inherent inadequacies of the notation – most of what I’d wanted to record, it turned out, were subtleties of inflection that had no real place in notation; if I shoehorned them onto the page with a bunch of finicky indications, the impression would still be wrong – as though these crucial subtleties were themselves finicky. They aren’t! Anyway, I did what I could and made something that looked normal and reasonable, and now I play with it in front of me. What’s odd is that now that I have the notation, I often find myself lapsing into parsing what I see as I would parse any other score, and I end up playing something that seems foreign and lifeless, even though all I’m trying to do is recreate my own performance! Just like when I transcribed a “script” from a videotape of a candid conversation and unsuccessfully tried to perform my own lines. I was – as with Moby-Dick – unconvincing.
The problem is the same: the sense that we make in life – in music – is not the same sense that we make in symbols. But as creators, as artificers, people tend to work with the symbols first – like some great artistic algebra, founded on the principle that the semantic quantities, the associated meanings, will survive whatever operations you put their signifiers through and will show up, analogously reconfigured, at the other side, when you reap the meaning of your symphony or novel or whatever.
Maybe my ear-thought is just limited and I need to strengthen it. Some questions to me are still unresolved: are the exquisitely elaborate orderings of Bach meant to be on the hidden or visible side of the fabric? What about sonata form? I have learned to enjoy Beethoven only by drawing a miniature map in my mind as I go – and this technique works very well, and the rewards are well worth the effort, and with enough practice the effort becomes almost imperceptible – but am I compensating for a shortcoming? Is it my personal shortcoming (related, perhaps, to my weak navigational sense)? Or has modern-day culture undertrained everyone’s ears? Or was Beethoven always and necessarily operating slightly at odds with the ways of the ear? That would be fine with me, if that were true. But only because the trade-offs seem so obviously worthwhile in his case.
The mistake mentioned above comes in pieces that, for example, seem on the page to consist of all sorts of change-of-tempo, change-of-meter, rhythmically elaborate etc. effects, but in practice simply come off in ametrical time and are thus – you’ll excuse me Mr. Carter – boring. You can quote me on this: ametrical time is inherently unmusical. That’s not to say that it’s undramatic – obviously, all sorts of dramas take place in ametrical time – and musical elements can be formed into drama.* But music that is in fact constructed in metrical time but neglects to mark it is, generally, a lost music. I am dismissing large swaths of 20th century music here but someone has to. Such music might make extra-musical sense on the page or in the memory – or even, eventually, in the ear, following the tracks laid by the memory or the score – but can never make sense (musical sense) in the ear alone. Of course, there’s still that question of the trade-off. Maybe some months spent with the score to Night Fantasies will reveal to me the greatness I’ve heard so much about. And maybe that greatness would be so great as to be some-months worthy. Maybe.
The more interesting and important direction to work, I think now, is the other way – from the notation back to what the ear can know and the heart, ahem, can understand. This is the essential problem for actors, which is I guess why I find acting so fascinating. Most acting deals with symbolic sense so shallow as not to pose any problems. It’s when you have denser stuff like Shakespeare – or, say, Melville – that inadequate “de-notation” really shows. And most Shakespearean acting that I’ve heard has been, I’d say, insufficient. Same with most classical performance.
Once I was invited to listen to a friend’s informal pseudo-concert on the violin, which she played for friends as preparation for a competition. Afterward, I picked up one of the scores to look at it, and saw with some surprise what a rhythm she had been playing “actually was,” in notational/conceptual terms – a driving rhythm in 3 – whereas I had heard it as a strange, choppy passion governed by abrupt, complex rubati. I thought about it and realized she had just been very slightly prolonging each accented note as a way of super-emphasizing it. I guess she (and, it would seem, many other classical performers) thought this would heighten the sense of propulsive energy. In fact, it had completely bucked me from the horse, and had rendered the music as some kind of horrible sideways duck instead of as a bounding rabbit. Lot of animals in there. She asked if anyone had any suggestions, and, feeling strongly enough about this point to risk being rude, I answered by saying that maybe she should keep a very strict time when that rhythm was first introduced so that the listener would be able to process it. She and apparently everyone else there were bewildered by this comment – they weren’t even consciously aware of the deviation from the rhythm. The more I tried to explain how hard it had been for me to hear the correct metrical scheme, the more shocked they seemed. They all, of course, already knew the piece. It was, I guess, a famous piece. I might know a bunch of classical music but as far as “literacy” goes, I’m pretty ill-equipped.
But my embarrassment – which was, I daresay, extremely mild – is not the point; the point is that music is a tough sell. On the page (or in the memory), something might seem so sturdily sensible that it can bear the strain of exaggeration, but in the world of the ear, things are much more fragile.
I’ll allow myself to finally stop writing now that I’ve gotten a little sleepy and thought of this silly-putty-ish metaphor: music in the world of the symbol, on the notated page or in the schematic diagram in the mind, is thickened and flexible, like rubber, and can be played back at any speed, exaggerated and stretched, thrown around the room and stomped on, still maintaining its essential shape. Furthermore, its essential shape is all that it maintains – the specifics of any given performance are all enveloped in its smooth surface. However, music heard is like a brittle, prickly skeletal structure. The “essential” shape can’t necessarily be distinguished from the rough edges, and the whole thing is susceptible to being crushed by even the slightest irregular pressure.
So – I think maybe no more reading from Moby-Dick until I can at least do the musical equivalent.