Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Synchronic and Diachronic Listening

Apparently JP Rangaswami is not the only writer who likes to assume the rhetorical stance of being confused. Anthony Tommasini has chosen to play the same rhetorical card in his New York Times story about The Sibelius Edition, a plan by Bis to release a 70-CD collection of the complete works of Jean Sibelius. Here is his reaction to the project:

Sibelius lovers, myself included, may find this project too much of a good thing. Nevertheless the fashion for completeness has been gaining hold on the classical recording industry.

It used to be enough to own, say, a complete Wagner “Ring” cycle, or Murray Perahia’s splendid recordings of the complete Mozart piano concertos. In the last 10 years we have had complete editions of the recordings of Maria Callas, of Artur Rubinstein and more. In recent years Brilliant Classics has released bargain-priced boxed sets of what is asserted to be the complete works of Bach (155 CDs) and Mozart (170 CDs), performed by some esteemed artists and many barely known.

The archival value of these projects is real. But especially with regard to Sibelius, who is the intended buyer? In a way, all of his pieces sound like rough-hewn works in progress. His musical language was essentially late Romantic in character, unaffected by the atonal upheavals of Schoenberg & Company. Yet the utterly unconventional way Sibelius fashioned his dark and brooding pieces makes his music sound radical on its own terms. Wayward harmonies, abrupt mood shifts, discontinuities and ruminative episodes are allowed to do what they will. The music is almost beyond historical place, like the late Beethoven string quartets.

That said, Sibelius’s best works, while elusive and confounding, convey emotional, dramatic, even psychic integrity. I’m not sure his reputation will be enhanced by having all of his sketchy experiments and early efforts (like the preliminary version of “Finlandia”) made available.

This all leads to a punch line in which Tommasini confesses to being "confused" over why this project was undertaken. So, as I have tried to do so many times in my reactions to JP's articles, I would like to try to resolve the confusion.

With all due respect to Tommasini's capitalist stance, I would like to begin with the suggestion that, rather than asking about the "intended buyer," we ask who is the intended listener. I take this position to honor that remark by Stravinsky that I recently cited, which addresses the question of what it means to be a "good listener." As we unpack Stravinsky's argument, it does not take much to recognize that that path to being a good listener is one that leads through (duh!) doing a lot of listening. Thus, the more we have at our disposal for listening, the better our chances at becoming good listeners (bearing in mind, as I observed about reading, that this result is far from guaranteed).

Now there are a variety of ways we can go down this path; and, while I have long been skeptical of their work, I would like to invoke a framework that I learned from Leonard Meyer and his student, Eugene Narmour. This framework is basic on the distinction between the synchronic and diachronic approaches one may take in examining a piece of music. (The distinction also applies to literature and has long been a subject of great controversy.) The operative definition of "synchronic" in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (fifth edition) is as follows:

Concerned with or pertaining to the state of a language, culture, etc., at one particular time, past or present, without regard to historical development.

Where music theory is concerned, this means that one addresses a composition without regard to the historical context of other compositions. One may even reduce the scale to examining a single movement of a symphony in isolation from the other movements. The diachronic approach thus entails taking such a context into account.

Now I personally believe that a good listener is a diachronic listener; and I further believe that, on the basis of the text I cited, Stravinsky thought the same. On the other hand I have to appreciate that Tommasini is primarily a newspaper critic; and, whatever attention he may pay to the recording business, his highest priority involves writing accounts of "live" performances. Having written such criticism in the past, I also subscribe to the principle that a good critic is a good journalist, providing the reader with well-written description and saving judgmental opinion for whatever column space (however anachronistic that concept may have become) may remain once the description has been completed. I thus honor Tommasini's need to take a synchronic stance and might only quibble with him on the question of scale, given my own interest in seeking out a unifying theme for an entire evening's program.

Having discussed this distinction, I would now argue that a collection like The Sibelius Edition best serves the needs of the diachronic listener. Indeed, my most recent listening experience with Sibelius was a decidedly diachronic one. It took place this past April, when Osmo Vänskä (who happens to be one of the conductors involved in the Sibelius Edition project) conducted the San Francisco Symphony in that composer's first symphony. Like most listeners I am far more familiar with Sibelius' second symphony than I am with his first; but it took Vänskä's performance to reveal the extent to which many of the "seeds" of that second symphony are being "planted" in the first. Whether or not one might hear, in a chronological approach to the full corpus of Sibelius' compositions, the sort of "diary in music" that I have claimed to find in Mahler's work may not have been resolved by the music theorists; but it is a hypothesis that can only be resolved through diachronic listening. Furthermore, Bis and Vänskä already committed themselves to a diachronic examination of Sibelius when they released a CD of his violin concerto that coupled the 1905 version with the first recording of the original version of 1903/04. This makes for listening as fascinating as the three takes of "Tea for Two" that were made available on The Complete Bud Powell on Verve.

All this is my way of saying that I am far less "confused" about the BIS Sibelius project than Tommasini claims to be. (Of course, by way of disclaimer, I should remind readers that I already invested in the BIS collection of the complete piano music of Edvard Grieg and have never regretted that purchase!) It is not just a question of "archival value." It is a matter of having more resources through which I can learn to be a good listener and making those resources available to as many would-be good listeners as the market will allow!

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