Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Getting a Fair Hearing

I always seem to find a lot of points of disagreement with Charles Rosen, whether it involves one of his piano recitals or one of his contributions to The New York Review (which I always read eagerly, since any point of disagreement always sets me thinking). His latest piece (in the March 12 issue) is entitled "Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!;" and in it he returns to a question he has discussed often in the past: Why do we have so much trouble listening to contemporary music? This was an appropriate setting, since so much has been made of how difficult it is to listen to Carter's compositions.

In this particular essay, however, Rosen makes his key point without any explicit reference to Carter:

Schoenberg once said, "My music is not modern; it's just badly played." I heard Pierre Boulez direct his small chamber ensemble in a work of Harrison Birtwhistle, and when I said I had never heard a work of his sound so wonderfully effective, Boulez explained: "We had thirty-five rehearsals." At the Paris Opera, when Boulez conducted the first production of Alban Berg's Lulu with the third act that had been withheld for so long, I went to both the second and the last of thirteen performances. At the last performance, the orchestra seemed to be playing almost by heart, and when I remarked to Boulez that I had never heard an unfamiliar modern opera executed with such confidence, he said, "We had forty-five recording sessions."

It struck me as interesting that Rosen should dwell on a topic related to my analysis of our unrealistic approaches to the current economic crisis. Whether we are dealing with unfamiliar music or steeply descending stock indexes, we cannot seem to get beyond what I have called "our fixation with instant gratification," which I have interpreted as a general rejection of adulthood.

The fact is that very little happens instantly; and, as a corollary, what is done in one instance is likely to be undone in the next. This goes beyond H. L. Mencken's precept that a clear and simple solution to a complex problem is inevitably wrong. The solution has to be not only simple but also immediate; and this constitutes yet another way in which we have lost our sense of reality, not only in the arts and the economy but in just about anything related to work.

As a "refugee" from Silicon Valley, I have a particular sensitivity to this problem in the research domains of science and technology. I seem to have come through an "old school" graduate education, where I was taught that research is something that takes considerable time, whether you are a historian trying to establish which of your sources can be taken as credible or a scientist collecting data over several years, only to discover that it will take another several years to interpret those data. "Scientific method" may be a nice and clean ideal; but it does not account for the frustrating possibility that the very language in which we express our hypotheses may be inadequate, if not flawed. Much of research has a lot to do with groping around in the dark. When we finally catch a bit of light, we can never be sure if it is coming from a primary source or is only a reflection (or, for that matter, a reflection of a reflection).

Unfortunately, such groping has become taboo in the age of funded scientific research. It is extremely rare that a research effort gets financed without being bound by some form of legal contract; and the bonds of that contract are inevitably expressed in terms of "deliverables." Attention thus shifts away from such necessary pursuits as making sense of your experiences, as you negotiate your way through poorly articulated hypotheses and agonizingly cryptic observations, and towards more product-oriented questions concerned with how many patent applications you filed and how many peer-reviewed papers you have published. To put it bluntly, the discipline of inquiry has deteriorated into the domain of manufacturing, demanding the fabrication of the tangible to compensate for the intangibility of research itself.

Max Weber saw this coming in 1918 when he gave his "Science as a Vocation" lecture at Munich University, the same year and venue as that of his "Politics as a Vocation" lecture. I realize that I have paid too much attention to the politics lecture and not enough to the one on science. Ultimately, the real question is whether or not the very concept of science as a salaried profession erodes the practice of science; and the "vocation" of science may well be closer to a religious calling than to one of the boxes in a corporate organization chart.

Needless to say, this is a highly idealistic perception of the work of science; but it also reflects back on the work of a composer like Carter. Carter gave a series of lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during my senior year there, and I remember his talking about receiving commissions for his work. While there are plenty of reasons for him to enjoy receiving a commission, his greatest aggravation was almost immediately being caught in a web of accountability to the funding organization. Rosen writes about the skill his wife, Helen Frost-Jones, had in freeing him from the tangles of that web. Rosen claims that he was visiting Carter when one of those accountability calls came in from the Ford Foundation. As he tells the story, Frost-Jones took the call and said:

Yes, Mr. D'Arms, Mr. Carter is thinking about your commission a great deal—too much in my opinion. Goodbye.

Nevertheless, Carter did have to worry about delivering a "product" on schedule, since the performance of the commissioned work had already been planned. Even worse, a symphony orchestra seldom has the luxury of rehearsing a new work for more than a week, since they have to prepare for performances on a week-by-week schedule, which is what makes the numbers Boulez quoted about preparation time so significant.

Boulez recognized that, as important as it may be to think about what you are doing, you need time to figure out how to think about what you are doing before you can think about doing it. On the "Boulez time scale of rehearsal," there is a prerequisite stage of acquiring the basic nuts and bolts of execution that precedes the stage concerned with questions of interpretation that make the music sound like music, so to speak. This may have something to do with why the most satisfying performance of Carter's music I have heard took place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music: Not only, as I suggested yesterday, do students have the "safety" of being able to experiment with their performances; they also have the "safety" of a schedule that is on "Boulez time," rather than the more "industrial time" they are likely to encounter as professionals. Within that schedule they can think about music, rather than product; and we in the audience can then benefit from those thoughts in our own efforts to become better listeners.

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