Friday, April 3, 2009

Keeping my Faith

Apparently, my new "beat" on has resulted in a new first for me (even in my advanced years): my first comment from an irate composer! Apparently, Steven Gerber did not like my observation that "exposure to Moondog greatly enhanced my own listening experience of [the world premiere of his composition] 'Music in Dark Times'" by the San Francisco Symphony last week. This is hardly the first time I have written a review that rubbed the subject the wrong way; but I found the reaction (as Spock was fond of saying while raising his eyebrow) "fascinating."

Writing about the listening experience itself has been one of my favorite topics on this blog. I continue to occupy myself with the puzzle of how we can all follow the injunction of Igor Stravinsky and elevate ourselves from the sensory experience of hearing to the more cognitive nature of listening. When this involves the experience of an entirely new composition, the puzzle becomes all the more challenging. Nevertheless, I feel it is important to recognize that present listening is always a product of past listening, meaning that, from a cognitive point of view, no new composition ever registers on a "clean slate mind," so to speak. Now I know that there are composers who can go on at great length about significant properties of their works, but I feel that it goes against the cognitive grain to try ever to examine any composition in isolation. Thus, any past listening experience, regardless of genre, that engages the mind during a present listening experience is going to have value, even if the value is one of posing a hypothesis that, upon further reflection, will be soundly refuted.

"Music in Dark Times" consisted of six relatively brief movements. In my own listening experiences, I realize that I have come across few composers whom I would approach (if not admire) as "architects of brevity." I am fascinated by the way in which John Zorn glorifies the short attention span without being judgmental about it either positively or negatively. Yesterday I tried to approach the problem of how we, as listeners, approach the short pieces of Anton Webern's Opus 5. I have also been trying to build up my listening experiences of György Kurtág, whose own influences seem to draw upon a rich appreciation of music history (and it would not surprise me in the least if Moondog was one of his influences). In the field of all those experiences, Moondog happened to rise to the top while I was listening to "Music in Dark Times;" and, if it became the seed for the sensemaking taking place as I listened to the music, then so much the better.

Nevertheless, I can see at least one way in which such an approach could irritate a composer. The basic premise is that, once a composition is presented to an audience, it no longer "belongs" to the composer. Each of us has a unique way of listening, and there will never be any guarantee that any listener will hear a composition the way the composer intended it to be heard. That is part of what makes all of us human, the subjective nature of cognitive interpretation of sensory impressions. The composition leaves the objective and subjective worlds of the composer's working environment and enters the social world, where it becomes part of a vast network of listeners and listenings, very much in the spirit of the social networks that Randall Collins postulated and investigated in The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. From such a point of view, it would seem natural for any composer to experience some sort of past-partum depression with such a departure; but, hopefully, at some point the composer can take pleasure in being the parent of a child that has now left the womb, so to speak.

This brings me to another aspect of Gerber's criticism. He chose to end his argument with the following proposition:

Critics really should study scores before writing reviews.

This statement seems to conflate criticism with music theory; and, while there are any number of occasions in which an understanding of music theory can inform the critic's task, the critic is writing for an audience of listeners (or would-be listeners), rather than a symposium of music theorists. There have been plenty of times when I have hauled out scores to test a particular hypothesis about listening that I have been trying to work. When the Internet provides me with scores that I do not already have in my collection, I may draw upon those resources, just as I currently do when consulting books; but, when I am just beginning to speculate about a hypothesis, I am not always going to go off on a data-gathering expedition, particularly when, as is the case in what I write for (as opposed to this blog), I feel a need to get my position expressed "with all deliberate speed." Sometimes we just have to play with the cards that have been dealt to us. If that leaves us with some loose ends, then we are all the better if we remember that they still need to be investigated in the future!


srg said...

Dear Mr. Smoliar,
I assure you that I was not irate at your generally favorable review; I merely thought you would be interested in knowing that I had never heard of Moondog. Still, if you saw a parallel between his music and my piece, that is fine with me. There is nothing wrong with listeners bringing to a new piece of music whatever may enhance their appreciation of it. As for my wish that critics would study scores, I realize that a case can be made that critics are better off not doing that so that they can report about a concert from a viewpoint similar to that of the audience, but in the case of the Beethoven Concerto, I was struck by your not knowing that the surprising use of the solo cello in the finale, one of the most interesting aspects of Beethoven's orchestration, is in the score and was not something cooked up by the conductor. Perhaps my tone was overly sharp because I had just read Joshua Kosman's review in which he, as a result of not looking at my score, criticized my melodies for spanning only a fifth; when I went back to my score to see if he was right, I discovered that every one of them spans at least an octave, and many of them a tenth. Yours sincerely, Steven Gerber

srg said...
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