Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Following the Score

Yesterday, in preparing my Examiner.com piece about the new Wigmore Hall Live recording of a performance given by Jonathan Biss in that space on May 12, 2009, I did something I had not done in a very long time: I listened to the two sonatas by Franz Schubert on the CD (D. 840 in C major and D. 959 in A major) while following copies of the printed music. Indeed, since I did not have a copy of D. 840 (having only the Dover Publications volume of reprints from the Breitkopf & Härtel 1888 Kritisch durchgesehene Gesammtausgabe), I downloaded a PDF of it from IMSLP. Regular readers may wonder how this squares with an exchange I had last April with the composer Steven Gerber over how I approached my work. Here is the relevant excerpt from that exchange, incorporating Gerber's assertion and my response:

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 Examiner.com (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!

The operative concept in my position is that serious listening is an ongoing process of hypothesizing and, to the extent that it is possible, testing those hypotheses. In the real-time spontaneity of the moment in a concert hall, one cannot dwell heavily on hypothesis-testing, particularly if it interferes with listening-in-the-moment; but, when one has a recording, one has the opportunity to change the rules of the game.

At this point I should make a disclaimer: When I received this CD I was already familiar with all of the compositions on it. Furthermore, I was familiar with the two selections from György Kurtág's Játékok, which Biss had used to "frame" his Schubert performances, because I had heard Biss perform them as part of his "Concert with Conversation" event at the Community Music Center in the Mission District. In addition I had listened to the CD on two occasions, separated by about half a week. The first listening was for getting a general familiarity with the content, and it was through that experience that I decided to dive deeper into the content on the second listening. Finally, my act of hypothesizing was influenced not only by the recorded performance but also by Biss' comments in the booklet of notes, in which he tried to explain why he had prepared a program that coupled Kurtág with Schubert. As a result I found myself hypothesizing about not only the immediacy of the performance but also the structural architecture of the entire program. Thus, I was dealing with hypotheses of a scope beyond the limitations of my own time-consciousness; and I had to draw upon "artifacts of memory," if I was going to give those hypotheses the full consideration they deserved. Those artifacts included the CD (which I was prepared to play as many times as necessary, either in whole or in part), the printed texts, and possibly even recordings of other performances (particularly the recording of D. 959 made by Artur Schnabel on January 15, 1937, made available on an Arabesque CD).

The result was "an awfully big adventure" (without any of James M. Barrie's macabre connotations) of identifying claims and seeking out warrants for those claims. What ended up on my Examiner.com site was as much a document of that adventure as an account of the CD itself. Needless to say, I have no idea what Biss would have to say about my claims or whether he would attempt to refute my warrants; but then I also have no idea whether, six months from now, I would listen to this recording the same way I did in preparing my article. I am reminded of a remark that Isidore Cohen made when Nicholas Delbanco interviewed him for his book about the Beaux Arts Trio. He said that he could not imagine a job better than one that required him to play Mozart every day. I suppose I can say the same about the way in which my current work is grounded in serious listening, since that "awfully big adventure" extends far beyond the project I set myself yesterday for a single CD!

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