Monday, October 17, 2011

The Baggage of Knowledge

Jeremy Denk’s latest blog post, “Taking on Taruskin,” was just too interesting to be dismissed with a casual reading from the screen.  As a result I printed it and stuck it in my pocket, from which I extracted it while waiting for the beginning of yesterday afternoon’s concert by the San Francisco Bach Choir.  How was I to know that reading it would have an effect on my afternoon’s listening experiences?

Denk’s own conclusion gives the impression that he is picking a bone with Taruskin over whether, in his words, “thought and music are enemies.”  A fairer and less simplistic summary would be that Denk was trying to come to grips with just what we bring to a performance of music (whether as performer or as audience) by way of “stocks of knowledge” (a phrase that seems to have originated with Alfred Schutz) and just what we do with the knowledge we bring.  Using Don Giovanni as an example, Taruskin makes a hyperbolic claim:

Its meaning for us is mediated by all that has been thought and said about it since opening night, and is therefore incomparable richer than it was in 1787.

There are any number of ways in which this claim is absurd, and Denk’s attack recalls Thurber’s joke about the cowboy jumping on his horse and riding off wildly in all directions.  Most important, however, is that it is unreasonable to assume any anyone all-too-human can ever bring that much baggage to a musical experience, let alone does so.

However, this is where my own situation comes into play.  The concert I was attending was entitled Before Bach:  Music from the Family Archives;  and it was the first time I had an opportunity to hear music by Johann Sebastian Bach’s ancestors, rather than his sons.  In other words, in a very real way, I was in a situation that was clearly going to have an effect on the stocks of knowledge at my disposal the next time I heard a performance of Bach.  Indeed, in writing my review of this concert, I was already throwing forward passes to future listening experiences (including, of all things, the BWV 212 “Peasant” cantata)!

Looking back on the “virtual argument” between Denk and Taruskin, I realized that, in the midst of some very impressive name-dropping, there was one name that both parties seemed to have neglected.  I am thinking of Harold Bloom and his preoccupation with the “anxiety of influence,” which has now become The Anatomy of Influence in his latest book.  It is one thing to talk about stocks of knowledge, as if we all go around with vast internalized databases managed by some kind of “wetware” Google.  However, more important is that the actions we take cannot help but be influenced by our past experiences.  That is the essence of learning and has been thus at least since Plato’s attempts to document the wisdom of Socrates.

The key word in that last paragraph, however, is “actions.”  Once again I find myself back on my happy hunting ground of the distinction between noun-based and verb-based thinking.  While the book from which Denk extracted his Taruskin quote is entitled Text and Act, there is something very noun-based in both his argument and Denk’s reply.  The world of music has been reduced to a world of artifacts, including scores, scholarly papers, recordings, and, in Denk’s case, metaphorical barns.  None of this gets at the fundamentally verb-based nature of performance itself, as well as the listening experience (which is only passive if you want it to be).

Focus on the performer, because it is easier.  Performance can only be “in the moment.”  The performer may do any number of things to prepare for those moments, but all that matters is what happens in the course of performance.  There are any number of preparatory activities;  but what is important is that they prepare the body (and probably the mind) for “acting in the moment.”  (I once heard Patricia Racette go through a laundry list of all the things she had to “keep in mind” while “in the moment” on the opera stage.  That was the best case I ever heard for the significance of those preparatory activities.)  Preparation may involve sprucing up our stocks of knowledge, but I would argue that the performance of music is one of the best examples in which we confront the complexity of the relationship between what we know and what we do.  I think that this complexity is what Denk had in mind when he described thought and music as “complicated friends.”

In fairness to those of us reduced to writing from time to time (or more frequently), I should conclude by pointing out that “the moment” is the most difficult construct to deal with in writing.  I can write about a score page when it is sitting in front of me.  I can even use software to help the reader grasp how I am looking at that page and what I am trying to describe there.  On the other hand “the moment” is gone by the time I try to write about it;  and it is gone forever.  Of course we do try to use language to describe actions we have experienced, and that is why verbs are so important.  It is also why the grammar of verb phrases is so much more complex than the grammar of noun phrases.  Time-consciousness is a problematic concept.  Augustine knew it, and Edmund Husserl knew it.  We are the better for their efforts to come to grips with it, but they left us with some gaping analytic holes.  The good news is that those of us who spend a lot of time performing and/or listening to music may be better equipped to fill in those holes than those with more “scientific” (as in noun-based) backgrounds.

1 comment:

liz garnett said...

Isn't there a character in a David Lodge novel that starts the book thinking he's writing a dissertation on the influence of Shakespeare on TS Eliot, but by the end is writing about the influence of TS Eliot on Shakespeare?

Anyway, I find Lucy Green's dialectic between 'inherent' and 'delineated' musical meanings as a useful framework to think about the relationship between the stuff of musical material and the accretions of associations it collects by existing in culture.