Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Static Texts and Dynamic Performances

This week I finally finished reading a paper that I have been meaning to read for quite some time. (If I am honest with myself, that will work out to a couple of decades.) The paper is entitled "A Model of Expressive Timing in Tonal Music;" and it was published by Neil Todd in the journal Music Perception in 1985. It amounts to an impressive account of collecting and interpreting data in order to validate a particular theory of rhythm found in A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff. As I recently discussed on, this is one of several books that has tried to extend the knapsack of tools of music theory, applied primarily to harmony and counterpoint, to deal with the nature of rhythm. I was writing on because I had just attended a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music run by violist Kim Kashkashian, and I was particularly drawn into her both posing and answering the question of what is the difference between playing four beats to the measure and playing only two beats to the measure.

In many ways this is an iconic question for addressing how one translates marks on paper into performance practices. Lerdahl and Jackendoff developed an elegant system of abstraction that basically translated the notations of durations into a hierarchy of stress patterns. Todd is one of many theorists who have embraced hierarchical representations. He not only admits this but also justifies it with the following argument:
It is important that music is organized hierarchically, because it enables the listener to comprehend the complex musical relationships. If it were not so organized all relationships would be local and transient, since the understanding of music places extraordinary demands on the memory of the listener.
I can see the value of this approach when one is confronted with a full score for a piece of music occupying a significant duration of time. Nevertheless, I cannot shake the "inconvenient truth" that every act of performance must, of necessity, be "local and transient." Thus, what struck me about Kashkashian's coaching was that she was less concerned with performance as a phenomenon involving the translation of visual data into fingering and bowing techniques and more with how performing is a whole body experience and that, furthermore, composing may have more to do with trying to turn a composer's sense of such a whole body experience into a document than with the realization of abstract principles through marks on paper.

Once again I find myself confronted with the challenge of rethinking the relationship between acts of composition and acts of performance, and perhaps I shall have more time to think about it on the basis of recent reading.

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