Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Competition versus the Music

Last night's San Francisco recital debut by pianist Ingrid Fliter reminded me of why I always seem to attach a pejorative connotation to the phrase "competition winner." In this year of her 34th birthday, she seems to have racked up a healthy number of prizes and medals, the most recent being the 2006 Gilmore Artist Award, described in the program notes as follows:

She is only the fifth pianist to have been honored with the award, which is given to an exceptional pianist who, regardless of age or nationality, possesses broad and profound musicianship and charisma, and who desires and can sustain a career as a major international concert artist.

Does that mean anything? Back when I used to rant about what was happening to the workplace on my previous blog, I would often fall back on the question of how one accounts for doing one's job. This would inevitably lead to the question of whether an enterprise is more accountable to its customers than it is to its shareholders (and sometimes it would also lead to the digression that accountability to employees never seemed to be part of the equation). It seems appropriate to raise this question of accountability to any performer who desires to "sustain a career as a major international concert artist."

Ms. Fliter is definitely not without talent, but I would like to propose that hers is a talent that is primarily calculated to win the approval of competition judges. If one listens with the right set of ears, one can practically hear every individual note being placed exactly where it belongs. If this is the "auditory view" from the recital hall, one can imagine what it must be like from the chair of the judge who is probably following the score during the performance! No, there is no question that we are talking about an awesome talent here; but it is a talent that raises a question analogous to my question about work, except that we are now dealing with a more abstract concept. Is there such a thing as accountability to the music itself; and, if so, can that accountability find itself in conflict with accountability to competition judges? I would argue that this is, indeed, the case, although it probably has little impact on the opinions of "paying customers" in today's "market" for classical music (which, unfortunately, is what ultimately determines the ability to sustain that career).

To try to demonstrate that there is such a thing as "accountability to the music itself," allow me to review two of my previous posts about musical performances, those of Jonathan Biss and the Artemis Quartet. I would like to examine these concerts (both of which left me feeling very enthusiastic about the state of musical performance) through a rather unorthodox set of lenses, those of medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. By viewing these performances from this particular point of view, I hope to demonstrate why Ms. Fliter left me with feelings of annoyance and boredom, rather than enthusiasm.

Let me begin by considering logic and immediately back-pedal a bit. My days as a published scholar entitling me to be a card-carrying member of the Society of Music Theory are long passed; but the scars of my battles with logical positivism remain. In retrospect it is rather depressing how much ink managed to get spilled by music theorists who looked for truth in the sentential forms of some logical calculus. Back in those days music theory had little regard for ethnography. If that discipline had any place at all, it was over in that remote realm of the ethnomusicologists, who already had a reputation for being a pretty odd lot. The consequence of these blinders was the tendency to equate rationality with logic, not realizing, as certain pioneers like Thomas Kuhn pointed out, that both texts and actions that, on the surface, appeared absurd, might actually have a rationale behind them if one could just situate them in a suitable context.

This is how I believe we should approach the role of "logic" when talking about music. We being by assuming that every composition has a rationale behind it, and then we have to go after the context in which that rationale reveals itself. What that rationale is will almost be a matter for debate; or, to put it another way, every performer has the inalienable right to make his or her own case for what that rationale is, rather than trying to home in on some Rashomon-like "truth" based on the composer's intentions (although if any of those intentions are available through the historical record, they ought not to be ignored). In other words at least one of the reasons for performing music is that it is the means by which the performer reveals that rationale and shares it with others.

In this respect both Biss and the Artemis made a very bold move: They tried to structure a program of works oriented around a common rationale that played itself out over a particular period of the history of music. In the Artemis program the rationale was the "revolutionary" one of "thinking out of the box" defined by the "regular social practices" (to invoke the language of Anthony Giddens) of the prevailing musical community. Biss also addressed the rationale behind "thinking out of the box" but added the moral reflection that venturing too far from the box may lead to madness. In Fliter's case, if there was any rationale at all, it had nothing to do with the music. Her program was a collection of works with challenges that would impress competition judges: Beethoven's "Thirty-Two Variations on an Original Theme," the Schubert A Major sonata written in the final year of his life (one of three extraordinary piano sonatas that left a wake of confusion for many decades after Schubert's death), and a Chopin assortment of familiar pieces, each with its own technical demands. From the point of view of the music, all of these works were, in fact, embedded in fascinating contexts which, if recognized, could have made for the sorts of edge-of-the-seat performances that Biss and the Artemis had delivered; but it seemed as if Fliter did not either know or care about such contexts. So there was so satisfaction through the lens of logic/rationale.

When we move from logic to grammar, we move from questions about ideas to questions about how those ideas are structured. In the language of hermeneutics, we move into the domain of how understanding may be expressed through structural explanation (and how resulting representations of structure may enhance and/or revise that understanding). In just about any domain there is usually considerable argument over just what constitutes an appropriate structural representation. My own musical background is one that honors the spirit (if not always the letter) of Heinrich Schenker: A structural explanation is one that sorts out the embellishing from the embellished. This is a tradition that goes all the way back to (at least) C. P. E. Bach's systematic study of ornamentation; and Schenker's greatest insight was that ornaments could, themselves, be ornamented (which also happens to be the fundamental precept behind bebop). In Schenker's language the greatest obligation that a performer has to a listener is to make it clear where the background is and what sets the foreground off from the background.

The works on both the Artemis and Biss programs raised many interesting questions around the ability of the ear to navigate this space of foregrounds and backgrounds. Indeed, one of the things that made Biss' reading of Mozart so interesting was his (apparently) deliberate effort to propose and then justify a structural explanation that was decidedly at odds with the sort of explanation one would assume for a Mozart piano sonata; and, as I tried to argue in my review, that justification really only "worked" in the context of his entire program (which was one of the things that made his recital so interesting). In the Fliter program one cannot ignore that any work presented as variations on a theme is basically declaring itself as an essay in structural explanation, while Chopin is, if nothing else, one of the greatest masters of embellishment (as anyone who tries to play any of his work knows full well). This is what made Fliter's get-each-note-right-to-satisfy-the-judges performance so disconcerting. Ultimately, she had nothing to say about structural explanation but was simply delivering what she felt was the most suitable "received truth." I was reminded of what Bernard Taper said about every dancer in the New York City Ballet back when Balanchine was in charge: Every dancer was like an angel, delivering a divine message with absolutely no comprehension of what the message was saying. (This also seems to be what Mike Nichols and Emma Thompson were going for in her portrayal of "The Angel of America.") When performing Chopin, this may win prizes, but at the price of detaching the listener from the very experience of music that should justify performance in the first place.

This bring us to the final element of the trivium: rhetoric. This is the one that is all about performance. Having confronted the challenges of rationale and sorted out the structural explanation, it is through the performance itself that one can offer something to the listener that makes sense of it all. Also, in a context in which we are now flooded with a variety of recordings of just about every work of music, it is the most difficult, because, like it or not, the performer is confronted with the problem of "speaking in a unique voice." If rhetoric is ultimately about suasion, then the task of the performer is basically a matter of convincing the audience to sit there and listen, rather than exploring some God-awful frescoes on the walls of the recital hall, playing Jotto with one's spouse (yes, I once had a couple sitting next to me doing that), or filling the program with items concerned with the next day's work (guilty as charged). Sometimes the very novelty of the rationale or the structural explanation may be enough to do the trick. More often the novelty is provocative; and the performer has to figure out how to say, "Look, I know this is not what you expected; but, if you bear with me, I am sure you will find this a real treat." Now, in all fairness, I am not sure that the Artemis Quartet was really trying to say that to their audience. In their case the "message" was probably more like, "We really like getting together to do this; and we hope you will like it, too." On the other hand, by opening with an unorthodox approach to Mozart and then delivering it with technical precision, Biss could pull of the not-what-you-expected rhetorical strategy and carry it through Webern, Beethoven, and Schumann (where finally it all made sense). Fliter, however, played as if she had nothing rhetorical to say to the audience, which probably reflects that mind-set that is more directed at talking to competition judges, so to speak (but also reflects that she did not have very much, if anything, to say about either rationale or structural explanation).

Having now developed an argument around the relevance of the medieval trivium to the appreciation of musical performance, I should conclude by observing that most of Fliter's audience seemed to love her. Since this was the Annual Subscriber Gift Concert for San Francisco Performance, the general atmosphere was highly supportive (not to mention appreciative on the part of the subscribers). I am not even sure that a review of this concert will appear in the Chronicle. Also, I want to go on record that the idea behind this Annual Subscriber Gift Concert is a good one; and I have really enjoyed most of the concerts I have seen in this setting. However, this particular evening restored my attention to an itch I have had about musical competitions for many years; and it was hard for me to avoid scratching it!

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