Monday, January 18, 2010

Making Our Own Listening History

I just finished reading Chloe Veltman's latest post to her lies like truth blog under the title "Should Composers Conduct Their Own Works?" The claim she was trying to warrant was that, over the course of the two Project San Francisco performances by the San Francisco Symphony featuring the composer George Benjamin, David Robertson, who conducted the first concert, had been more effective than Benjamin himself, who conducted the second. She concluded her case by proposing the hypothesis that this was "a case of the creator 'not being able to see the wood for the trees.'" I found myself in sufficient disagreement with this position that I prepared a rather lengthy comment; and, because that comment reflects some of the more general principles of listening that I have been trying to explore on in this forum, I would like to rehash my position.

Since I believe that every good hypothesis deserves a counterhypothesis, I propose that Veltman's position amounted to a case of the listener being biased by the order of his/her listening experiences. When I wrote my preview piece for, I was eating my own dog food in recommending the Nimbus recording that includes "Ringed by the Flat Horizon" performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder. Where Veltman heard little (if any) differentiation in Benjamin's performance of this work, I found the same subtle differentiation that I had heard in the Elder recording; and I think that taking that subtlety to such an extreme heightened my sensitivity to "what the thunder said" in the percussion parts. I have no problem acknowledging that Roberston's performance of Dance Figures involved far more emphatic contrasts; but I suspect most of the emphasis resided the strength of my memory of the "Hammers" section, which, as I observed in my review was the one sharp break in an otherwise seamless integration of the remaining movements.

For better or worse we have no control over the order in which we encounter our musical experiences. As Marx said, we make our own history. However, he also said that we do not make it under the circumstances we choose but under those "given and transmitted from the past." In the same way we can never make the circumstances under which we listen to music.

1 comment:

Chloe Veltman said...

great to read your counter-position, stephen! you definitely have a point...