Monday, February 8, 2010

The Direction Question

One of my friends reminded me of a Master Class we had attended at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music conducted by Robert Mann. She recalled Mann telling a first violin in a string quartet that she had a very polished sound but that her playing was "without direction." I realized that his observation resonated closely with my tendency to invoke a metaphorical use of the noun "journey," applying it to either an individual composition or the structure of a program for an entire concert. One property of Western music that seems almost universal is the presence of a well-defined beginning and ending, between which there is this continuous span of elapsed time. Is there anything more to the journey than this passing of time; and, if so, what is that "more?"

The best way to deal with this question is to look for counterexamples. The most obvious of these are those works by John Cage in which the composition is the passing of some specified duration of time. Anything that happens over that duration is part of the composition. One might be hard pressed to call this a journey, but one cannot call the composition static either. Alternatively, one may say that it is a journey that advances on the basis of "environmental conditions," rather than according to a path set by the composer (or, for that matter, the performer). In other words the music is a journey. However, any account of that journey cannot be predetermined; nor is it likely to be reproduced.

I am thinking about this while listening to tracks from my Miles Davis Columbia box of The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. On the first CD in the box, "Bitches Brew" is preceded by "Pharaoh's Dance;" and there may be some clues in how these two pieces (the first by Davis and the second by Joe Zawinul) differ. Both build on a very steady beat; but in "Bitches Brew" Davis punctuates that beat with almost violent declamations that evoke the rhetoric of a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon (although his own image probably comes closer to a witch casting a spell). The rest of the group works with rhetorical responses of their own. However, the exchange seems to be one in which Miles is up on the pulpit and everyone else is in the dutiful congregation. There is clearly a journey progressing here (although, given the artwork produced for the original release, the noun "trip" would probably be more appropriate).

In "Pharaoh's Dance," on the other hand, the beat seems to be more of a foreground phenomenon. The same instruments (including Miles' trumpet) get to speak; but it is almost as if they are mumbling in the background while the beat goes on (and on and on …)! This may just be my own irritability speaking; but I find that this approach to performance makes for a far more impoverished journey than the experience of letting the environment set the journey in one of Cage's "duration" compositions. Perhaps I am willing to grant that Cage has taken the trouble to lay down some rules, however unorthodox those rules may be, while there is too much of that do-your-own-thing self-absorbed (and drug-induced?) muddling in "Pharaoh's Dance." After all, once one becomes familiar with Cage's work, one can reflect on the journeys that emerged and perhaps even on some of the roads not taken. In "Pharaoh's Dance," on the other hand, it seems as if no one ever bothers to get up and go!

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