Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Listener’s Point of View of a Performer’s Point of View

Earlier this morning I cited the book Evenings On and Off the Roof: Pioneering Concerts in Los Angeles, 1939–1971 by Dorothy Lamb Crawford. This is a chronicle of a concert series that I came to know only about a quarter century following the end of the chronology cited in the title, when I had the opportunity to enjoy a stimulating evening of “new music” in the auditorium of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Through Crawford’s book I learned that, late in his life, Igor Stravinsky had become a “regular” audience member for the concerts in this series, even when his own music was not being performed! That same concert series also led to Pierre Boulez forming a high opinion of Los Angeles as a venue for experiencing adventurous new works by a wide diversity of composers.

Through this book my attention was directed to an early article in the Perspective of New Music journal, which had been contributed by Leonard Stein. (During my own time in Los Angeles, I knew Stein primarily as the Director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, which, at that time, was based on the campus of the University of Southern California.) The title of Stein’s paper was “The Performer’s Point of View;” and it involved how he, as a pianist, tried to deal with the complexities of many of the compositions that he had tried to prepare for performance.

Stein’s paper appeared in the Spring, 1963 issue of Perspectives, only the second issue to have been published. By 1963 there was a significant body of composers who felt that basic music notation was inadequate for what they wanted to create. There emerged a wild diversity of scores, some of which extended the expressiveness of traditional notation, others invented elaborate symbol systems (which required even more elaborate supplementary notes on how those symbols were to be interpreted), and still others were coming up with little more than graphic designs, often with few, if any, hints as to how those images should be interpreted as acts of performance.

As an aside, it is worth noting that five years later, in May of 1968, John Cage completed a book entitled simply Notations. The book consisted of single-page score samples provided to Cage (one by Cage himself) by 269 composers. Those samples were presented in alphabetic order of the composer’s last names. In addition, each composer was asked to provide a brief statement (no more than 64 words).  Each of those statements was then assigned to a specific page of the book on the basis of chance operations, meaning that (as far as I could tell) what the composer chose to say never ended up on the same page as the notation example (s)he had submitted.

Cornelius Cardew’s contribution was a page from his Treatise, described on his Wikipedia page as “a 193-page graphic score which allows for considerable freedom of interpretation.” Another composer who tried working with highly abstract graphics without any notes about the process of interpretation was Earle Brown. His “December 1952” from his Folio collection was such a piece. Given that interpretation was in the eye of the reader, the Composition Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music selected eight students to compose their respective interpretations of Brown’s abstract image; and, in July of 2016, the members of sfSoundGroup performed their interpretations of the scores created by the students (not all of which involved conventional notation). In such a context of diverse approaches to composition, Stein clearly had his work cut out for him in trying to establish and then document his “point of view” when confronted with such scores for performance.

For the most part, the article surveyed a sample of challenging score pages. In each case Stein began by considering what he had to read and proceeded from there to make a case for how decided to interpret what he had read as a keyboard performance. Ironically, however, Stein’s manuscript does not include a single instance of a word whose stem is “listen!” This recalled Milton Babbitt’s article about the growing distance between composers and listeners, which he published under the provocative title “Who Cares if You Listen?” (That title was misinterpreted by many, including at least one New York Times critic, to mean that Babbitt and his colleagues were contemptuous of audiences, failing to recognize that Babbitt was calling out a problem, rather than declaring a manifesto!)

This brings us back to Crawford’s book and a passage quoting the words of percussionist William Kraft. Boulez had come to Los Angeles to conduct a performance of his “Le Marteau sans maître.” Kraft described the first rehearsal as follows:
We assumed that Marteau had been mathematically conceived and mechanically notated. Certainly, it was not the product of the human mind and ear. When [Boulez] began the first movement with the count-off, “Un-deux-trois,” so rapidly as to sound like one word (perhaps the name of a new French perfume or liqueur), we simply froze—and said, “What did you say?” … He has since reduced the tempo marking of that movement from a quarter-note equals 208 to a quarter note equals 168. But it was when he sang our parts that the true shock hit us. The man knew what he had written. Furthermore, if it could be sung, albeit with the registral adjustment for the voice, it could be played. … My ears became so finely tuned that I could (and had to) hear what everyone else was doing.
In other words Boulez clearly knew how to listen to his own music, and a primary goal of rehearsal was to make sure that the players knew how to do the same.

However, this anecdote reveals a problem that is at least as significant as its account of a solution. What if the performers do not have access to someone with the experience of knowing how the music should sound? What if the composer is so committed to indeterminacy that (s)he has no “fixed point” for “how it should sound?” Given a score page in which the very act of interpretation may, itself, be indeterminate, what, if anything, can a performer to do bridge the act of performance with the act of listening on the other side of the proscenium?

There are no simple answers to any of these questions; and, most likely, there are not any complex ones either. Perhaps the shoe needs to be placed on the other foot. If an ensemble assembles to prepare a performance of “Marteau,” perhaps, before anyone picks up his/her instrument, the group, as a whole, should address the question of why they are playing the piece. The old mountain-climber’s answer (“Because it’s there.”) really doesn’t cut it. Performers are about to invest many hours of preparation time for what will be a half-hour experience on audience side. Assuming that they want something more than a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot reaction from their listeners, they cannot take the matter of audience response lightly.

This should not necessary be treated as a major cerebral undertaking. I have long felt that Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 7 (first) string quartet in D minor is, as I put it last December, “a major challenge for even the most dedicated serious listeners.” However, on that December occasion, the Telegraph Quartet prepared the audience with a “road map” of key themes and an overall sense of how the uninterrupted performance could be structured into the four traditional movements of a classical string quartet. Given only a few items of such expectation, the challenge ceased to be as daunting as I feared it could have been.

Without trying to raise any religious implications, I would like to suggest that the act of performance involves a Janus-faced pair of acts of communion. On the one hand there is the communion between the performers and the composer, which sometimes can enjoy being face-to-face but, more often than not, is mediated by marks on paper that need to be interpreted. However, that interpretation must than provide a basis for communion with the listeners. It is rarely the case that both of these acts of communion are simple or even straightforward. (If they were, they could be subjected to texting, rather than musical performance!) Thus, rather than worrying about how to care about listening, performers should simply own up to the fact that caring is rarely an easy matter and commit themselves to preparing, rather than surprising, their listeners.

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