On The Nature of The Musical Art

We’ll define art music (serious music) as written music that is not significantly extemporaneously embellished during performance. It may be written in a language specific to a culture, although Western music notation is understood globally. Here we are primarily addressing Western art music, which exists uniquely as the written musical score. Being written, each opus is a permanent entity, the musical work of art.

Certainly, the above is a narrow view of musical art, restricted to a single genre that we usually call classical music. The classical composer does not leave very much to the interpreter’s discretion, as compared with other genres that invite the performer’s ideas to enter the music-making via various degrees of improvisation. For example, for songs perhaps only the words and chords are indicated and the artists elaborate on the vocal and accompaniment parts. For jazz, the performer takes a theme and improvises with free variations, making each performance of a work notably different. But in the following, let’s focus on the classical genre as defined.

All music involves a relationship of sound with respect to time and tonal space (depth aka polyphony). In classical music, the composer-prescribed movement of sound in the time dimension is responsible for the basic dynamic nature of musical art. Music arrives at our ears as sequences of prescribed sounds in a prescribed rhythm, each sound (musical note) generated by an instrument of prescribed timbre. These sounds arrive at listeners’ ears as vibrations in the air generated by the performing instruments. (Some rare musical talents may be able to view the musical score and ‘hear’ the music as if it were being performed. Here I am speaking of the remainder of us.)

For listeners, the main variables in the musical experience are the notes (pitch, loudness, timbre, duration, emphasis) and their spacing in time (usually involving polyphonic parallelism); the listener’s musical intelligence; the performer’s skill and insight. For vocal music, the words also influence the experience. Removing the lyrics from consideration, the significant variables in instrumental music are then the notes and musical instructions from the score, the performers and their instruments, and the listener, all within the halo of the musical sensibilities of each of these participants.

We can view a painting, sculpture, or poem directly and interpret it ourselves via our eyes, brains, and acquired experience. Music is unique among the art forms in requiring performance via an interpreting artist. The musical language of a work must be understood by the performer, and ideally by the listener as well. But increasingly rarely does one interpret a musical work by oneself. Performers’ different interpretations of a work add a secondary dynamism to the musical art.

Until recently, the listener needed to be in the presence of the performers to experience music. Now, we are able to record the music and reproduce it electro-mechanically with great fidelity. The down side of this modernization is that we no longer regularly involve ourselves in the performance; we have become listeners only. Many take this to an additionally removed plane and simply let the sound wash over them passively, hearing but not listening or interpreting.

Because we are discussing composer-prescribed (written) classical music, there is a third and often ignored layer of dynamism in the musical art, that of the score editors, who interpret the composer’s original score and then publish a version to be used by performers. Various ‘editions’ of an opus can exist at the same time, corresponding to editors’ differing interpretations, as funded by different publishing companies.

As cultures and norms evolve, there can be further evolution of score editions to reflect these norms. Some editions evolve significant changes to the opus, including even re-orchestration to modernize or otherwise improve the sound texture. After a couple of centuries of such ‘editioning’, what we hear now may not much resemble the work as heard by the composer.

Beginning around the 1980s, a few experimental performers developed an interest in looking back to the composer’s original manuscript, then reproducing the music as written, using authentic ‘period’ instruments resembling those available to the composer. This spawned a new interest in publishing urtext editions of each opus, aiming at canonical representation of the composer’s wishes and intent, while removing perhaps centuries of traditional varnish.

As may be expected, there are now competitive urtext editions of many works, as several editors (and their publishers) have jumped into this ur-thicket. While their scholarship is appreciated (when it is made available to performers), these ur-efforts must overcome serious issues. For example, original manuscripts were often sketchy. The first published editions, often approved by the composer, cleaned up many of the manuscript inconsistencies and errors. Further, urtext publishing will likely not be able to capture period performance practices, such as players ornamenting their written parts during performance, or changing the durations of the written notes.

Beyond the buzz of a new fad, urtext as canonical representation is a shaky premise, undermined by layers of dynamism in the musical art. One cannot presume that the composer had a fixed intent and that this intent did not vary across the composer’s lifetime. Original period performers interpreted scores differently than our current performers have been trained to do. Each ur-editor will have a slightly different take on the composer’s intent. Most significantly, each current performer will continue as usual, picking and choosing from myriad (and now hopefully wider-ranging) nuances to provide the interpretation that best suits his/her personality and understanding.

Ultimately, the urtext legacy will consist primarily of awareness-arousing scholarship, happily jolting performers, from their hide-bound thinking, into the imagining of new possibilities with roots in a time and circumstance familiar to the composer. Who knows, maybe the world may once again be able to experience Beethoven’s classical roots.

We, the listeners, will benefit from a widening range of interpretations, increasing the probability of finding the one that most matches our sensibilities. And thanks to modern digital recording technology, that specific performance, for each of us, becomes our canonical version of the musical opus, with listener, performer, and composer in harmonious agreement, each feeling the love.

We’ll finish here by exploring more fully one person’s subjective requirements for a canonical classical musical recording. My judgement parameters are emotional restraint, tempo moderation, energy, revelation, transparency, balance, maximized flow of line, nuance, good sound, close perspective.

Overt emoting by performers often compromises transparency, balance, and nuance. I prefer performers to illuminate and suggest, but to leave some of the emoting to the listener, to build into the performance some emotional headroom by not completely filling the feeling space. Of course the emotional heights of a piece must be captured by the performer. But understatement can also be a powerful means of expression in its own right.

Tempo issues are my main criteria for outright rejecting performances. Western music has a history of using Italian verbal cues for tempo, which serve to provide latitude in tempo interpretation (unless the composer provides accompanying metronome markings). Each musical thought seems to have a tempo sweet spot at which the music seems most expressive. This subjective sweet spot varies by type of music, and by listener.

A tempo that seems too slow makes one feel restrained and destroys movement and expression. A tempo that seems  too fast makes one feel rushed and destroys articulation and expression. Usually, prior experience with a recording will imprint our minds with a sense of appropriate tempo for the music. This becomes our sweet spot until a subsequent version impresses us with its freshness and convinces us of a better tempo concept.

I always opt for the more energetic performance, even occasionally at the expense of sweetness and beauty. Here energy does not mean drama. I am undramatic, which is why I am not particularly an opera fan. Energy is an ephemeral quality, best described as bringing the music to life.

An energetic performer will dig into the notes rather than skating across the surface, gaining traction in the quest for maximal expressiveness. Such energy derives from the performers’ passion for the music and insight into how to create dynamism in the performance. Just as conversation can range from flat to animated, so can musical performance range from just playing the notes to captivating the audience.

Dynamic flow is one aspect of energy. Without flow, music can seem lifeless. Tempo is critical, as is phrasing, the nuanced use of accents, rhythm, attention to inner voices, and interplay between instrumental sections. Optimal tempo and phrasing combine to set free the melodic content, allowing it to sweep us along with it.

I also want to hear all that’s going on in the music. A conductor who succeeds in creating transparency helps the audience hear all the polyphony. Sensitivity to integrating the inner voices of the music into the overall performance can enhance transparency through insightful balancing of the orchestral timbres.

Recording engineering plays a big role in listening enjoyment. Given two otherwise equal interpretations, I will choose the recording that places me closest to the musicians. This typically provides a dry recorded sound, with less recording hall reflected sound. Listening on headphones then places me among the musicians on stage, a unique and enjoyable perspective. When listening on my main audio rig, my listening room provides coloration and a sense of space, a different perspective.

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