Saturday, August 26, 2006

Seeds of Decline and Resurgence

Greg Sandow closes Episode 9 "Improvised Delights" (the most recent one as I write) of his online book-in-progress, The Future of Classical Music, with the following:

So am I urging us to return to some 18th century (or early 19th century) paradise? Hardly. There were many problems then. Performances, by our standards, were very likely bad. Again by our standards, they were barely rehearsed. Writers of the time complain about singers and instrumentalists who introduced too many ornaments, making the music unrecognizable. (Note Brahms's caution: Singers should only change the music if their changes didn't hurt it.) Singers carried around "baggage arias," as they were called (because their music was, as Stendhal says, "carried around permanently, as it were, like a change of underwear"), which they'd introduce into every opera they sang. 18th century orchestras seem to have improvised, with, sometimes, all the violinists individually--and, you'd think, cacaphonically--adding their own embellishments of the written violin line.

But let me say it again. The spirit of those long-lost days is something we ought to recapture. At the very least, we ought to know that we've lost it. And by losing it--by evolving the concept of classical music, in which improvisation was all but illegal--we may have sown the seeds for classical music's current decline.
One of the things I've been thinking about lately is that part of the lack of creativity in much current classical music performance results from the fact that our current cultural understanding of classical music doesn't allow for the sorts of embellishments and improvisations that were culturally accepted two hundred years ago. And this isn't true just in the performance of music by dead white guys from Vienna. Almost all contemporary classical, or art, music is written with a cultural understanding of "play the score exactly as written."

In other words, few classical composers write their music in a way that allows for embellishment or other forms of improvisation and co-creation when it comes to the notes themselves. Back in the 1970s (which seems to have been the heyday of this genre) aleatoric music did allow for considerable latitude and creativity on the part of the performers. And that's the main reason I always enjoyed playing it.

But aleatoric music was also relentlessly atonal, often lacked any sense of definite, sustained pulse, and so didn't "catch on," so to speak, with audiences or performers in any widespread sense.

As started to explore in my posts last spring, there is much more to this phenomenon than evolving practice. Underlying it are fundamental notions of the roles of performers and composer, of the nature of a musical "work," of intellectual ownership of a piece of music, and the point of concerts and recordings (are they more about the performer or "the music"?).

The "seeds of classical music's decline," as Greg puts it, include not only the loss of a culture in which performers were allowed to embellish/alter the written text of a musical work, but just as importantly the loss of the performer/composer.

I'll explore this more in another post. But to put it briefly, my hypothesis is this: as art-music composition moved into atonal realms, successful performers stopped composing. As universities and colleges expanded in the 20th century, they became the new patrons of composers, who no longer needed to write music that appealed to audiences. It became impossible to survive in academia as a composer if one wrote in a tonal style, or even to receive respect from the musical intelligentsia. And pretty soon there was no one to teach performers to compose in an accessible style, performers would be embarrassed to compose in an accessible style, and the art of writing genuinely accessible music, and having it written by performers who regularly connect with audiences, was essentially lost.

That's all quite over-simplified, of course, and there are certainly exceptions, but I think in the broad outline it's a pretty accurate observation.

All the concerns about being "faithful to the composer" and feeling guilty if one departs from the exact details of a written score can vanish when the performer is the composer. And when the composer leaves room for the performer's creativity, rather than viewing performers as Straviskian "executants."

And so at least some of the seeds of classical music's resurgence will be encouraging new music that is accessible, that purposely invites and encourages the creativity of performers, and in encouraging performers to compose and composers to perform.

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