Score-Reading at Concerts

I gave a little cheer this morning reading my friend Greg Sandow, confirming something I absolutely believe:

What about serious musical scholars, who sit there [at concerts] reading scores? Now, I — speaking now as a musician, though not all musicians would agree with me — think that’s one of the worst ways to listen to music. You notice the trees, not the forest. You police the composition (and, above all, the performance), but you don’t truly hear it. You notice details, but you miss both the flow of the composition, and the sheer taste and impact of the sound.

Hooray again! Pompous Uptown critics who think Elliott Carter is the greatest thing since silced bread look down their noses at us critics who don’t read scores at concerts, but I used to do it, and I learned that afterward I was able to point to dozens of notes that were played wrong, but had completely missed the emotional impact of the performance, and had nothing to report that a non-musicologist would be interested in. In fact, I think it was the practice of score-reading during concerts among certain critics that fostered a kind of specious enthusiasm for 12-tone music; the stuff could be fascinating to watch, and you didn’t want to hear the emotional impact anyway. Now I’ll look at a score before a performance and again afterward, but never during, and I wouldn’t trust the judgment of any critic who listened to a work with his face buried in the score.

On the other hand, Greg’s plumping for a hand-held device called the Concert Companion, which can provide rolling program notes during a concert, keyed to events in the music. As a composer, if I knew that such a device was going to be applied to a new work of mine, I would meticulously avoid writing into the piece any event that could be described. (Hmm, sounds like the way I’m composing lately anyway.)

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