Mistaken Identity

In response to my post on classical musicians rejecting scores for being deficient in dynamic markings, a fellow blogospheroid objects,

Since a score is just a set of instructions for performers, surely it’s not unreasonable to expect that a composer will tell the performers what he wants – say whether it’s supposed to be loud or soft and where…. Otherwise, at least in my experience, something like that is the first thing the players want to know – with good reason, I think. So leaving it all out just ends up wasting time later when the issue has to be addressed.

What an eminently reasonable argument! How could anyone take issue with it? But it embodies a modernist classical assumption that I don’t share: that a composer is required to decide in advance what the volume levels of every moment of his music should be, and to deny the performer the right to intuitively shape the music himself. What is the correct dynamic of “Summertime”? What’s the dynamic level of Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti? What is the correct dynamic level of Bach’s Violin Chaconne (since the manuscript shockingly omits dynamic markings)?

Whatever else it was, Downtown music was always, always, since those first bizarre concerts at Yoko Ono’s loft, an attempt to create a music in-between high and low art. Rather than superficially combine elements from classical music with those from pop and jazz (though it has certainly done that often enough too), it more often aimed at a new kind of music whose ontological status was in-between classical and jazz: free enough that performer decisions and interpretation might once again play an important role, but still structured enough that the piece would have a strong identity from performance to performance. Aiming for a point halfway between “Summertime” and Philomel, Downtown musicians didn’t want their pieces to become mere templates for an improviser to redefine in his own style, but – most of all – neither did they want to be stuck in the restrictive modernist classical paradigm of the total, reified sound object of which every nuance was thought out in advance.

Yet rather than see the looseness of Downtown music as a move in the direction of freedom from conceptual straitjackets, and a laudable attempt to break through a debilitating cultural impasse, academic and orchestra musicians invariably, invariably compare it with that classical paradigm and thus interpret it as merely deficient, unfinished, incompetent – except for those few pieces that become famous, like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, which, oddly enough, cease to seem incomplete once they are performed so brilliantly and so often.

[I might also note the classical/orchestral assumption embedded in my respondent’s comment that “So leaving it all out just ends up wasting time later…” – that the rehearsal of music should be a quick, efficient process, and that taking the extra energy to try out different interpretations is a waste of time. This is why a lot of composers won’t bother writing for orchestra.]