Uncertainties

In today’s New York Times, Paul Griffiths — a very poetic academic critic, if that mélange of qualities makes any sense — writes about doubts in playing music. He’s explaining Brice Pauset, a French composer, who, since he’s an early-music keyboard player,

spends a lot of time with Couperin, Bach, and Schubert, who for him offer no safe haven. Like other practitioners of “historically informed” performance, he lives in a world where important questions — of ornamentation, tuning, authentic text — must remain forever uncertain…

Nicely put, and quite evocative. Except that, to me, it’s a good example of classical music staying timidly inside its own boundaries. The “important questions” Griffiths mentions may be uncertain, in the sense that there’s debate over them, but they’re also quite objective. That is, you can talk about precise choices in ornamentation (starting trills from above or below, to pick a very simple example). You can talk about the precise frequency that musicians in the 18th century might have tuned to. You can point to published editions of old music that, in your view, come closest to the printed text.

But what’s far more uncertain is how the music ought to feel, and what it means. Why are we playing it at all? How do we feel about it? Why should anyone come to hear us? How do our 21st century emotions differ from 18th century emotions, and what should we do about the differences? Why, with classical music’s future possibly doubtful, should anyone care what we do?

Those, to me, seem like greater uncertainties. I used to tease my sister, who for many years was a professional violinist, specializing in Baroque violin. She’d work out her own path through the uncertainties Griffiths talks about, and others like them. She did this expertly, and with great artistic honor, but I thought she only touched the surface of the many questions older music raises. Since she specialized in French Baroque music, I’d tease her about the way the aristocrats at the king’s palace in Versailles used to pee behind the stairs. What would that tell us about how they played music? How can we understand how they played music, when so many things about their everyday lives are almost inconceivable to us?

I also think of younger classical musicians I know (my Juilliard students, for instance, or younger players in major orchestras), who’ll often say that their friends don’t understand what they do. These friends don’t care about classical music. So this is another uncertainty — how do you understand your professional life, when it involves public performance for people who conspicuously don’t include your friends?

What kills me, though, about Griffiths’s piece is that he goes on to say that Pauset’s “own music has come to have the same shadowiness” as Baroque music. And in saying that, he turns out to be addressing precisely the questions I thought he ignored about Baroque pieces. “Urban melancholic is the tone” of Pauset’s composition, he says. “City streets turn out to be just as dimly lighted, dangerous and seductive as candle-lit chambers…”

He’s painting a picture of what Pauset might mean to us, moving far beyond the technicalities he thought were so uncertain when Pauset plays older stuff. It’s curious, in fact, to see how Griffiths shifts his ground. When he talks about uncertainties in older music, they’re all factual. We don’t know exactly what pitch to tune to. And when he talks about uncertainties in new music, they’re aesthetic — the music sounds dim, seductive, and dangerous, with a tone that sounds, at least as I read what Griffiths wrote, a little bit like film noir.

I’d like to hear Pauset’s music (which means, by the way, that Griffiths did his job as a critic; he got me interested). But I wish we’d move beyond a largely technical understanding of older music, and start addressing its artistic uncertainties, which to me loom far larger than anything uncertain about music being written now.

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