Another disconnect

Well, we seem to have moved from disconnects — classical music not connecting to the world around us — to ornamentation, and (this would be one way to put it) classical music not connecting to its own past. I’m happy to see so many comments, and I’ll have something of my own to add in not too long.

But I want to return for some last thoughts on disconnects, in this and one more post. I’ll also have to  make my tentative final list of disconnects, drawing on ideas from so many of you, which I hope you’ll also supply in reaction to the new list.

Here’s a thought, though, about somethingn fairly big that might belong on the list. It’s a disconnect about performance. In classical music, the point of performances — according to orthodox thinking — is to bring us to the music, which is defined as something more or less unchanging that lies behind all performances. So if I play a Beethoven piano sonata, Beethoven is more important than I am. My role is to realize his intentions. (Or is it His, with a capital H?)

But in other kinds of music, things are much more flexible. You go to a performance to see a show. You also go, more often than not, to see and hear a musician. The music the musician plays is music she’s written. And, when the music is jazz, music she’s written and also improvises on. So musicians play a much more creative role.

And no, I’m not saying that classical musicians aren’t creative, or that two performances of the same masterwork can’t differ from each other, or that we don’t often go to concerts because we want to hear a musician we like. I’m saying that, in the larger scheme of things, the musician — no matter how big a star she might be, no matter how much we’re attracted to hear her — is, in the last analysis, on stage to serve the composer. This gives them — as I think is evident, if we compare classical performances with pop or jazz — less flexibility, and a more circumscribed role.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Even in the 1950s, classical musicians had more personality — differend more from each other — than they do now, and in the 18th century, the music that wasn’t yet called classical functioned surprisingly much like the way pop functions now. You’d go to hear somebody play, and they’d play their own music. Very likely they’d play a new piece, something you hadn’t heard before. They’d improvise. (I’ve said all this before.)

So there’s the disconnect. Classical musicians have a much more limited conception of their role than pop or jazz musicians do, and it shows in their performance (and also in the relative formality of the classical concert setting). If classical music functioned more like music in other genres — or, to put it more strongly, if it satisfied the expectations people have developed from hearing other kinds of music — things would be looser, more expressive, and more flexible. And classical musicians would often play pieces they themselves had composed.

Which would be pretty wonderful, wouldn’t it? Especially the part about musicians composing. You’d go to a concert, and have a vivid encounter with a flesh and blood human being.

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  1. says

    (I hope I’m not blathering on too much in my recent comments; I’m finding these topics very stimulating and am, obviously, thinking out loud. My thoughts emerge non-succinctly, probably hard to digest or even read all the way through. It’s really helping me to clarify my own thinking.)

    You wrote about Christopher Small not long ago. In Muscking he says in Western classical music we mistakenly believe that performances exist to present works, but that the real nature of the shared musical experience is such that “works exist to give performers something to perform.”

    The great, mature solo performers of the 1950s–I’m a string player, so I’ll name Heifetz, Casals (well, he was semi-retired but still a huge force), Piatigorsky, Milstien, etc.–performed in an essentially romantic paradigm and came to prominence before WWII. What personalities! Those who came of age after the war were shaped by the modernist paradigm that was a reaction against romantic “excesses” and performer-centered, occasion-specific performance. What an interesting contrast David Blum’s Casals and the Art of Interpretation and Gunther Schuller’s The Compleat Conductor make, for example. Schuller’s modernist manifesto attacks thousands of specific instances of the sort of music making Casals advocated, taught, and modeled and Blum so expertly articulates.

    The effect of recording can’t be underestimated, either. Spliced-together, note-perfect recorded “performances” raised audience expectations for technical perfection in live performances.

    Teaching became more geared towards predictability and efficiency and producing competition winners. Woe to the Galamian student, for example, who dared to change a fingering! And I remember discussing young violinists and someone would say, “he plays the standard Galamian interpretation.” When I was briefly at Juilliard, many of the more experienced Rose students would talk about how “we” play such and such a piece. “We”! Group think! Rose’s assistant would tell me that my job was to learn to play pieces the way Rose played them, and when I asked about developing my own ideas, he told me, “You can think for yourself after you graduate.” (Which is why I left.)

    Competitions have had a lot to do with the dull-performance phenomenon. To win competitions, you generally have to play with technical perfection and in a way that doesn’t offend the judges. (I’ve always thought a big problem with most major competitions is that the jury is usually all people who play that instrument and, politics aside, have strong, strong feelings about how certain pieces should go that make it impossible to appreciate the merits of a sharply different interpretation.) Consequently, technically polished, middle-of-the-road interpretations that don’t push the envelope win competitions. I think this is changing, slowly, but it’s still a big factor.

    Eighteenth-century music-making was so different! So specific to particular occasions. No recordings to be compared to, no recordings of your own to have to live up to.

    I think you’re right on the money about performers playing their own music–that would really reclaim the spirit that’s alive in rock and which existed in abundance before the Texttreue modernist ethos took hold.

    But as Susan McClary points out in this video on the decline of improvisation, the rise of large public concerts and the development of the symphony orchestra as the ideal ensemble had a lot to do with this decline as well. To sell tickets to a symphony orchestra concert, you have to give the audience something (most of) it knows it wants, at least most of the time, and as symphony orchestras grew in size and budget, marketing great works became more and more important. This was as true in the latter 19th century as it is true now.

    Those more flexible, occasion-specific, informal performances of the 18th century (and the early 19th century) were possible in large measure because so many of them didn’t have to be commercially successful. Music played as quasi-background music at court, or in a small private performance, was dependent only on a wealthy patron, not on attracting a large middle-class audience. Look at the difference between an mid-18th century opera house and the Met.

    Predictability and middle-class audience comfort became increasingly important as economic realities, and that (along with genuine artistic ideals)led to the increased reliance on a canon of great works.

    Once the canon was established, to succeed as a performer/composer you had to write works that were at an extraordinarily high level,high enough to actually enter the canon, and were audience-friendly (i.e., tonal). Rachmaninoff was able to do it (and even his career was before WWII), but who else? Fritz Kreisler comes to mind; yet his works were charming recital pieces rather than concerti.

    The level of music produced by (speaking of cellists) Bernard Romberg (who turned down Beethoven’s offer of a concerto because he played his own!), David Popper, George Goltermann, etc., all successful 19th-century virtuosi who performed their own compositions, couldn’t have cut it in the 20th century. I am convinced their performances must have been riveting and that their music seemed better in their performances than it does today, when no one suggests they are A-list compositions. One of my teachers, a student of Piatigorsky, told me that Piatigorsky said that with such music the performer’s job was to play it so well, with so much feeling and respect, that it would sound like great music.

    Along these lines, my speculation is that even some of Beethoven’s improvisations may have been extraordinarily powerful in the moment, but if you wrote them down and someone else played them they might be more “Wellington’s Victory” than “Eroica” caliber.

    I think another factor in the decline of performer-composers is the fact that there wasn’t anyone teaching people to write audience-friendly (i.e., tonal) music once the dodecaphonic and experimental movements took over. The modernist, textually strict approach to performing, which took Stravinskian/Schoenbergian ideals and projected them backwards, scared people off of even doing transcriptions and arrangements (something Heifetz and Piatigorsky, for example, did a lot of), as well as highly individualistic performances.

    The main point I wanted to make here is that the degree of flexibility and individuality of 17th and 18th century performance had a lot to due with smallness of the venues, the lack of a canon, and the lack of a need to sell lots of tickets. Today, that kind of flexibility and originality requires small venues, or unique events in larger venues, and performers and listeners who are not not obsessed with the canon. Whether you’re sick of it, rejecting it, or just going beyond it . . . how do I say this? The 18th century “classical” music world operated in a pre-canon paradigm. Today’s originality is coming from people operating in a post-canon paradigm.

    Eric, my friend — you’re not babbling at all. You’re saying important things. I very much agree about what made performer composition work in past centuries. Nobody had a dozen Haydn symphonies on recordings at home, so when a charming musician showed up playing his — or in many cases her (but we’ve forgotten that) — compositions, they stood on their own, without much to compare them to.

    But as we move toward the post-canon paradigm, let’s not forget that performers today who might like to compose also have the same models before them that the audience does. That can — and does — seem intimidating. “How can I compose anything when I know how good [fill in the name of a favorite composer] is?” But at the same time, that’s a model of how to compose, so musicians who start composing may well be aiming higher than their colleagues in the 18th century did. And the birthday concert for Joan Tower which I blogged about here, for which she demanded that four of her musician friends write pieces, shows how successful musicians can be as composers, if they only sit down and try.

  2. Ken Nielsen says

    I am not sure how we got into this position, though I do believe it is a dead-end. As Eric suggests, recordings probably trained audiences to expect a predictable, error-free performance. In a Beethoven Quartet Cycle I was involved in a while ago (not as a player) after each concert there was a patch session to remove extraneous noises, including page turnings, as well as mistakes.

    I believe a way out is for presenters to convince audiences of the drama and excitement of a live performance. It is an adventure, not really to be compared to listening to a recording. Such a pitch would, I believe, appeal to younger – well, under 50 – audiences.

    Ken, I think audiences are more than ready for exciting live performances, even if they’re flawed. The problem is that, for all the reasons you and others have said, performers are too cautious, too unwilling to go for broke. But I think we’ve all been in concert halls (and clubs, and cabarets, and theaters, and arenas, and stadiums) when a thrilling live performance happens, and heard the wild outburst of applause that follows. People just get swept away — and they want that to happen.

  3. Robert Berger says

    As I’ve pointed out before, the notion that today’s musicians are so pedantically literal, timid, conformist, and lacking in “personality” and “individuality”, is a myth.

    I wish I had a dollar for every review I’ve read in the past forty years or so,ever since I became an enthusiast for classical music as a teenager, in which some critic mercilessly lambasted this or that conductor, pianist, violinist or singer etc, for all the liberties he or she took with the music, including many eminent living musicians, and young ones such as Lang Lang and Gustavo Dudamel. This is a paradox of massive proportions. If musicians today are so literal and lacking in individuality, why are there so many reviews lambasting them for all the liberties they take.

    And there are many eminent cnductors, violinists, singers, pianists etc, who are anything but carbon copies of each other.

  4. says

    Coming at this discussion as a philosopher who is interested in music rather than as a musicologist and musician, as most folks leaving comments here seem to be, I find the discussion of what counts as faithfulness in interpretation and how one improvises fascinating: questions of interpretation are of course important to philosophy, and especially the philosophy of art, but we usually try to avoid getting our hands dirty in anything much beyond bare generalities.

    Michel Foucault once remarked at the odd fact that although many professional philosophers are deeply conversant and intimately involved in contemporary literature and visual arts there is a pervasive disconnect — to borrow Greg’s phrase — with contemporary music (although it is not universal, the only first rate philosophers of the twentieth century I can think of off the top of my head for whom this isn’t true are Theodor Adorno — who died in the 60s — and Edward Said contrast to the nineteenth century where it would be difficult to think of a philosopher who wasn’t conversant in music — if we wiggle the limits of the 19th century a bit, the exception would be Kant who was notoriously unappreciative of music — and where I imagine I could easily name a dozen for whom music figured importantly in their philosophy).

    The reason that I bring this up is that although I am well aware of the ways in which philosophy suffers from being intimately involved with contemporary music, I wonder whether musical performance doesn’t also suffer. I don’t mean anything as strong as a claim that musicians are unaware of contemporary issues in the philosophy of music, or even of philosophy, but simply that the worlds of academic philosophy and musical performance (and even, largely I would suspect, academic music) are not often in dialog. No doubt many musicians are aware of the philosophical problems with the idea of faithful interpretation, but would it effect how performers deal with these problems if they were regularly dialoging with people enmeshed in these problems on a theoretical level?

    I once interviewed for an endowed chair (the only endowed chair I’ve ever seen at the Assistant Professor level, which is why I could get an interview for it!) for an aesthetician at a prominent visual arts college. The idea was that they didn’t just want someone who would teach theory but someone whose approach to theory would have an impact on how students did art. Is there a similar sensibility in music?

  5. says


    I would be shocked to find more than a handful of philosophers who aren’t “conversant in music.” Many of them are conversant in popular music rather than classical, and Foucault was probably a classical music chauvinist if he didn’t think popular music should count. Also bear in mind that much of the philosophizing _about_ music is handled by people who call themselves Musicologists. Although I would certainly be receptive to the argument that musicologists who want to engage in aesthetic philosophy should have a firmer grounding than they sometimes do in basic philosophy.


  6. says

    @Ammon Allred: Your’e so right about the philosophical issues and the contributions made by philosophers. The most fascinating works on the nature of musical works and the interpetive process, as well as the relationship of improvisation to work performance, are by philosohpers, not musicians. Bruce Ellis Benson’s The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music and Lydia Goeher’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works are he two books which spring immediately to mind. Benson reviews various theories of the ontological status of musical works and makes a strong arguments that the phenomenological reality is that performers are co-creators with composers, no matter what they think is (or wish was) going on.

    The problem with these books, at least in terms of direct impact on the conversations musicians have, is that they are written for other philosophers and are hard for even the most interested musician to work through.

    Lydia — the daughter of composer Alexander Goehr — is a terrific example of a philosopher who knows music very well. Rare as that is, unfortunately. There’s also a branch of philosophy called philosophy of music, which Lydia somewhat decimates in the book Eric cites. Though certainly philosophers of music do know something about classical music — one of their weaknesses being that some of the most prominent don’t seem to know enough about any other kind.

  7. says


    I certainly wouldn’t want to overstate the case that philosophers aren’t “conversant” with music (I had hoped that the claim “deeply conversant” would cover the difficulty but perhaps that still overstates the case.) The question becomes whether being conversant amounts to a real conversation, and how deep that conversation goes…

    In the 19th century, it wasn’t just that there were many first rate philosophers writing about music (something that is still true but much less true than the visual arts or literature) but that a lot of first rate philosophy directly grew out of a conversation that music was part of, and vice-versa. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard didn’t just write about music — music shaped what their philosophy looked like. Kierkegaard’s first work is shaped by considerations of Mozart, especially Don Giovanni. And Nietzsche’s discipleship under Wagner shapes his entire approach to philosophy, even though he rejects Wagner’s influence in his mature philosophy. Granted, those are arguably the two most idiosyncratic philosophers of the 19th century, but far more mainstream philosophers like Hegel and Schopenhauer relied on their deep familiarity with music to make sense of their philosophical projects.

    And it’s equally true that their writing about music shaped music. (One need merely think of Nietzsche’s influence on Strauss or, earlier, Kant’s gigantic influence on all Romanticism).

    I think the claim Foucault is making is that that this sort of deep conversation (being shaped by a dialog) doesn’t take place anymore, whereas it does in the visual arts and poetry. To say he’s biased against contemporary music is exactly the point. It’s a bias he isn’t alone in sharing. Are there people who are enmeshed in both worlds? Sure. But they are comparatively rare.

    Does turning to pop music help matters? I don’t think so. Of course lots of philosophers are familiar with pop music, but there’s even less of a dialog there. And, to make a blanket assertion that I think could be empirically verified, aestheticians have a tendency to be more conservative in their musical taste than they are in their taste in literature and the visual arts (there seems to be a presumption that musical examples need to be drawn from “canonical” works in classical music and jazz music, a presumption not made with regards to literature and the visual arts where the avant-garde and the new is far more welcome …)

    And I have no doubt that musicologists are doing some of this work (that’s why I’ve enjoyed reading blogs like this one so much), but what I’m wondering is how the fact that this dialog happens solely within the “music world” shapes what the dialog is capable of whereas it used to happen between disciplines (not just philosophy, but across the humanities — would a contemporary Proust or Mann turn to a musician for their cultured archetype? I very much doubt it. The visual artist has taken the musician’s place.)

    Eric, thanks for the book pointers. I’d heard of the Benson book but haven’t read it.