Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Where is the music?

I listened to a radio recording of a concert, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela playing Shostokovich’s Tenth Symphony in last summer’s Proms. I've heard the symphony on CD and it may be just the crudity of my musical sensibility but I found this performance especially powerful, and the players’ apparent passion infectious.

That’s not the point I want to make here, though, which concerns not that piece or that performance but something more general about music. I think it relates most particularly to classical music, though I'm open to correction on that from those better attuned to rock and pop, who came of age before they really happened.

The recording was of a live event and there were people coughing. Perhaps mainly one person, but it was bloody annoying--until I realised that if I listened properly it didn’t spoil the experience. I couldn’t block out the coughing but I could get myself to hear it on a different wavelength or on a different channel. The music belonged to another dimension and was unaffected by extraneous sound; it continued on its predetermined course regardless. The coughing belonged to a trivial sublunary world onto which this entity (Shostakovich’s) had dropped from space, its receptors deaf to worldly noise. Descended, it calmly laid out its site and in its own time and at its own pace unfolded its vast and complex construction.

It was a thing of another order come amongst us. Although manifested in sound, it was also an architecture, its reality residing as much in its abstract structure as in its audible material embodiment. It occupied time, but at another level made its own time, setting up its own measures of fast and slow, hurrying and loitering, patient attending and nervous interrupting. We were in the presence of a contingent incarnation of a timeless abstraction that had for the occasion made itself flesh. It was relentless, impersonal, beyond our reach (while apparently alluding to and actually evoking human emotion).

The effect of the coughing was to enforce awareness of the incommensurability of our world of accidents and sensual experience and the abstract structure and system that was being provisionally and partially translated into something our ears could follow. Presumably that gap is discernible at any live performance where instruments are at different distances from us and there’s some ambient noise, and even in a studio recording in which individual players and their particular instruments make sounds that are unique to them and perhaps unique to that day. At best they are alluding to something the nature of which we grasp not with our ears but with fleeting intuition.

Perhaps what intrigues us about music is its always ambiguous status. Which is real, the underlying idea or its ‘realisation’ in a performance? (A misguided way of thinking, as if the triangle I draw on a piece of paper is more real than the triangle it’s a drawing of—concepts are real but immaterial.) The same score generates many performances: are they like drawings of it? But the score is only a notation, not a likeness. A notation of what, then? The composer’s intended sound-structure? But what if a conductor, while staying faithful to the score, produces a performance that the composer hadn’t envisaged? And how do we know that the composer had anything particular in mind? Are the performances equally valid creations, as if the score is one creation, in one medium, and the performance a second, in another? (Here’s entity A, the score, and also in the world are entities B1, B2, B3, performances.) Or are the performances alternative stabs at catching the true music? This is bewildering. There is indeed something there behind the performances, and for all the physical reality of the latter (sound waves affecting our senses) we have to accord the status of reality to the composition that gives rise to them.

Or is all that just hopelessly pretentious? I'm not sure.

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