Précis on the role of a performer (part 1)

I believe it was Gunther Schuller that said something to the effect of “play exactly what I had written and nothing else” (if I am completely making this up, PLEASE let me know).

But basically I agree to a large extent with what Schuller was saying with respects to the role of a performer. This was one of the points I had made in my undergraduate thesis (titled “The Ethics of Performance Practice”) and this is pretty much how I try to approach composed works. Yes, ultimately the performance of a piece of music is a collaboration between composer and performer, but the roles are relatively clearly defined. The composer writes the notes, the articulation, and the phrasing; and the performer plays the notes, the articulation, and the phrasing.

Sometimes a performer will let his or her lack of technical proficiency dictate how a passage in a piece should be played. Other times, as in the case of e.g. Fitzenhagen, the abundance of technical proficiency will dictate how a perfomer “adds” to a piece (cf. Paganini & “Harold In Italy”). Obviously, the former parallels what happens when a performer lacks the technical proficiency to play outside of one, or a few genres of music; or the technical proficiency to play more than one, or a narrow range of instruments; or even read one, or a narrow range of musical notations. What exactly does it mean when, e.g., someone who can play tin pan alley songs only on the piano and can only learn the music by ear. In other words, what exactly does it mean to call this person a musician. This was a question I asked when I was finishing my Music degree in cello performance–what exactly does that qualification mean anyway? It confers a kind of legitimization, but by the time I finished my undergraduate work I hardly felt as if I knew that much about music. In fact, I still often feel that way–especially as I recently discovered the Turkish Yayli Tambur (see video below).

Ultimately, what’s at issue here is how much of the idiosyncrasies of the performer should dictate what a particular piece sounds like. In other words, how much of the idiosyncrasies of a performer’s ability to play should mold the shape of the piece outside of the composer’s written notation.

How much the composer’s intention is followed, and what role the performer has were central to my arguments in my thesis. Obviously, the interesting issue is how to re-produce (cf. Jacques Attali’s Representation) [sic] that intention. Or, to frame it in a more practical historical context, how a performance tradition teaches a performer how to re-produce a composer’s intention.

Putting aside all the issues of Authorial intentionality–which has always been more of a Eurocentric (and by “Eurocentric” I do include North American) Literary Critical viewpoint (see Patrick Hogan’s Ethnocentrism and the very Idea of Literary Theory)–we can easily imagine and even empirically test (more regarding that in a future post) what amounts to a form of cultural transmission through populations of performers.

For a majority of non-notated music (e.g. traditional folk tunes; improvised genres) the performing culture itself serves as the “composer” of the tunes. And this is where performing roles get interesting, I think. I reminded of a lesson I had with Hussam Al-Aydi on Arabic Taqasim some time ago. I had asked Hussam if there were particular patterns of pitches that get played often (I think I also asked him about modulation from maqam to maqam). He responded simply that I “have to feel it” which brings to mind a sentiment given by Justice Potter Stewart. This wasn’t particularly helpful to me at the time, though in retrospect I realize what a ridiculous question that was to ask him. It would have been comparable to me asking one of my cello professors if there are any particular arrangement of pitches in the cello concerto repertoire that I could practice to help me learn how to play concerti.

Maybe this is not quite the same thing as one (Arabic Taqasim) is an improvised genre while the other is a composed one (Western Classical Concerti) but I think the issue is that there’s really no way to completely say in words what can be said in music. There’s no unambiguous translation algorithm between languages much less between one form of expression (language) and another (music). We often have to resort to metaphors and metonyms to give some sense of the shape of our thoughts about music and what it is supposed to convey and how we’re supposed to convey it. This isn’t to say that anything we state about music will be ambiguous and absolutely vague anymore than, going back to Authorial intentionality, can we translate the meaning of any particular statement into anything we want to at a whim–there’s a core meaning or set of meanings there that are entirely determined by the text and, by extension, the author.


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