Where Music Ends and Interpretation Begins

Where Music Ends and Interpretation Begins

The recent discussion over last week’s duo of articles related to program text caused me to recall some of my first experiences with recorded music. I can’t remember ever having initially opted to glance at CD liner notes or explore the nooks and crannies of great LP art (so sad to have lost that 12-inch surface!), except for a few times in adulthood; what I do recall doing is excitedly listening to the recording over and over, until some facet of the music prompted me to read more about this talented Arditti Quartet or study every portrait used on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. In a sense, these album notes are almost equivalent to program notes, with the crucial difference that they come literally attached to the recording.

As a result, I experienced these bits of context not so much as notes, but—especially when they were penned by the musicians or composers—as part of the entire musical entity, if not music outright. I began to think about many aspects of musical compositions along these lines and wondered, are they part of the music too? Take the title: definitely part of the music, especially presuming this was a decision made by the composer/musicians. What about the album art? In the case of Sgt. Pepper’s I knew that the Beatles had relatively little to do with the extraordinary cover art but that it, too felt like it had also become part of the music—who could imagine Sgt. Pepper’s with a different cover? I also had the vague understanding that an essay by a respected musicologist prefacing a new Bach recording was context; but when the artists themselves created analysis, prefatory remarks, and other texts was this context as well? Or as products of the original artists are they best seen as part of the music itself? Am I obligated to accept Helmut Lachenmann’s interpretation of Grido on the same level that a performer is obligated to respect the dynamics he indicated in the score?

In new music, where the importance of context is absolutely crucial for the listener, where should the responsibility for this context fall? To ask a slightly different question, who is best equipped to provide this context: the composer, or a third party?

Since we composers have chosen a highly specialized profession, we certainly must take responsibility for communicating our work just as scientists and other specialists must take ultimate responsibility for communicating and disseminating their own findings. Also, as Chris Becker very aptly wrote last week:

Why shouldn’t a composer welcome the opportunity to take away the power of an uninformed critic or corporate media entity bent on passing along misinformation, and speak for their own music?

As composers we not only create music, but frequently the circumstances and types of audiences that will receive and pass judgment on our music, as well. As Chris notes, it would be nearly insane (or at least counterproductive) to pour all of one’s effort into creating great music and then failing to support it with the kinds of communication that will foster its reception, just as it would be equally insane to pour all one’s effort into a great piece and then do a lackluster, half-assed job of making the parts that will be the performers’ chief link to one’s musical intentions.

As composers come to have more responsibilities above and beyond creating music but utterly necessary for its successful reception—engaging in educational outreach, writing program notes, blogging about our activities, and the like—we seem to have hit a point where all of these undertakings become “part of the music”, too, rather than something ancillary to it. From this perspective, it certainly makes sense for composers to consider all the variables that go into the presentation of their music, including and especially how the audience is introduced to their work. That’s another reason that I’d like to see composers taking an active role in deciding how to present supportive context along with their compositions: if it’s part of the music, then they should compose it. Perhaps they will accomplish this with some written notes, or perhaps by walking onstage in a costume and striking up a conversation with the audience, or even by plunging the audience into darkness and croaking out an eerie ghost story as the first strains of the piece begin to resonate onstage—I’ve actually witnessed all three of these approaches, and I can only hope that composers continue to explore all the tools available to them in presenting live performances.

After all, while printed notes are sometimes the best option they are also the option that can most easily be recreated in a home listening scenario; why not give audiences an experience that capitalizes on the unique possibilities of the concert hall, and can’t be approximated with iPods and liner notes?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Where Music Ends and Interpretation Begins

  1. rskendrick

    Using every means possible to get the word out
    Dan, loved your post and this is a realization I’ve recently come to on my own. About a month and a half ago, I started blogging about new music, and it hit me last week, that it makes sense to occasionally blog about one of my pieces as another marketing tool for the piece and for me. I basically start with the program notes, and expand on the basic ideas with analogies to illustrate the point. Then I add some excerpts of the piece so the listener can see how the music relates to the blog post. My latest post talks about how Beethoven had a different sense of proportion, because he walked, and how many living composers are more apt to write compressed forms, due to the mere pace of our lives. If anyone is interested, you can check it out here – Beethoven Walked, We Text.

  2. wjmego

    That recent comment is beautiful, like haiku. It might be easy to miss at first…it’s meta-advertising. Doing so by talking about doing so by….
    Instead of drawing itself, the hands are blogging about themselves drawing/blogging. M.C. Escher would be pleased.


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