On not Reading Music (1)

“I’ll teach you!” Pantelis volunteered as soon as we started calling each other “my other self” in late 2009.

For a person who has been thinking with music all his life, to be unable to read music represents a gap in my self-formation.  For a person who has been always fascinated by the apparatus/dispositif of classical music, to be unable to make sense of a music sheet is my major hermeneutic deficiency.  My situation is somehow the reverse of Virginia Woolf’s:  She knew the Greek language but not its meaning; I know the meaning of music but not its language.

I am aware that I am not alone:  I belong to a large number of people who find themselves in the same situation.  Like me, they are phenomenally passionate about classical music:  They collect performances of the Symphonie fantastique and live recordings of Mitropoulos, they attend Ring cycles around the world, they idolize divas, they have their recital programs autographed – and yet they cannot identify a single note on the page.

With consummate musician Pantelis Polychronidis as my teacher, I finally have a chance to overcome this embarrassing impediment.  I have already bought a few introductory books and I am waiting for him to find the right time to start our lessons.

Not that it has been a crippling problem.  I have compensated for my deficiency in many ways:  I have been reading on music history, sociology, and philosophy; I have been following debates about interpretation and performance; I have been exploring the lives of composers and musicians; and I remember more BWV, D, L, KV, and opus numbers than most specialists.

I am not a scholar, specialist, interpreter, or dilettante; I am a connoisseur who is simultaneously infatuated with music and intrigued by the conditions of its possibility, who is both enchanted by, and suspicious of, its cultural capital.  Being unable to read music, on the one hand I cannot comprehend its code but, on the other, I am free not to totalize the notes into a work and limit my listening to grasping its presumed inner depth.  For me, there is nothing original or authentic here.  Having no access to the page, I feel inspired to wonder whether the musical work is “reality or invention” and to move “beyond the score” to the cultural script, the performative occasion, and the “imaginary museum of musical works.”

As I follow Pantelis’ finger on a score, I am in total awe as to how this arcane notation is deciphered into the music we are listening to.  At the same time, my awe inspires me to study how the cultural practice of reading music has evolved into a mark of distinction, a discipline, a specialty, and a profession.

Nevertheless, I continue to look forward to learning how to decode the spell of the script.  It will be magical if one day a few simple pages (like those of Brahms’s Intermezzo no. 3, starting at 10:45 in the clip above) begin to make sense to me – though I have no idea how I might ever stop once I start reading scores!

14 August 2014

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