On not Reading Music (2)

Why should I read music?

If in most of my life I have been an above-average connoisseur of many kinds of music, especially classical, and if I have no aspirations to play an instrument (which I don’t), why would I want to read music?  Since a musical piece consists not in its notation but in the actualization of the notation in performance, to the extent that I am a well-trained and systematic listener of performances, what would I gain by scrutinizing a silent score?  As I claimed in my previous post under this title, my inability to read a score frees me from the metaphysics of the original, the authentic, the intentional, and other aesthetic fetishes, allowing me to concentrate on the unique materiality and occasionality of each performance.  Why start limiting myself to written sources?*

One answer is that reading what musicians read will enable me to trace how, drawing on a particular “music theory,” they decode and interpret composers’ instructions for what sounds to make when.  I am aware of widely different actualizations of the same score.  If I can read its notes through a particular theorization (identical to, or compatible with the one performers use), I will be able to explore what it is that different performers do (with the same score & music theory) to come up with different results — what their starting point/material is, and with how much freedom/legitimacy they claim to treat it as they do.  It is not a matter of understanding the depth/meaning of the work but of acquiring another layer of understanding by becoming familiar with the interpretive techniques that mobilize the score and make a “work” materialize.

I can illustrate what I mean with a glorious scene near the end of the movie Amadeus (1984), where the gravely ill Mozart is mentally composing, and at the same time dictating to Salieri, the “Confutatis maledictis” from his Requiem (1791).  What makes this scene riveting to me is that, while composing a sublime section that thrills audiences, Mozart is not elaborating on content/message of any kind.  He is not after any religious, existential or other “meaning.”  It is all a matter of compositional technique:  He is only thinking in notes as he is setting Latin words to music for just another commission.  Salieri does exactly the same.  As Professor Ball remarked in our private correspondence, “when Salieri says ‘I don’t understand’ and ‘You’re going too fast,’ I take it not that he doesn’t understand ‘the notes’ that Mozart is telling him to write down, or that Mozart is simply talking too fast, but that the notes don’t seem like ‘obvious’ or ‘sensible’ things to write down, given Salieri’s understanding of music theory in that moment (since they don’t ‘make sense’ theoretically, he can’t remember it all at the speed Mozart is talking).”  Here, then, is why I want to be able to read a score:  I would love to figure out in some basic way which techniques enable performers to go from Mozart’s coded combination of signs & their grammar to the music listeners like me hear.

A different reason for reading music is suggested by Virginia Woolf’s “On not Knowing Greek” (1925), which I mentioned in my previous post.  If we take into account that, as it has been amply documented, Woolf knew Greek well and enjoyed reading and studying it, it becomes clear that she was interested not in fully knowing it but in delaying knowing it.  My dear friend and colleague at Michigan, Yopie Prins, notes that “the very strangeness of Greek, its uknowability, also provokes a strange desire to know it” (Ladies’ Greek, p. 44).  Furthermore, “the experience of reading Greek leaves one speechless, and in suspense.  Such a state of suspension is precisely where Woolf wanted the reader (herself, ourselves) to be” (44).  The point was not to improve or perfect Greek but to master the technique of letting Greek leave one in aporetic suspense.  Knowing Greek was the life-long self-discipline of learning it, the practice of translating it in various codes and media.  Greek was an ascesis of self-formation, not an object or destination.

In the same vein, I may claim that reading a score would help me know the very uknowability of music.  It would enable me not to understand music better but to comprehend why there is no music as such to conquer.  I would realize how much of what we call a “composition” has been left necessarily uncomposed.  I would master its notation while sustaining its unmasterable language.  Paradoxically, reading music would bring me closer not to the score but to the next performance.

* I owe these and many more probing questions to Professor Eric Ball, an exceptional theoretician and practitioner of music making, who has been honoring me with his interest in my blog.  This post draws on our correspondence on my earlier post, “On not Reading Music” (1).

2 October 2019

This entry was posted in Classical Music, Greek, Listening and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.