Participatory listening

I call “participatory” the creative listening where we are invited to contribute actively to our musical experience as opposed to sit back and absorb it.  In participatory listening we are expected to play an energetic role in the creation of the actual music work.

My favorite classical genre of participatory listening is the piano paraphrase, which was invented by Franz Liszt and remained popular in the concert hall between 1830s-1930s.  It is commonly associated with composers Thalberg, Gottschalk, Tausig, Busoni, Godowsky, Sorabji, Stevenson, and Finnissy, and with pianists Horowitz, Cherkassky, Bolet, Wild, and Hamelin.  Composers still produce paraphrases based either on other composers (Timo Andes on Brian Eno) or on their own work (Thomas Adès).

Here is a representative and popular example, Liszt’s “Grande Paraphrase de Concert sur le Rigoletto de Verdi”, S. 434 (1859).

To fully engage with this spectacular piece our approach needs the following qualities:

We need to be open to an experience resembling a lecture recital, since the paraphrase analyzes critically an earlier work.

We need adequate familiarity with that earlier work (in this case, Verdi’s opera).

We need to listen in a compensatory manner that makes up for missing or distorted parts: “an act of mental supplementation on the part of the listener is required” to make the piano version equivalent to the earlier one (Dana Gooley: “Liszt and the noisiness of pianistic mediation,” Musiktheorie 25: 3, 2010, p. 225).

We need to be ready to luxuriate in a recollection that both relishes and revises.

We need to enjoy the socio-cultural intimacy of this refined experience, destined for a select audience.

We need to have a broad and deep command of the classical canon since the work may participate in diverse games within it.

In the case of this particular Liszt paraphrase, when we activate these and similar qualities in participatory listening, we discover what a dramatic revision of the famous quartet this is.  Of the four personages, Liszt reduces drastically Rigoletto, absorbs Gilda into Maddalena, and concentrates mainly on the latter’s tryst the Duke.  Verdi’s four singers, with their very different attitudes, are transformed into a lovers’ passionate and happy duet, a paraphrase suggesting that father Rigoletto and daughter Gilda should be seen as lovers too.

Before Liszt, things worked differently. “Transcribers of the previous generation … were content to transcribe literally, transferring notes from the original score to the piano score … in what we might call a ‘transcription of the letter.’ [] Liszt established a new paradigm, a ‘transcription of spirit’ where the composer’s idea is privileged above the notes of the original score” (224).  “The Lisztian transcriber possesses artistic insight and practices a form of hermeneutics:  he looks beyond the signs of the score to discover the true and deep meanings beyond them” (230). Furthermore, a mutually constitutive relationship develops between piano paraphrase and the concept of the work as manifestation of absolute music.  “The emergent concept of the musical ‘work’ … divorces musical essence from all contingencies of media and event. [] the work is fundamentally an Idea, a mental representation that exceeds its manifestations in signs” (230). Thus a paraphrase does not reduce or betray the work but, on the contrary, aspires to capture its ethereal essence.

I can listen to paraphrases for hours because they energize me as a classical listener and inspire me to come up with my own participatory contributions to music making.  While in collaborative listening (two friends listening to each other’s listening) I am invigorated by the presence of my “other self,” in participatory listening I am stimulated by the tantalizing absence of an original work. It is an anachronistic askesis in Romantic aesthetics that also makes me wonder why we have relatively few poetry transcriptions.

25 January 2023

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