Saturday, May 19, 2007

A taste of 1825

I can't imagine trying to do this without the inspiration of the many excellent blogs that provide regular food for thought. (Speaking of which, thanks to Terry Teachout and OboeInsight for the kind mentions.) So it is that Matthew Guerreri's ever-informative Soho the Dog has two seemingly disconnected posts which have run together in my mind. The first has to do with Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the author of The Physiology of Taste. I'm going to confess that I'd never heard of Brillat-Savarin or his book, and I'm sure he and his fans would be offended by my unsophisticated palate. (I think I've lowered my brow enough with the Haydn-bashing, so I'm not going to reveal any diet details here.)

Guerreri's point is that Brillat-Savarin also loved music and spoke highly of its aesthetic merits, but judged the life of the gourmand to be more satisfying. The Frenchman reasoned that dining, with all its attendant sensual and social pleasures, is a dependable, every-day activity. "Music,' he counters, "has powerful attractions for those who love it; but one must set about it: - it is an exertion." This immediately struck me as odd, partially because when first reading it I didn't know Brillat-Savarin was writing in 1825. Here in 2007, very little exertion is needed to enjoy the highest levels of music-making - assuming, that is, that one is content with recordings.

I was thinking of this sea change while reading Guerreri's article about the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's upcoming "rock'n'roll" concert. The point there is to look at composers who've been unabashedly influenced by the rock'n'roll riff-raff, especially when it comes to exploring sounds beyond the typical acoustic palette of the concert hall. One could argue about the degree to which the classical types have accepted synthesized sounds and instruments; in my experience, the electronic stuff is still pretty peripheral, except in one hugely important area: recordings. Recordings have come to define classical music in so many ways, it's no exaggeration to say that it's already a very electronic world.

True, we like to pretend that recording is a transparent medium in which acoustic performances are transmitted to us unadulterated. Oh, except we might cut and paste them together from multiple takes, just so you won't have to hear the same mistakes over and over. Oh, and we might tweak the balances a little bit - just so you can hear every acoustic nuance produced by that beloved soloist. Oh, and we might speed things up a bit to make it more impressive - NO, that would never happen. But, the bottom line assumption is that classical recordings aren't about electronics - they're about the music.

Ah yes, that's an interesting distinction that opens its own can of worms. (I opened that can a little while back. I'm going to open it again. Hope you have a taste for worms.) First of all, it's much easier to think that a performance is mainly about the music (as opposed to such little elements as the performers, an audience, a shared experience, etc.) when it's disembodied into electronic form. To illustrate, let's return to that 1825 perspective [cue blurring visuals and whirring time-travel arpeggios]:

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: Oh t'cuisine! This dinner is delightful.
Jean's Imaginary But Engaging Spouse: Yes, I'd say this experience transcends the mere mundane function of providing nourishment.
JABS: Agreed. [pause] Remind me who you are.
JIBES: I'm not sure. You were quoted on Soho the Dog's blog as saying "A married pair of gourmands have at least once a day a pleasant opportunity of meeting . . . and have a subject of conversation which is always new; they speak not only of what they eat, but also of what they have eaten, what they will eat, what they have seen elsewhere, of fashionable dishes, new inventions, and so forth. Everyone knows that such a familiar chit-chat is delightful." However, Wikipedia says you were never married, so I'm here to be your theoretical spouse.
JABS: What a memory you have! I did say all that about the pleasures of table chat. You have to remember the TV hasn't been invented yet, so dinner conversation still serves a useful purpose.
JIBES: What would you like to discuss first? The food in front of us, the food we ate yesterday, or the food we'll eat tomorrow?
JABS: I think you may be overthinking this; our conversation needn't be so contrived. Now, did you happen to hear the one about the E-flat Major rondo theme that gets broken apart at the end?
JIBES: Is this a joke?
JABS: Well, yes, it's from the last movement of Haydn's Joke quartet. You see, a lively presto theme goes into a 6/8 bar -
JIBES: It's 1825, Jean. Haydn's a thing of the past.
JABS: No, no, you don't understand. He was a comic genius with appeal far beyond his time. If we did have TV, he'd have had his own sitcom for sure.
JIBES: Shouldn't we be talking about food?
JABS: I'm talking about food that nourishes the soul. As I once wrote, "Taste is not so richly endowed as hearing; the latter can appreciate and compare many sounds at the same time; but taste, on the other hand, is actually simple—that is to say, that two flavours at one are equally inappreciable."
JIBES: What about sweet'n'sour pork?
JABS: Never heard of it. But consider the pleasures of Haydn as he invites us to savor four parts at once independent, yet harmonious. Why, the rondo theme itsel -
JIBES: Nothing is so tiresome as hearing someone talk about music. It's like
cooking about architecture.
JABS: You're right. You need to hear this music to really get it. You play violin, right?
JIBES: Sure; being imaginary, I can be anything you want me to be.
JABS: Great. Now it's
been said that I was "good enough to play first violin in a New York theater orchestra," so I'll take violin 1, and I'll get my chef to play viola -
JIBES: I didn't know he played.
JABS: He doesn't, but it's just a viola part.
JIBES: But what are we going to do about a cellist?
JABS: Well, it's not like I just carry them around in my pocket. Perhaps I can get my valet to play the cello part on the piano. It's a compromise, but at least it should be in tune.
JIBES: Speaking of which, did you say this is in E-flat major; I always have intonation problems in the flat keys.
JABS: Oh, that's not a problem; we can play it in E Major and, assuming we're still working near Baroque pitch here in 1825, it'll come out more or less in E-flat.
JIBES: So now you're asking me to transpo -
JABS: Oh, sacrebleu! I just remembered the house viola isn't playable right now. Chef Kaga misunderstood a joke I made about the difference between a viola and an onion. I guess we'll have to cover both viola and cello on the piano.
JIBES: This sure seems like a lot of exertion just to hear a bit of music.
JABS: You know, you're right. [makes a note to himself]. Forget Haydn. Now, about this brie . . .

[cue more blurring and whirring. It's now 2007.]

JIBES: What's for dinner?
JABS: Well, it's Iron Chef night, so how about some Japanese take-out? I'm getting tired of French food.
JIBES: Maybe we should try some of that fusion cuisine. I saw Rachael Ray has a candy sushi
JABS: Great idea. Those inter-continental flavors always make me think of the exotic, Oriental influences one finds in the music of Debussy and Ravel.
JIBES: Speaking of international, I just read that Ravel wrote a little piece called Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn? A French salute to an Austrian, I suppose. Do you know it?
JABS: Know it? I'm crazy about it. I've got six recordings right here [pulling iPod from pocket], four on piano and two in the orchestral version. My favorite is Casadesus' restrained interpretation. I much prefer when the performer doesn't get in the way of the music. Just listen. [fitting her with headphones] Such taste. Such refinement.
JIBES: Mm-hmm. But it's 8 o'clock. We can listen to Ravel any time; Iron Chef is on now! [fade to black]

I had no idea that dialogue was going to happen until I typed the phrase "Let's return to that 1825 perspective." It's now a long time since I started this post, but I hope our little play has made its point. For 1825's Brillat-Savarin, the existence of music on a page was no guarantee that he could experience the pleasures therein. Now, virtually the entire standard repertoire has been converted many times over into electronic music that's ready on demand. But it is electronic, if not so much in sound as in what it means for our reception of it.

I love recordings, and I almost certainly wouldn't be a musician today without having been inspired by them. But, I suspect their existence has done more than anything to create this idea that we can listen to music objectively. That just as a printed score is something fixed (seemingly), so a library full of CD's gives us the impression that the score realized in sound can be fixed, permanent, authentic, etc. Thus, people were perplexed that recordings attributed to Joyce Hatto could have received less glowing reviews when previously associated with no-name performers. The fact is, it is now possible and quite common to listen to music with no regard for the performers. I find this happens with students all the time. I've had many submit papers in which specific recordings were analyzed with no mention made of the performers.

Still, knowing (or knowing about) the performer can add an important layer of meaning. I thought of this when Jeremy Denk posted his homemade recording of the Allemande from Bach's D major Partita as the culmination of his 7-day allemandethon. I'd already sampled many other recordings of the work throughout the week and had played through it many times myself, but I certainly listened to his recording differently knowing what I'd learned about his relationship to the piece. I don't see anything wrong with saying all of that context thoroughly enriched my listening, that my baseline empathy for his playing was higher than if I'd known nothing about him; but that seems to go against the prevailing wisdom that a performance should stand on its own.

The funny thing is that, in arguing for more openness about this kind of subjectivity, I'm accidentally making an argument in favor of the star system that has long dominated the classical recording industry. As much as I don't like that, it's helpful to realize that people want to put a face with what they're hearing. If that face looks like Joshua Bell or Janine Jansen . . . well, that shouldn't be the point. So, partly as an overreaction against it, we like to pretend that the music speaks for itself. But, Denk's insights into Bach aren't just insights into the music; they're insights into his conception of the music. That's an important difference, and it helps ensure that the electronic doesn't become inhuman. [UPDATE: I just re-read this and realized this conclusion could be a lot clearer. Well, now I have something else to blog about.]