Saturday, September 29, 2007


It's been awhile since I've written anything substantive and, alas, this post will probably provide only fragments of substance at best. One of the last substantive (i.e. really long) posts I wrote addressed the question of substandard audio quality on iPods. I think I had two main points: 1) what really matters in a listening experience is what our minds hear, not just the audio signals picked up by the ears; 2) each different listening experience (live, great quality recording, average quality recording, greeting card quality performance) can be understood as a sort of translation of a given work. Yes, with me it always comes back to translation.

But beyond whether or not one can have an authentic, meaningful experience listening to substandard audio is the question of listening to substandard performance - or, an incomplete performances. I was thinking of this the other day while sitting in my office preparing to teach a class that would mostly be devoted to the music of Bach. One of the pieces I was going to be teaching (although, due to poor time management, I barely got to it - sorry, students!) was the first movement of the Cantata No. 80 Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, and I was thinking about how the ceaseless energy of this music creates a joyful internal response that I can't quite explain. Meanwhile, I slowly became aware of the fact that in a practice room next door, a student pianist was working on the 1st movement of Bach's Italian Concerto.

Now this student wasn't performing the music, but rather working on it, starting and stopping, fixing things here and there - practicing it. However, what I began to realize is that I was still getting the same joyful listening experience that I might hearing a professional level live performance. Maybe even more so. In fact, removed from the trappings of performance and the expectation of a complete, organically conceived interpretation, I was able to respond on a more instinctive level to the joyful energy of the music. The audio quality was clearly compromised both by thick walls and the fact that I had music playing off and on in my own studio - still, these fragments of Bach were working their magic on me.

Of course, it helps that I know this music well and that Bach's music is perhaps the most indestructible of any composer's. The day before I'd had a similar experience when, while talking on the phone to my wife, I could hear my daughter playing the 1st Bach invention in the background. Of course, fatherly pride is part of what I was feeling there, but the Bach was again working its magic under highly fragmented conditions.

What makes this unexpected is that we spend so much of our musical lives learning to expect performances that are accurate and complete. This makes perfect sense, but it also can involve shutting off the natural ability to appreciate music at a less critical level. It's similar to the old familiar problem of learning what not to like (e.g. I once learned not to like the 1812 Overture, which I had once loved - and which I pretty much now love again!). On the other hand, I'm not pretending that quality or interpretive decisions don't make a difference. After about 30 minutes of setting up a streaming, online listening guide for the 1st movement of the Bach cantata - 30 minutes in which, for test purposes, I heard the opening measures about 15 times and got a joyful jolt each time - I sampled a different performance that left me completely cold. And this was the indestructible Bach.

OK, so I don't know what my point is, but it has to do with underestimating how much fragmented experiences of music can be quite meaningful. Charles Ives certainly understood this - I know that for me, I still find it exhilarating to walk through the halls of a conservatory and hear all that crackling energy coming from so many different students and composers at once. It also reminds me that most music can communicate through far less-than-ideal performances. I wrote about that at some length here. This is not at all to say that we shouldn't be aspiring to high standards - high quality performances are more likely to bring us closer to the heart of a composition, but by conditioning ourselves to take note of what's not good enough, I feel sure we also shut ourselves off to the music sometimes.

It's certainly no accident that I'm writing this as I enjoy, in a half-conscious way, listening to my daughter's Saturday morning string orchestra rehearse. It's a big, rough, unwieldy sort of sound into which concerns such as phrasing have not yet entered the picture. Still, it's fantastic music-making in a very meaningful way - fragmentary though it is in pretty much every possible way. And, the fact that the rehearsal is ending means that this fragment of a post will end as well.

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