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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Re: Repeats

From:

Ian Crisp <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 3 Mar 2000 22:59:39 +0000

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Dave Lampson wields a mighty sledgehammer to demolish what I regard as a
fairly small and simple argument:

>Frankly, I've been fuming over this thread since this notion of
>audience-relativity came into the discussion.
>
>The first assumption implicit in this statement is that there was
>an 18th-century way of listening.

If I may summarise Dave's point, it is that we have ample evidence that
there was plenty of variation in how different C18 listeners heard and
appreciated the same piece.  This is certainly true, and it would be
patently absurd - not to mention undecidable and therefore pointless - to
propose that individual variation in response to music was any less then
than it is now.

>The second implicit assumption is that there is a 20th-century way of
>listening.

Perhaps I, and others who have argued for this kind of relativism, should
have written about "the range of C20 ways of listening", rather than
implying that there was some specific C20 way common to all listeners and
distinct from that associated with any other time-period.

So Dave and the relativist camp (I am appointing myself temporary
spokesperson for the purposes of this post only) have no differences so
far.  But Dave then appears to argue that as both centuries encompass a
wide variety of response to music, there is no difference between them
and any distinction the relativists propose must be fallacious.  Here I
disagree, and I would offer a very simple demonstration.  A 1750 listener
could not possibly be aware of jazz in any shape or form, because it had
not yet come into being.  It is extremely unlikely that he or she would
have been remotely aware of the African musical roots that later
contributed to jazz.  So if I, as a C20 (or even 21) listener hear a
piece of music dating from 1750 and I detect something in it than forms an
association in my mind with some part of my jazz experience as listener or
performer, and that in turn colours my listening to the rest of the piece
- and it is something that can and does happen (remember Jacques Loussier!)
- then I am responding to that music in a way that the 1750 listener could
not possibly have done.  Never mind if that association is purely personal,
or trivial, or based on a misunderstanding of C18 music or anything else -
it is a genuine response that is only possible at a certain minimum
historical distance from the date of composition.  Questions of how wide
or narrow the ranges of C18 or C20 musical response may be are entirely
irrelevant to this point - there still remains an unbridgeable gap between
the two worlds.  It might be possible, although difficult, to argue that
although this gulf is real it is of no importance, but it is IMO impossible
to argue that it does not exist.  Not without a complete revolution in what
passes for our understanding of time.

>For instance, I listen to a wide variety of music, including jazz, new
>age, and lots of rock.  I'm up on many of the latest bands, and I generally
>listen to this type of music for a couple of hours a day, even now that I'm
>in my forties.  I know there are people on this list that completely eschew
>such "garbage" as they might label it.  Do these people and I have much in
>common in the way we listen to a Mozart symphony or Beethoven sonata?

This much - you are both aware that jazz, rock etc.  exist and you both
know something about them (maybe some more than others, and some more
willingly than others) and you both have musical and emotional responses
of some kind or other to them.  Like it or not, these are factors in how
you listen to the Mozart or Beethoven sonatas, and they were written
without any awareness of those types of music.  Dave and these other
nameless listmembers are people who take an intelligent and educated
interest in music, have made some study of music of the past, and are
therefore able *to some extent* to project their listening faculties into
their *understanding* of how a contemporary listener would have reacted.
Contrariwise, we all know people who reject Mozart, Beethoven etc.  out of
hand because their music lacks features that they have learned to expect in
the modern music they mostly listen to.  One group does their best to cross
the unbridgeable gap (with a degree of success that may be great but can
never be quantified or complete), the other is happy to stay on one side of
it.

>Likewise, the same comparison holds even
>if we confine our parameters to "classical" music.  I have a voracious
>appetite for new music, but when I read a post praising the music of Berio,
>Ligeti, Birtwistle, etc.  I have to wonder how in the world could anyone
>be so affected by this music.  It baffles me, and perhaps always will.  I
>would submit that we are listening to and for very different things.  That
>we happen to live at the same time amounts to little more than coincidence.

Dave makes and remakes the point that there is great variation in the way
that individuals listen to and respond to music.  I do not waste my time
disagreeing with facts, that one included.

>...though we might agree that there are differences in perception, we
>do not have any idea how these differences (either across the centuries,
>or across the miles, or across cultures) affect our reactions to music.
>We simply don't know how the brain processes music, nor do we have
>anything beyond anecdotal evidence for how past musical experience affect
>the brain's interpretation of either familiar or unfamiliar musical
>information.

Every word right on the mark, but I fail to see the relevance.  I argue
that a certain amount of historical distance means that there are an
unknown number of undefined and possibly undefinable ways in which the
generalised experience of later listeners and earlier listeners hearing the
same music cannot be mapped onto each other, because the later listeners
have experiences not available to the earlier ones (and, come to that, the
earlier one's mind-sets were partially formed by ideas and experiences now
gone and not shared by the later ones).  Understanding of how musical
apprehension works is a subject of great interest but it does not affect
this point, unless it were to show that the musical function of the human
brain has no connection whatsoever with anything else including any music
other than the piece being listened to at that time - a highly unlikely
result.

>For these reasons (and several others I'll leave to the reader) I think the
>statement that we can't hear music as they once did is simply meaningless
>when trying to come to grips with specific performance choices.

I agree that, by itself, it cannot guide specific choices - and I don't
recall that either I or anyone else suggested that it did.  What it does,
I propose, is to provide a justification for opening the question of
whether such choices as made a couple of hundred years ago are necessarily
the most appropriate choices in the here and now.  Often, perhaps very
often, the conservative approach will prove to be the right one; sometimes
different choices may "work" and justify themselves.  The grounds for
making those choices will be many and various, and ultimately based on the
aesthetic responses of modern and living audiences, not ancient and dead
ones.

>I also feel that many of the arguments against HIP (and in the way this
>idea has been misconstrued by some, it is an anti-HIP argument, make no
>mistake),

As far as I am concerned this argument simply has nothing to do with the
HIP issue.  HIP at its best is top-quality historical research, at its
slightly less-than-best it's a musical equivalent of those people who go
round re-enacting Civil War etc.  battles in "original" uniforms, and at
its worst it's just unthinking slavish adherence to fashionable dogma.
HIP can be revelatory, profoundly illuminating.  The research behind it and
the experience of it are enormously important components in making those
specific performance choices.  I have absolutely nothing against the HIP
movement - but it cannot be the one-and-only final arbiter of how old music
is best performed for any kind of modern audience, because Bach, however
great he was, did not write his music for performance hundreds of years
after his death.

>Sort of a "we can't ever be really, really sure what any composer intended
>in their heart, so what the heck, if it feels good just do it!" attitude.

Personally I have no problem with that, as long as significant variations
are clearly labelled as such and not passed off as something they are not.
But it is a considerable distortion of the position I and a few others have
been proposing.  We can be sure of what a composer intended, to the extent
that he left clear indications.  But the nature of music is such that even
the most detailed scores leave a great deal of freedom to the performers.
Often we know far more about *how* a composer wanted to communicate his
intentions than we do about what those intentions actually were, as
composers are often rather reserved about what, if anything, their pieces
are supposed to "mean".  Performers and audiences have to work together
to try to make sense of all that - and once the composer isn't around
any more to help, they have no option but to take any necessary decisions
themselves.  I am not advocating a free-for-all with no attempt to justify
anything.

>Once you buy into this, all counter-arguments are instantly negated.

Not at all.  All possibilities become open, which to my mind is a far more
attractive notion than the alternative.

>How simple and convenient.

The only simple and convenient thing here is to shrug off all
responsibility for understanding and decision-making by palming it off onto
the crumbling shoulders of the long-decomposed composer who lived his life
in a different world.  Try to understand him by all means, but don't give
the dead power to make choices for the living.  Like it our not, that's
ours (for a while) to do the best we can with, then to pass on to others.

>How completely deceptive and misguided.

That too.

Ian Crisp
[log in to unmask]

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