…. notation? *
Back in Music History class we all learned how philosophers used to differntiate between “music of the spheres” and “practical music.” The now-quaint terminology masks a somewhat interesting and important differentiation that is actually an important part of any musician’s relationship to music.
The original concert of “music of the spheres” came from imagining the mathematical interplay of the movement of celestial bodies as expressing an idealized form of music expressed as pure mathematics, or pure mathematics expressed as music. This idea later evolved into a broader concept of a “pure” form of music that exists in the realm of concept, not in performance. If one thinks of “spheres” music as being that which exists in your inner ear, in your imagination as opposed to the “practical” music one hears ringing in space, then maybe it allows one to see music notation in a different light.
In America, by and large, when young people are taught to read music (which they are only done grudgingly), they are taught to read notation as instructions for physical action- “when you see a note on the bottom line, that’s first finger on the g-string… that’s half note, so you hold the note for two counts.” Even at the conservatory level, many students never look at a piece of music without their instrument. There is only limited training in learing to read music as an internal process.
However, perhaps notation should really be a road-map to hearing the elusive “music of the spheres.” Perhaps we should look at it as a visual representation of the concept of music, not a set of instructions for how to execute a performance of music. So many performers are quick to point out the “limitations” of notation as license for subjective performances, but if one is only used to reading notation with an eye to knowing what to count and where to put your fingers, you’re going to miss a lot of the information.
I once heard Barenboim say (in the Great Conductor’s series of video) that (and I paraphrase) music on the page doesn’t exist until it is played. I might suggest that actually, Beethoven’s music is more honestly represented on the page, maybe even perfectly represented on the page, and that the only limitation of his notation is our ability to read it as well as he could.
The other day, I said that “composition is analysis.” Today, I might well say that “composition is notation.” Of course, what I really mean is that “classical” composition is notation, but after all, so much of what makes art music unique- counterpoint, developing variation, subtle and multi-layered use of harmony as both a coloristic and structural device, control of tone color- all of this vocabulary could not have evolved without notation. Any of us can hear a tune in our heads or plunk out a melody at the piano- a composer, on the other hand, can notate a self-contained work of art. The art is in the notation, not in coming up with the tune.
Next time, I’ll look at simple example of a case where it seems as if notation fails us, but it is really us who fail it…
In the meantime, I’m braced for some strong words from those for whom I haven’t perhaps made my point clearly enough. It’s not that music cannot be created without notation, or that music created without notation is somehow lesser in value. It’s just that we gave up the distinction between songwriting, improvisation and composition sort of in the name of political correctness. If composition has been divorced from notation, then how we do we talk about the process in a way that reconnects creativity, craft and the act of creating a re-performable, self-contained work of art that CAN be experienced silently (and, in theory, in a purer form than in performance)? If we can connect to that concept, perhaps we can get more out of notated music?
*and cognitive science, or so I am told….c. 2007 Kenneth Woods