Printer-friendly version

'Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta-'

Dorian Bandy

Written by
Published: March 5, 2015 at 10:05 PM [UTC]

"There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions."

The title and quote come from Daniel Dennett's book, "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking". I'm usually not one to appropriate an isolated statement from science or philosophy and apply it to music, but this time it's worth it. Put Dennett through the word-substitution machine, and you get: "There is no such thing as philosophy-free musical performance, just musical performance that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions." This statement is not just true; it's also incredibly useful.

First, it's specific enough to be meaningful, and broad enough to accurately describe a basic reality. It avoids one obvious pitfall: while denying the possibility of performance without philosophy, it acknowledges the existence of performers who don't want to think about philosophy (and are therefore unselfconscious, unwitting captives of their own musical assumptions). What I like most is that it doesn't privilege any "normal" group whose assumptions can be taken for granted. (In other words, it does not suggest that those who play Bach with baroque bows have taken an active philosophical position while those who play him with modern bows haven't; it claims instead that period-instrument Bach performers make philosophical assumptions, and that modern-instrument Bach performers also make philosophical assumptions.)

I was inspired to explore this terrain because of Buri's recent post, Masterworks and Mindblowers and the discussion therein of Frank Peter Zimmermann's Bruch video. I watched it, and, like Buri, I found it riveting, captivating, and provocative. For me, though, the questions it raised had nothing to do with authenticity, or adherence to Bruch's "intentions". I was struck instead by Zimmermann's total freedom from the assumptions (about phrasing, style, ...) that usually underly Bruch performances. It was, I think, an overtly, self-consciously philosophical performance.

It is also one of the only recent performances I've heard (of anything!) that made me feel sure that the performer took nothing for granted. (This is not the same thing as saying that the performance is well thought-out, though it is that, too.) It seems that Zimmermann recognized the assumptions central to his musical tradition, and is consciously subverting them with so many of his interpretive gestures. To some extent, this is what kept me listening. With so many other violinists, after a few minutes you pretty much know what the whole piece is going to sound like. In Zimmermann's hands, however, nothing was predictable. Buri is right to say that the concerto sounded entirely new.

Of course, I don't want to suggest that awareness of tradition will lead a self-conscious musician to reject it. I went to an informal cello recital last month, and the performer announced from the stage that he would not be playing Bach, but would "play Casals playing Bach". The music-making that followed sounded to me very much like excellent, standard, modern string playing. Still, the spoken preface showed me that he knew exactly what he was doing: nobody else made his interpretive decisions for him. He recognized a musical tradition, and consciously adopted the underlying assumptions in his performance. So, one doesn't have to be a rebel to give a philosophically-aware performance: one can recognize assumptions and use them (playing Casals playing Bach), or recognize them and eschew them (Zimmermann's Bruch).

Could it be that this self-consciousness is exactly what's missing from most performances today? Expressive devices that once varied with each performer -- vibrato and portamenti, especially -- have now become just another part of the text, consistent and predictable. So many excellent players seem to take it for granted that one should phrase, finger and bow a certain way, but do they ever stop to ask how they can be so sure? Musical assumptions are everywhere; we should begin to play with, and against, them.

You might also like:

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 6, 2015 at 8:41 PM
- I was struck instead by Zimmermann's total freedom from the assumptions (about phrasing, style, ...) that usually underly Bruch performances. It was, I think, an overtly, self-consciously philosophical performance.

that's it exactly. it doesn't matter one jot if you do an extra bow, or choose an up where Bruch wrote down . it's why you do it. in the big picture it poses the question 'why does this thing exist at all?
It's a position very few artists have the courage to take.

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 1:30 AM
Is youtube to blame? Proliferation of competitions? Overpopulaion? What is the homogenizing force?
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 2:56 AM
Hi Paul,
as far as I know, the homogenizing force is lactose bacteria,
But I suppose we are not really tolerant of what one might call ugliness anymore, although I am not sure that is the right word. there is a recording made of the Brahms in , I think 1956< by Szigeti which was his last shot. I read somewhere one of the orchestra member saying how the first day of the recording session was a nightmare as Szigeti couldn't seem to get the bow on the string . But after that he somehow found his form. That remains for me the ultimate Brahms although in comparison with the fire and brilliance of Heifetz or indeed the great players of today its pretty awful on occasion. Szigeti listened to some playbacks and chose different ones from the sound engineers. he remarked `I prefer the takes with character, but unfortunately that is a commodity which is out of fashion these days.`
In the modern world we have our expectations controlled to quite a marked degree by a need for quality, perfection, and so on. It may even be over intellectualism. There is an interesting masterclass by Gitlis on you tube. As a doddering old man who is still sharp as a tack it was a little sad to see him somewhat at a loss with what he was presented with: really nice, bland, utterly boring performances. You can see him struggling to find a way to get across to those players that its ultimately about looking at was inside you and really listening to what you are doing and seeing if that really matches up. He isnt the ideal person for this situation I think because we are stuck on this idea of just learning to make it more polished than anyone else and may the best person win. On the whole the idea of tearing things down and starting from scratch just went over their heads. Worth a look.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 4:12 AM
there is a great documentary called Gitlis and the Great Tradition up on you tube. At around 17 minutes e talks about this issue. But then its better to just watch the whole thing.......
From Paul Deck
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 4:44 AM
Buri, I'll check that out for sure. Not after a glass of wine that size though. LOL

I was going to make a comment earlier about the chief advantage of amateur status being that one can play things as one truly *feels* they should be played, but the problem with being an amateur, of course, is being *able* to play them in the first place. Darn it all.

From Dorian Bandy
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 3:09 PM
Hi Buri and Paul,
It seems to me that this is all very much a result of recordings. Recordings have led us to expect consistency and reliability, at any cost. After all, in a concert, if, in the heat of the moment, you flub a note, this ultimately doesn't matter. On a recording, however, when you can scrutinize, your priorities change completely. (Less heat, more accuracy.) It isn't long before this attitude bleeds into the concert hall. You can imagine people (like Brahms, and his famous Don Giovanni anecdote) saying that they're tired of going to concerts because they hear so many inaccuracies, whereas if they stay home and listen to the recording, the performance is perfect.
I would also suggest a more subversive reading of the issue: we accept that recordings have led us to expect a higher standard of accuracy. Well, perhaps our modern myths and misconceptions about how much practice it really takes to achieve that level of greatness has led violinists to over-practice, and that as a result they've been forced (only 24 hours in a day!) to neglect other aspects of their musicianship. Heifetz says you should do 3 hours maximum; Auer says 4. Show me a conservatoire student who isn't under constant pressure to do more than that! And imagine all of the ways they might spend those other 14 or 15 waking hours if they weren't spending it all on practice that probably isn't really mentally-committed by that point anyway...
From Dorian Bandy
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 3:13 PM
Stephen Hough put it very well a few years ago in one of his blog posts -- something to the effect of, "a young musician who listens to 10 recordings will be limited to 10 different interpretive ideas, whereas someone who listens to 0 recordings can have thousands of interpretive ideas." I'm sure I've gotten it slightly wrong, but it was something like that.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Our Kokopelli
Please support
your donation
or sponsorship campaign. is made possible by...

Shar Music

Yamaha V3 Series Violin

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Metzler Violin Shop

Gliga Violins

Corilon Violins

Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance

Bobelock Cases


Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pro-Am Strings

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop