March 2015

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

March 5, 2015 15:05

"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.

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