Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Creative License

Just what requirements must a musician meet to "do a piece justice?" Where are limits, the parameters, the lines within which the musician must stay in order to "depict" the piece he or she plays... and what happens to the piece when these parameters are breached? In all fairness, I don't believe a line really exists, but historian and music writer, Stephen Davies once wrote an essay on the idea of authenticity in a musical performance that I thought was noteworthy.

First off, by "authenticity" Davies means, specifically, musical performances as performances of a particular composition (this, in contrast to authentic with respect to a musical style, or genre). That is, authenticity of a performance as a member of the entire class of performances recognized as that same composition, or a group of ideal performances of that piece. In short, "authentic" is used to acknowledge the creative role of the performer in faithfully realizing the composer's specifications.

Definitions out of the way, Davies first addresses the importance of the recreation of sounds in an authentic performance, as opposed to the recreation of "milieu," as he calls it. When Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake, he was probably intending for the score to be played by musicians using the instruments of and in the conditions available at the time. Therefore a decidedly authentic performance would employ the these types of conditions, for example, use of the instruments contemporary to the period of composition, an ensemble the size of which the composer had specified, and stylistic interpretation of the score in light of the practices and conventions of the time it was written in. But all of this is aimed at the recreation of the sound that the composer intended and nothing else. The ambiance within which the piece would have been presented to the composer' s contemporaries is not necessary (which rids of the potential mutiny of the orchestra at the proposition that they don leggings and ruffs) and the authenticity of the piece performed within a concert hall in front of a large audience is the same as that of the piece performed within an eighteenth century salon.

This said, Davies notes that the acoustics of the place in which certain compositions are performed does make a difference, and so there are buildings more suitable for some compositions and not others. Playing Beethoven's fifth symphony in a garage will not be as authentic as it performance in a concert hall with acoustics modified to reflect those of a wood-paneled room in which Beethoven might have had it performed. BUT this isn't because of the fact that the performance is in a garage and not a concert hall, instead, it's because the performance in the garage sounds different than in the concert hall. No tights or ruffs necessary. And if you're performing modern music written for modern settings, well, many problems like this become non issues.

This emphasis on the recreation of sound established, Davies stresses that the authenticity of a performance is judged against an ideal performance of the composition, rather than any one definitive performance. The sound that the authentic performance aspires to create is the sound that is possible, rather than actual. The notes written in the score, the directions written by the composer all must be observed, but even when this direction is given, it isn't always straightforward as to which and how each note is to be played and/or modified. Thus, tendencies of the performers of the composition at one time need not be the same as those tendencies of a performance at another time for both to be considered authentic. Also, the sounds sought to be faithfully reproduced need not be identical to those sounds produced at any one performance. Yes, a CD and a live performance of the same piece are allowed to sound different and both are equally authentic. Vivaldi, as played by an orchestra in Nebraska, is allowed to be different and yet is considered just as authentic as Vivaldi played by the symphony in New York.

Finally, Davies talks about the role that the composer's intentions play in the creation of an authentic performance. Long story short, he says that only those intentions which are normally accepted as definitive byt the conventions in which musical scores are read are relevant to judgements of authenticity. Translation: any other intentions that the composer might have had can be completely and totally ignored -and the piece is still in the running for being called authentic. Mwwa ha ha ha ha ha!!! And I have to agree with Davies on this point. The experience of the composer in creating music is different than that of the performer's creating music and though the composer may have written a piece with a certain intention, once that score is down on paper, it takes on an identity of its own. That's the great thing (and perhaps frustrating thing) about art. Once it's out there, it's still credited to the artist, but the world can interpret the work however it so chooses.

So, I think Davies explains the authenticity of a musical performance much the way a professor might consider a history paper. The author has to have the facts right, has to stay within the parameters of what is accepted as non-fiction, but once those bases are covered, he or she is given license to deduce from the facts whatever they want -and it's still an acceptable research paper.

No comments: