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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Oral Traditions: what's in the score?

I recently got inspired about the idea of plugging back in to the big picture of music history which consumed my life for many years during school. 

For awhile, I've been eyeing Richard Taruskin’s The Oxford History of Western Music, but I was short $650 and 2 square feet of backpack space.  By the miracle of advancing technology it came out on the Kindle, so I could digest it for a reasonable price during my endless plane, train, and automobile journeys. 

I started at the beginning, where his vivid descriptions and detailed arguments grabbed me immediately. I thought it would be satisfying to write about how some of these long-ago and far-away issues might relate to what I am doing today.


Going Way Back 

Taruskin points out that it can be tricky to construct history from documents (even though that's usually all we've got to work with). The tendency is to assume that the documents tell the whole story.  The further back you go, the more trouble this assumption gets you into. 

His discussion of the origins of Gregorian plainchant got my juices flowing, even though I knew the outlines of it already: 

But Roman church chant was only one of many musical repertories that coexisted in Europe a thousand years ago. It is the first repertory that, thanks to notation, we can study in detail, and so our story must inevitably begin with it. And yet we know from literary and pictorial sources that there was plenty of secular and instrumental music at the time, as well as non-Christian worship music, and that these repertories had long histories going back long before the beginnings of Christian worship. We have every reason to assume, moreover, that much of the music sung and played in Europe had for centuries been polyphonic—that is, employing some sort of harmony or counterpoint or accompanied melody.

Taruskin, Richard (2009-07-27). Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century : The Oxford History of Western Music (pp. 26-27). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.


So we could view early chant either as the Big Bang of music history, or as one of many different types of music that were going on at the time, and that for whatever reason it was expedient to write it down. 

Taruskin gives a reason:

With the establishing of the Roman pope as spiritual patron of the Carolingian Empire, the liturgical unification of the whole broad realm according to the practices of the Roman See became imperative. It would symbolize the eternal order that undergirded the temporal authority of the Carolingian rulers and established their divine mandate. This meant suppressing the so-called Gallican rite, the indigenous liturgy of the northern churches, and replacing it with Roman liturgical texts and tunes. 

Taruskin, Richard (2009-07-27). Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century : The Oxford History of Western Music (pp. 31-32). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

The origins of a common notation in western culture had very little to do with qualitative judgments or any desire to establish a “literate” musical culture.  They were politically efficient tools for homogenizing worship, and therefore strengthening the church’s control over its outlying parishes. 

The monks of the time had a generally common style with regional differences, which was passed from teacher to disciple. Notation was a memory aid and a unifying tool, but not “the work itself” in any way like we’d think of it now. 

This subject interests me because, as a performer in a diverse musical landscape, I  am called upon to make, recall, and interpret music in many different ways.  I read detailed notation, devise shorthand, and frequently remember information that was explained or demonstrated to me. 

There is also the matter of interpretation:  even the most classical of performers has learned how to play from somebody who had to show them.  Many pianists trace their pedagogical lineage back to a particular artist or composer, and claim a special authority in interpreting a composer’s music based on oral tradition that was handed down to them. 

Finally, as a percussionist I am hyper-aware of  - though not particularly trained in – fabulously rich traditions of music-making that don’t rely on a corpus of written texts for their foundation. 

It got me thinking both about the extent to which I participate in,  and pass on, oral traditions, as well as what role the written score actually plays in bringing a piece of music to life. 


John Cage - Third Construction (1941)

John Cage’s centenary in 2012 offers an opportunity to reflect on his legacy.  It also represents the furthest I get from the source of the music we play in So: I was 13 years old when he died, and encounter his work only as legacy.  My experience is mediated by teachers, readings and the scores themselves. 

One of the elements of performance practice that is peculiar and unique to percussion is instrument choice. Third Construction offers a lot of room for interpretation within instrument descriptions (tin-cans, toms, cowbell, shaker).  Because the piece was written in 1941 and the composer is deceased, we have to decide how we’d like to balance our own ideas with established performance tradition.

For example:  it is widely known that Cage’s toms were Chinese drums that have a wonderful warm sound.  Many interpreters prefer using these drums, and some might even insist that Cage would have too.  But the score just says “toms,” and there are so many different kinds.  Do we have a responsibility to follow this tradition, to add our layer of practice firmly on top of those that have sprouted up in the last 70 years? 

I think for So, the answer is “it’s complicated,” especially where Cage is concerned.  It's always good to know more about the music that you are playing.  In this sense, the fact that Cage was partial to drums that have a warm sound and melodic quality certainly sheds light on the composition. 

But the idea of establishing an orthodoxy regarding a wildly experimental artist like Cage doesn’t sit well with me.  Of course, there are instructions that must be obeyed:  all of the notes and rhythms in the score have to be realized for it to be Third Construction, and the sounds should be reasonably within the realm of "toms," "shakers," etc.  But voicing the score by choosing instruments –  scrounging around your own collection as he did – is an extremely satisfying interpretive process. 

Even if you decide to stick with a particular type of instrument that you feel Cage would have liked, he gives absolutely no indication of register or hierarchy:  the toms and tin cans can be voiced SATB, they can all be the exact same type of instrument, etc.  These decisions affect the outcome dramatically. 



Steve Reich - Drumming (1971)

When So Percussion first started out, Steve Reich’s Drumming was one of only a few truly monumental works for percussion.  At that time - about ten years ago - the piece existed almost entirely as oral tradition:  everybody who knew it had been taught by somebody who had been taught by somebody who learned it from Reich’s original percussionists. 

The score certainly existed, but it was easier to explain the elements – such as phasing, setup, ways of feeling time – than it was to read them off of the page.   In our group, Doug Perkins learned it from the Percussion Group Cincinnati as a student.  Doug taught it to Jason, Todd, and Tim.  When I joined, he and Jason taught it to me.  Jason and I taught it to Lawson, Josh, and Eric. Since then, we have played it with Reich and many of his original percussionists (Bob Becker, Garry Kvistad, Russel Hartenberger).  

There's a point at which you just have to be in the room with somebody and drum with them to absorb the essence of the piece. 

As a composer, Reich is very clear about what he wants. But as a living composer, he is also open for input, available for us to throw out ideas and creative solutions.  We have been delighted at how willing he is to engage with our ideas.  

This is on my mind partially because Boosey and Hawkes just published a wonderful and definitive new score.  It lays out performance practice and all of Reich’s preferences for how the piece should be interpreted.  It is now a master text that future generations will reference and cite, assuming that it continues to be performed.

For those to whom this legacy matters, I will in some small way provide a living link back to the composer and the origins of the piece.  This prospect is exciting, and yet a part of me guesses that I’ll always be passing along my own idiosyncrasies and preferences, not necessarily referencing - though not inconsistent with - the definitive score, published 4o years after the performance practice first came to life.    


Jason Treuting - Amid the noise (2006)

Jason Treuting and I have just finished editing the first volume of his amid the noise for publication.  In contrast with Third Construction  and Drumming, I was a first-hand witness to the creation of the music.

Some people expressed interest in performing it, so we set about trying to notate it.  Actually, I became involved precisely because I was there when so much of the music was created through a fluid process of note-taking, sketching, and throwing out spontaneous ideas. It was conceived first as a recording, and later reverse-engineered for live performance. 

When So first started performing amid the noise, those of us who had made the recording simply started adapting from the many layers on the album.  If  Jason expressed a preference for something, he could explain or notate it in shorthand, and we already had most of the context we needed to fill in the blanks.  When new members joined the group, we initiated them into a process of understanding the parameters and assumptions of the musical style. 

As Jason and I set about codifying amid the noise on paper, he wanted to strike just the right balance:  the interpreters would be given many of their own decisions to make, and different performances of the music would vary wildly.  Still, there were some ideas and musical decisions that we had to codify for the integrity of the score to remain intact.  Our greatest challenge was to find this balance in a way that felt good for Jason. 

Below is an excerpt from the completed score, which has just been published by Good Child Music.  We wrote a lot of prose explanation, notating harmonies, melodies, and rhythms as needed. 

june

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power;
We have guided missiles and misguided men. –MLK, Jr.

Instrumentation: Rhythmic noise element; sustaining chord element; optional ambient or chance noise element; drone.

Harmony/Melody:  Sustaining instrument performs the chords, using the length of each word in the quote as a guide for length of sustain.  Each letter represents 1”, so that the first chord will sustain for 3” (our), the second 10” (scientific), etc.  The first group of 4 chords must be used exclusively for the first line of text (Our...power).  The second group of 2 chords may be mixed in for the second line (We...men). Chords may be chosen freely, but only the top or bottom voice may change from one to the next, not both.  



This may seem like a strange route to take:  isn’t the composer’s job to make these very decisions, to filter out what sounds the best and then convey these preferences to the interpreter to execute? 

The only real answer is that the composer must notate what he or she wants to control.  The outer boundary of this concept is embodied in Cage’s 4’33”, in which the composer controls none of the sounds contained within the performance. Somewhere between the most meticulously described scores and 4’33” lies each composer’s style; between what is theirs, what is the performer’s, and what may be allowed to happen in time and aural space.  





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