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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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On being a critical author

On being a critical author

Now that about two years passed since I finished my PhD, it is enough time to look back and think how it affected my writing. I will relate in this post to one aspect: being critical.

I remember that my supervisor taught me how to be critical towards various kinds of sources and what people say and write. This was one of the best lessons that I have learnt during my postgraduate studies. However, looking back, it had also some negative affects. Paul Banks told me several months ago, that when you publish a book you write in a different way than when one writes a PhD. One is less defensive. Paul, who was one of my examiners (the other one was Jonathan Dunsby), knows very well what he was talking about. During my viva I sat in a beautiful room before two examiners who are world experts about Schoenberg and/or performance (my PhD subject) and the period I wrote about. They read every sentence of my PhD and I had to prove that all my arguments are solid. Believe me this is quiet scary. Once feels like be judged in a court of law. During the last year of my PhD I had the viva event at the back of my mind. I had to make sure that everything that I write is defensible. This created a certain kind of thinking and writing. In the following I will try to explain what I mean.

            A leitmotif in Schoenberg’s writings on performance is his demand for many rehearsals. In an article entitled ‘Gustav Mahler’ from 1912, he argued that Mahler ’still [had] something to say’ to the performers in the tenth rehearsal. Mahler, he claimed, had a clear ‘image’ (Bild) of what he wished to reproduce.(Schoenberg, Style and Idea, pp. 449-71) The main issue in the quotation above has to do with a musical image that was in the mind of the composer, which is reproduced by the conductor and which should be communicated through performance. Having many rehearsals while forcing performers to play the right notes, served the aim of reproducing an image, and this resulted in the performer’s participation ‘in the spirit of the music’.

            When I read this during my PhD, it seemed to me very idealistic of Schoenberg to think this way. It seemed to me a Romantic view, placing the composer as a prophet who communicates a divine image to the listener, given to him by God.

            I still think that this view is terribly idealistic and it does not stand scrutiny if one closely examines what performers do. Yet, during a lecture on management, the lecturer argued that a manager should have a clear image of what he wants to achieve. This reminded me of Schoenberg.

            Perhaps Schoenberg did not want a perfect image in the mind of the performer. Yet, he did expect a conductor, to have a clear image of the music before he stands before the performers and manages them.

            Now there are various kinds of management techniques, which give various degrees of freedom to the people who are managed. In any case, today I can sympathize with Schoenberg’s demand. Today’s economic crisis demands from managers to be alert and make focused decisions. One needs to have a clear image of ones goals. Otherwise, one’s company can disappear.

            Looking back at my PhD, it was right to criticize Schoenberg for being idealistic towards the role of the composer in relation to that of the performer (especially before 1933). However, it is true that a composer and similarly, a performer, should have an image of what they want to achieve. I feel this clearly from great performers such as Glenn Gould.

            It is good to be critical, yet one should learn also to respect the perspectives of other people, even if at first sight they seem wrong. Becoming a good writer about music demands a balance between writing with authority and weighing various ideas and perspectives.

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One Response to “On being a critical author”

  • christopher jette responded:

    You have an interesting breakdown of this statement..
    ” A leitmotif in Schoenberg’s writings on performance is his demand for many rehearsals. In an article entitled ‘Gustav Mahler’ from 1912, he argued that Mahler ’still [had] something to say’ to the performers in the tenth rehearsal. Mahler, he claimed, had a clear ‘image’ (Bild) of what he wished to reproduce.(Schoenberg, Style and Idea, pp. 449-71) The main issue in the quotation above has to do with a musical image that was in the mind of the composer, which is reproduced by the conductor and which should be communicated through performance. Having many rehearsals while forcing performers to play the right notes, served the aim of reproducing an image, and this resulted in the performer’s participation ‘in the spirit of the music’.”

    While I agree that the prophet, subject model is rather absurd, I am not sure that the point of many rehearsals. I did not know Schoenberg personally, so I can not speak for him, but I have found time again that rehearsing my pieces with performers many times is absolutely necessary, but for different reasons than you suggest.
    First, pieces being performed by humans require a series of highly particular movements, which we simply call playing the instrument. Yet, each new piece is a new string of instructions. To internalize and project an aesthetic position the performers must rehearse these series of motions and then observe what sort of aesthetic impact this has on an audience (in the orchestral case, the conductor reports, in what I consider to be a rather totalitarian hierarchy at worst and a true trusting friendship in the best of cases).

    Secondly, the performers who play the piece are uniquely creative individuals and each time that they play/perform a piece there is something new in it (it is well documented that humans are not capable of perfect reproduction, this is why we have computers). That said, when one observes they unique perspectives in a rehearsal one must make the performer aware and either encourage or discourage the unique perspective that brought out these idiosynchrosies. Each performer is unique and has a rational/intuitive notion of how to articulate what they perceive in the set of suggestions (the score) that the composer has created. Rehearsing a piece is the best way to work out possible sollutions to how one ought to perform a piece.
    Of course, in the performance, great musicians/performers etc. will be able to work with the energy of the room. This is where they must implement what is the best possible solution at that particular moment. Hence the more possibilities that one has rehearsed the better that there is something to draw from.

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