Tuesday, March 27, 2018

[Emotionally] Leading and Audience

Months ago, in a MoMo class at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, I saw a performance of a harpsichordist who was presenting a work in progress. The piece was a very flashy ciaccona by some unheard-of 17th century composer/performer and it was played very well for us that afternoon. Most of us were impressed not only by the performance, but by the fact that there had been such a development in that player's technical abilities in such a short time. The performance, like any, did have a few moments of insecurity but they did not detract from our reception of the work overall.

The most interesting part of the lesson was the discussion that followed it. A listener in the room asked the performer how he understood the piece emotionally. After a detailed description of what he felt and following another run-through of the work, the audience's comments became almost exclusively focused on whether they themselves interpreted the performance along the same emotional lines. In effect, following the description of what the performer saw, the audience adjusted their interpretation of the work by making judgements on whether they did or did not feel what was described to them before the work was performed again.

Let's look at an interesting parallel. Wikipedia writes, "in common law systems that rely on testimony by witnesses, a leading question or suggestive interrogation is a question that suggests the particular answer or contains the information the examiner is looking to have confirmed.[1]" The use of leading questions are often restricted, as they tend to allow the examiner to influence the evidence presented. Frequently, leading questions lead to binary answers. For example, question: "You were at the restaurant last night, weren't you?" The answer is either 'yes' or 'no'. 

While I absolutely encourage performers to make the exercise of analysing a work on an emotional level, I wonder whether we should share our findings with our audiences for fear that we 'cheapen' their experience. Think about it: in the moments before a performance you want to do your best to focus the attention of the listener as well as prepare them for the emotional experience you wish them to have. If you were to give away what they should feel, would they not spend the performance comparing their experience with their expectations?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


For the last 6 months or so I've had an unfinished composition sitting on my desk next to my laptop. The piece is a multi-movement fantasia (of sorts) for solo baroque bassoon. The piece is written in a shorthand which, like a number of my own compositions for solo bassoon, allows me the freedom to explore my musical ideas from one performance to another. The composition hasn't been finished because the inspiration for it comes from a rather dark memory which I've been reluctant to dig up. The reason I write about it today, however, has to do with the title.

While I am no expert in the realm of new music, I can imagine that the variety in stylings which their titles take today are only increasing. Most instrumental works in centuries past were not given a name. We know them by the ways we categorize them; their form, key and, if they were published, by their order of in the collection (e.g. Suite in G major, Op. 3 no. 1). Of course, exceptions to the rule existed - take the instrumental repertoire of the French baroque, for example. Free today are we, however, to break from this tradition.

So I took it upon myself to title the work and its movements hinting to the particular memories they were inspired by. While I'm not bothered by the thought of performing a work born out of a personal experience to a public audience, for some reason I'm fighting the urge to explicitly identify what brought about the work. Funny to me is that, though I am plausibly fearful of ridding myself of a comfortable space between me an my audience, I think my apprehension here stems from the fear that I am effectively creating a work of 'low' art.

Think about it, I'm writing a piece about a woman. Elements of it do have some real sophistication which I spent time working out: it incorporates a notational shorthand which I developed after studying early western musical manuscripts, for example.

It's a puzzling fear to have. I suppose it boils down to an adherence to The Poietic Fallacy. A theory of Richard Taruskin, which points to the hegemony within western classical music of valuing the particularities of a work's construction over its reception or ability to move an audience. While a dedication of a work would fit within the canon, betraying that the compositional process was driven by an emotional response somehow seems to me to be too revealing. Even discussing the topic has been hard: a draft of this post has been sitting in my outbox for two months now.

For the moment I don't know if this circle can be squared.
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