Wednesday, April 7, 2010

performance practice, contd

The article I mentioned in my last post, which I still can't find online, accuses a lot of serious musicians and music critics of condescending snobbery in their distaste for artists like Tchaikovsky and Horowitz. Richard Taruskin makes many points, (not all well-connected): first, that people dislike Horowitz for his idiosyncratic interpretations that deviate from composers' notations. Second, they dislike Horowitz because his approach was overly audience-oriented, or geared toward "the performance," rather than the music itself, or the composer who wrote the music. Third, that these people are pretentious for putting themselves above their audiences, for claiming not to even care what their listeners think of their interpretations, even while depending on those very same people for their own livelihood.

To make a straw man of Taruskin's own argument, what he's saying can be summarized as follows. There are two basic types of performers: those who don't care at all what their audiences think, because they see themselves merely as media through which the composer is communicating, and those who are trying to make music for an audience to enjoy. (You'll have to trust me that my oversimplification is nothing compared to his own caricature of the music world.) In reality, the situation is much more complicated, and he only captures a small portion of it in his article.

In the real world, there is music like Tchaikovsky's, which, in my humble opinion, though often pleasing enough, generally doesn't compare (with a few exceptions) to the music of his superior contemporaries, tuneful as it may be. There's the music of Mahler, which, though it's often impossible to appreciate on first listening, or to a novel ear, reveals its greatness with a little work on the part of the listener. But there's also pop music, which, obviously, listeners enjoy a lot, but we don't perform at Carnegie Hall.

The point Taruskin tries to make is that, since audiences like Tchaikovsky and Horowitz, we must be snobs if we criticize it. But does that make us snobs for not appreciating Tik Tok and Taylor Swift the same way we revere the Goldberg Variations? Taruskin's problem is that, while he rightly acknowledges that performances of classical music often miss the whole point of appealing to an audience and sharing great art with them, they can also be overly indulgent of an audience's baser desires and tastes. People love it when a pianist goes on stage and wows them with the sheer physical achievement of something like "flight of the bumblebee," but the whole point of "art" music, whatever the point is, is to get beyond an obsession with the performer and get an audience to appreciate music for its own sake. This distinction is, after all, what separates the world of "classical" music from the world of popular music. (That's not to say that pop music can't be good, or even great, but just that it isn't generally composed to be listened to with full attention on the music.)

Where then, do we draw the line, then? Surely what we want is a middle-ground, where performance is about music, not about a mythical composer, or about a mythical performer.


  1. What the hell is Tik Tok? Am I that out of touch with the youth of today?

    How do you feel about "art music" performers who also make a side career out of doing a lot of crowd-pleasing pop? Like Placido Domingo.

    Do they make you read/study a lot about kitsch in music school? I think that entire academic discussion applies pretty directly to what you're getting at here. Here's a good intro:

  2. hm hm there's nothing i like more than a discussion of snobbery/the giant question "what is art?" it's interesting to read this bc i never think much about these questions from a musician's perspective. in writing (obviously), there's no composer/performer duality, just writers. OOH though i suppose that the first "writers" (eg homer) were epic poets who all performed their own variations of the same few stories. fascinating.

    anyway, the theory i've settled on is that to be a great artist, you want to know those who came before you incredibly well, and appreciate/love all of their specific gifts, but you can't be afraid or intimidated or deferential to them, or you'll never join them as an equal. i suppose in terms of music this means that i'm more interested in a performer who's not afraid to (knowledgeably) put their own spin on a great composer's work--to be in conversation with it rather than just rapidly taking notes and saying mhm the whole time (metaphorically speaking). the latter might require great technical skill, but no soul at all. and i like soul.

    also, comparing tik tok to the goldberg variations is pretty ridiculous because their intent is in no way the same/(as you pointed out) they require totally different types of listener interaction. like, when i want to dance on a table and spill beer everywhere, i put on the goldberg variations--can tik tok achieve the same? i think not.

  3. 1. K your blog is almost as pretentious as mine

    2. Seriously though, you're right in asserting that Taruskin's bipartite division (which I'm sure he didn't mean literally) is a simplification. But I think that your spectrum of popular to more truly artistic (Tik Tok to Mahler) is itself somewhat limiting. I won't continue on this subject because it's not interesting ANYWAY

    3. We don't want a middle ground. We want Mahler some of the time, when we're in the mood for it. But sometimes we want lighter stuff. We have to be aware of our audiences, but not limited by them. We have to try to appeal to them but also always try to elevate them. Also, I really don't think that Tchaikovsky deserves this rather harsh treatment (Eugene Onegin is pretty legit)--I would propose attaching the slightly-more-shallow categorization to either Vivaldi or Rachmaninoff

    4. Your blog is totally Tchakovsky. But mine isn't Mahler--it's more like a really really badly written uninteresting attempt at Mahler (that was JUST the right amount of self deprecation).