Friday, November 21, 2014

I saw an attack on Schenker in Ferment Magazine

How convenient when I had just a month ago praised Schenker as one of my staple music theoricians. First, here is a link to the article I am refuting:

Ferment Magazine : Is Language A Language Language?
An introduction to the analytic systems of Noam Chomsky for language, and Heinrich Schenker for classical music

Now, for first quote:

"The difficulty lies in the fact that, although Schenker is guilty of nothing more sinister than drawing up personal connections between notes, chords, themes, harmonies, patterns and subdivisions within a classical composition, in exactly the same way that every serious musician does in mastering a piece, (Schenker was a piano prodigy) he is the only one that had the temerity to write his subjective choices down as a system to which everyone , including the composers themselves, were henceforth obligated to follow!"

Actually the system as such is so abstract that many pieces can be analyse in more than one ways!

As to everyone, including Brahms and Beethoven themselves being forced to follow his concrete analyses of such a piece of Brahms or such another piece of Beethoven, obviously he was a bit late to prescribe these composers anything. I have not read his analyses - except in excerps by Felix Salzer made to illustrate such and such a rule.

As to composers, and as to Der Freie Satz with its follow up in Salzer's Structural Hearing, it seems Schenker intended to give a kind of, to put it bluntly, "brain storming tool," or if you prefer the kind of "bypassing of a brain storming" which dramatic and novelistic writers have in the "five act structure" and similar. I will now quote a paragraph without the ending words, before commenting on them a little later:

"For some reason inexplicable to me, Schenker felt it his personal duty to cut away the human possibilities in a composition, much as a surgeon cuts away infected tissue, in order for him to get at what he believed to be the pure or absolute music underneath."

Not at all!

He was a Platonic, eager to lay bare for purposes of understanding a deep structure, much as a draughtsman perfectly capable of drawing a head without the circle, eye line, nose line, mouth line, nevertheless may give these to others when giving lessons. Mark Crilley and Marvel Comics and some manga related stuff are three major such courses on the market.

He was equally eager - or at least his disciple Salzer was - to demonstrate WHAT had been taken away to reach deep structure from composition, so as to give the composer a good hint of what kind of things he could add if going the other way round.

I have obviously profited.

Salzer actually did widen the attention to other music than the "Twelve Olympians" of Schenker - including such as lack a proper Bassbrechung at the bottom or even a proper Urlinie on top! I have myself used a "Bass ornamentation" instead of a "triadic" or "fifth related" Bassbrechung, i e instead of C-G-C (CEGC, CDGC, CFGC) I have used an ornamentation like C-Bb-C or C-D-Bb-C. Much rock is probably written that way, but obviously without the artists admitting as much spontaneously.

It is at least analysable that way.

Actually, there is another way of drawing than help lines, Japanese zen painters paint each detail as it comes to their mind, a novel can be written that way too, and I am doing it (around half way through), and the Marx after whom I consider myself a "real Marxist" (Adolf Bernhard, not Karl, nor even Groucho) recommended this for composers too: "first do everything you KNOW belongs to" whatever your plan is, including its beginning and end and "then look at the unwritten parts and determine them from surrounding written ones".

Now for the ending words of same paragraph and how it leads up to a quote:

"He admits as much in many places. Here is a typical quotation:

"Basically, a composition does not require a performance in order to exist. Just as any imagined sound appears real in the mind, the reading of a score is sufficient to prove the existence of the composition. The mechanical realization of the work of art can thus be considered superfluous . " ( H. Schenker, "The Art of Performance" )"

We are dealing with apples and oranges!

Just because a composition is a preset programme for good music which is good (or bad) in itself, even before being played, it doesn't mean he wants to do away with it.

Plus the quotation is understood with as little sensitivity for language as sometimes Chomsky shows (sorry Noam, but I said "sometimes"!):

"The mechanical realization of the work of art can thus be considered superfluous ."

"Can be considered" is closer to "could be considered" than to "is". If he had thought mechanical performance really WAS totally and unambiguously superfluous, and something to be surgically cut away, he would not have written the book. "The Art of Performance" - right?

But the author goes on to state that it is arrogant to presume the performance which is correct is one close to the script. He gives an analogue:

"William Shakespeare did not envisage all the ways of seeing "Macbeth". He would have found it very strange to be told that he was obliged to anticipate all possible ways of performing "Macbeth" before putting them in his script. To the contrary, Shakespeare provides the foundation on which the actor can build a character named "Macbeth". The attempt to do otherwise would require the composition of a script of 10,000 pages or more. Even then the project would fail."

I don't think Shakespear would agree. He anticipated the one ideal way.

He wrote his drama in verse. And verse can famously be recited in two ways, one intended to hide it is verse - called declamation - and one intended to bring forth the verse, called scansion.

Of course, we are not quite talking about the mechanical scansion which is really exaggerated rather than straight. But I am pretty certain even pentameter was meant to be heard and remembered at least partially as verse. To take a parallel, Sophocles certainly wanted people to recall for iambic trimeter a line like:

ει θεοι τι δρωσιν αισχρον ουκ εισιν θεοι

He wanted the first θεοι to approximate one syllable and the second to be the two it is spelled like. He wanted this because he wanted people in the audience to recall it. And he knew it was easier to recall if rhythmical.

Both iambic trimeter and pentameter (five single iambs vs three double iambs, so pentameter is shorter) are however not meant to be read so rhythmically that one can't here the conversation imitation through it either.

But indeed, there are composers who want to give their performers less freedom than others, being tired of diva-dom. Mozart is one, and I think Schenker sympathised.

For my own part, I have given liberty to the good taste of performers in dynamics (as much as folk and pop composers), when I give a tablature for the guitar I am giving a fingering which serves as a help to those claiming not to read notes (I have come across such) and as a check for myself if the thing is at all playable - I have rewritten some, not because I tried physically, but because I saw a problem in the tablature. If a good guitarist wants another fingering, so be it, if the notes are the same.

"To the extent that music is a performing art the same considerations apply . Artur Rubinstein did not simply follow Chopin's instructions, nor even those latent in his deep structures! What he gave to his audiences was Rubinstein playing Chopin, albeit with intelligence and respect. Indeed, what Rubinstein found in a Chopin composition, very much resembled what Schenker "finds" in classical compositions: notes, chords, patterns, themes, harmonies , sections, and connections between them - his connections, not Rubinstein's, nor Richter's, nor Liberace's, nor (God forbid!) Yanni's .

The major difference between Schenker and the above, is that he wrote them out, called them a system and demanded that everyone else follow suit."

I am not sure whether the real idiot here is the author - or ostentatiously antischenkerian musicians.

I am sure Rubinstein may have disagreed on the connections to make in a composition of Chopin as to those made by Schenker of same composition. I am sure the connexions made by Rubinstein are pretty close to what he would have made if a Schenkerian - though obviously another Schenkerian than Schenker was when analysing same composition. In other words, though Rubinstein may have very honestly sneered at Schenker's analysis of a certain piece of Chopin, if he had added he was sneering also at what was written in Der Freie Satz, I am not sure he would have been honest. Again and again in music theoricians who write on such or such a composer - I half remember some example about Verdi - we find they do refer to this (naked) rising fourth then getting a parallel in a following (ornamented) rising fourth and so on - exactly as in Schenkerian theory.

The value of Schenkerian system as a theoretical tool is not dependent on the Schenkerian analyses made by Schenker himself. The abstract system is not quite dead, it is rather more frequently followed than not, but more frequently not mentioned as the theoretical basis, just as Rock Musicians may (perhaps in some cases for tactical reasons of personal profit) more often mention what beach inspires them and what emotional mood (alas, often a lecherous one!) inspires them than what exact Schenkerian Ursatz they are ornamenting with what exact steps to the middle ground and what exact more steps to the foreground. Perhaps they take a different approach when once famous they mentor a younger artists, but not so much when giving interviews for "Les Inrockuptibles".

But if from such musicians complaining about Schenker the writer in Ferment Magazine is concluding that Schenker has nothing to give musicians or composers, or that disagreeing with his analyses means disagreeing with his system of analysis (again, it is so abstract that some and even many great compositions are ambiguous as to exact analysis in it, as he might have denied but as Salzer affirmed), he has perhaps really been naive.

There is a publicity value for artists to deny following theoricians. If I do not do so, I might simply not agree with the ideology that says basically (though not in so many words) that Mozart was an original genius who had never heard of Riepl. Piano practise, yes, that is good publicity for piano teachers, but composition textbooks? Fux for counterpoint? Riepl for harmony and contemporary forms? Admitting that would make composition a less secretive élitist trade than some guys want.

Some guys for instance want a composer to be required to first master an instrument in order for him to have had a mentor (I have had both a loaned guitar reclaimed and a bought recorder stolen to stop me from learning an instrument on my own independently of the methodology and ideology of mentor wannabes). And such people can't stand the idea of just a mere anybody learning to compose for instance classical music without a mentor (whether their ideal mentor is Jewish or Gipsy, Negro or Cowboy, Freemason, Communist or Satanist depends on their ideology - but they do not quite like the idea of "here are three chords, now form a band" except for those using the three chords like they would themselves).

And to conclude from the obvious factoid that Schenker is dull that a composer using him somewhat as a guideline is writing dull music, is total bosh. Schenker had a case for saying a composition can be judged by those who can read the music internally from the paper. If I can't, except for rhythm, ma can and she has approved of mine.

As to Chomsky, that is another story. There are things about some of his more intricate tree diagrams I would like to get a grip on, not because necessarily best analysis for language (I am a Latinist - how do you get tree diagrams for free word order with optional chiasmic insertions of one part into another?)

Hans Georg Lundahl
Bpi, Georges Pompidou
Présentation de la
Très Sainte Vierge dans le Temple
21 - XI - 2014

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