Saturday, January 30, 2010

On musical editions

One of the most baffling aspects of music-making for a student just beginning to learn the repertoire of his instrument is navigating the dozens of different editions available of the same standard works. If you want to learn (say) one of the Beethoven piano sonatas, you can choose between editions of many different colours, shapes and sizes, dating from any time between the mid-19th century and last week, and ranging in price from pocket change to hundreds of dollars.

(As an aside, one of my favourite things about playing contemporary music is not having to deal with any of this. The works are in copyright and are therefore almost always available in only a single edition, and if for some reason there's more than one version floating around, a quick call to the composer can resolve the problem.)

Beginner students usually opt for the cheapest and most readily available editions, a purchase they often later regret. More advanced players in academic settings generally look for a "scholarly" edition, which usually means one with minimal editorial additions and a detailed critical apparatus explaining the reasons for the editor's decisions. Few of these performers, of course, actually bother to read the editor's introduction or critical commentary, and so purchases like these serve mostly as status symbols. Having a Bärenreiter or Henle edition on the music stand means that you're a performer with intelligence and critical acumen, and whatever musical text lies inside the handsomely-printed eighty-dollar volumes can be trusted implicitly to represent the intentions of the composer.

That all of this has more to do with skillful marketing than musicological substance is evident enough, and nothing exemplifies the problem better than the prevalence of the term "Urtext" to describe these prestigious editions. The idea is attractive enough: beneath the accumulated errors of past editions lies the underlying, primordial text of the composition (Ur-text) that the composer actually wrote. As an art restorer removes layers of grime and grease from an ancient painting, so the Urtext edition removes the impertinent additions of previous editors. And where the editors of those older editions put their own fingerprints on the musical page - Artur Schnabel, Marcel Dupré, Fritz Kreisler - the editors of Urtext editions leave no trace of their own individual tastes or opinions. Faceless, insubstantial shadows, these Urtext editors, hardly there at all.

But all of this presents some problems. If there's such a thing as Urtext, then why are there competing Urtext editions with different readings? In some cases, as in the G. Henle Verlag editions of the Schumann piano music, the same publisher will release more than one version of the same composition, both labelled as Urtext. If there's more than one source for the same piece of music - the original manuscript and a published edition, say - which is the Urtext? What if you're editing Beethoven, who had the world's messiest handwriting, and it's by no means clear-cut what, exactly, the page actually says?

It should be obvious, then, that the production of any musical edition is the result of careful scholarship and editorial oversight. The editor's decisions are the result of many, many complex judgment calls, and should reflect high-quality scholarship and careful comparison of the extant sources. By pretending the editor's role doesn't exist, Urtext editors misrepresent the actual nature of their activity and encourage gullible musicians to accept their decisions without question.

A typical example of this sort of thinking is found in the Broude Trust edition of Buxtehude's organ music. There are no autograph scores for any Buxtehude work, so the only available exemplars of Buxtehude organ pieces are manuscript copies made years after his death (mostly by members of the Bach circle). As one might expect from copies several steps removed from the composer's autograph, all of these sources are problematic, and none are free from errors. Writing in the preface to the new Broude edition, Christoph Wolff rips into previous editors for their decision to present a musical text that uses elements from all of the available sources. The best an editor can do, says Wolff, is to provide "a conservative rendering of an extant source." And so that's what the Broude edition gives you - for each work, the editors have picked what they consider to be the least problematic source, and used it as the basis for their text, consulting other manuscripts only when their chosen source has some blatantly obvious error.

Now, an intelligent user of the Broude edition has the option of working around the editor's decisions. Reading from rejected manuscripts are carefully catalogued in the critical apparatus, so that a performer who so chooses can compile his own composite version. But the average person who consults an edition such as this won't think the score is a "conservative reading" of the editor's favourite "extant source" - he'll think that it represents the Buxtehude Urtext. The antiseptic surface of the edition obscures the decisions that went into it.

In the 19th century, the editor was so highly thought of that he was free to add expression markings, tempo indications, and sometimes alter the notes themselves according to their interpretation of the essence of the score. In the 21st century, the editor is so lowly thought of that he is not to be trusted even to compare readings from different manuscripts. A middle ground seems necessary, and I think the expansion of digital technology will provide it.

Consider: if you want to look at a physical copy of a Buxtehude source or a Beethoven first edition, it's a pain. It's in some library, probably in Europe, and you'll need to take a week and fly there, and as you can't just stick the manuscript on the photocopier, if you want to refer to it after your visit you'll need to bring some staff paper and a pencil. Today, however, all of the most important manuscripts are available in facsimile editions, and many of those have now been digitized and are available for free through various online sources. Why would you want to pay $200 for some editor's "conservative reading of an extant source" when you have instantaneous access to the extant sources from your living room, and can read them in as conservative or liberal a way as you like?

This is not mere flippancy. Serious early music performers today are now expected to be conversant with the manuscript sources of their repertoire, and to be able to read the notation. If the published edition is nothing more than a mechanical transcription of a single manuscript that you could do yourself, why would you pay the Broude Trust's two-hundred-dollar price tag? And if the goal of an "Urtext" edition is to remove all unnecessary barriers between you and the original sources, why do we still need these editions when the original sources have lapsed into the public domain and are available online?

Music publishers are going to have to answer these questions if they expect their business to have a long-term future. If I just want the notes to a Beethoven string quartet in an easy-to-read edition, there are free public-domain editions on IMSLP. If I want to take a more scholarly approach, I can make emendations to that public-domain edition from the original sources. In neither case does a music publisher have anything to offer that I can't already get for free. The one thing they can offer, however, is the talent, expertise and experience of intelligent editors, people who know a lot more about the music than I do. Rather than telling them to keep their talent, expertise and experience to themselves, publishers can remain relevant by encouraging them to take chances, to give the performer as much to work with as possible, and to always explain themselves fully. Unfortunately, many music publishers give the impression of being superannuated and complacent, living entirely off the proceeds of orchestral part rentals for the few canonical works that are still under copyright. If they can't adjust to the new realities of digital distribution, they will become irrelevant.

After all, the only thing stopping many of us from using digital scores for our music-reading needs is the lack of a cheap, readily available tablet PC that can read PDF files.

Errrr. Wait a minute.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The angelic doctor

Happy (probable) birthday, Thomas Aquinas!!

783? Really? You don't look a day over 624.

Wikipedia tells me that other birthdays today include pianist Artur Rubinstein; painter Jackson Pollock; Canada's second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie; the hilarious novelist David Lodge; the great font-maker John Baskerville; and, er, Sarah McLachlan.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Canadian intellectuals

One of the odder phenomena of the information age, if you think about it, is the public intellectual. Prior to the twentieth century, of course, many thinkers could gain a large public audience - one thinks of Kant, whose lectures at Königsberg were immensely popular and whose published writings attracted substantial interest in his lifetime - but the limitations of technology prevented them from achieving anything like the public cachet of a Foucault or a McLuhan. A public intellectual, in other words, needs an advanced information culture to distribute his ideas - access to mass publishing houses, to periodicals with large circulations, and to radio and television.

Yet at the same time, modern culture tends to be corrosive of the sort of broad-based learning required by the public intellectual. An advanced technological society, after all, requires a wide array of specialist-technicians in order to function properly - but specialist knowledge in itself is of no interest to an audience outside the field. A thinker doesn't find an audience simply by regurgitating information, but by placing it within a framework of values and ideals, a framework which is inevitably philosophical or theological. A specialist-technician with a particular talent for interpretation - a Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, or Michael Pollan - may of course have an important role to play in popularizing his subject, but one would never go to them for advice on a political or moral dilemma. When such a person tries to overreach the bounds of his expertise, as in the recent work of Richard Dawkins, the result is an embarrassing train wreck. Specialist expertise is important, indeed essential, but can never explain the most important things in life.

The paradox of the public intellectual, then, is the combination of up-to-the-minute technology and the ancient tradition of liberal learning. In an educational system that alternately jams pupils full of facts like stuffed squash and encourages them to regard their uninformed prejudices as sacrosanct, the public intellectual tries to engage the life of the mind with the real world around around us, exemplifying the classical ideal of education as something that transforms the whole person. Such a thinker can have a transformative effect on society either for good or for ill, depending on your perspective; both C. S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell were prominent public intellectuals in midcentury Britain, but to accept the philosophy of one is to decisively reject the other.

Figures of this sort seem to come and go in waves. G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc carved out a substantial place for themselves in turn-of-the-century Britain, with a couple of hundred books between the two of them and the combined energy and fortitude of several steam locomotives; George Bernard Shaw, meanwhile, was carving out his own inimitable place in intellectual history. The culture of France was changed forever by such thinkers as Sartre, de Beavoir, Foucault, Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, and Aron, all of whom were highly visible during the 1960s. No Canadian thinkers are quite this famous, but a group of midcentury Toronto academics came the closest, led by Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan's media theories are subtle and complex. They were never very well understood by his critics, and even less so by his supporters, who tried to turn a conservative Roman Catholic English professor into an Age of Aquarius prophet. He now enjoys the unenviable fate of being criticized both by contemporary media theorists, who see his ideas as old-fashioned, and by conservative social critics, who see him as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the '60s. (Neither group, of course, has actually read his work.) Usually lumped together with McLuhan, for no apparent reason, is the literary theorist Northrop Frye. Frye's project in his famous Anatomy of Criticism, once a standard textbook, is nothing less than a taxonomy of all literary genres, showing how all stories reflect certain narrative patterns and tropes that relate to the patterns of mythology. This approach is now condemned as ahistorical and prescriptivist and whatever, but it's hard not to be convinced by Frye's elegant writing style and encyclopedic knowledge of English literature. His The Educated Imagination, an infinitely wise, pocket-sized love letter to the art of fiction, is too little known; I read it almost every year.

Needless to say, I think McLuhan and Frye are due for reevaluation. But some of their contemporaries have fallen even further from the public eye. Harold Innis, a formative influence on McLuhan, was probably one of the most important figures in Canadian academic history; he shares his colleague's fascination with technology and communications, but not his maddeningly elusive writing style. And the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies brought a number of philosophers to Canada who deserve acknowledgment among a wider audience than us antiquarian recusants - notably Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson.

But I'd like to make a special case for George Grant, a writer I've recently unearthed. For many years a philosophy professor at McMaster, Grant's writings critique technological modernity from a conservative standpoint. (By "conservatism", of course, I don't mean today's individualist, free-market nonsense, but the defence of legitimate particularity against the abstract rationalism of modernity.) Grant was arguably the last true conservative to have any influence in Canadian politics, as all three of the major Canadian political parties now cooperate in Canada's ongoing economic and cultural integration with the United States. Grant's work will never be popular - his writing style is too starchy, and his tone too pessimistic, to appeal to a mass public - but for those who are intrigued by his ideas, Grant provides much that is remarkably prescient, and much that will reward careful study.

Expect more on this as I work through more of Grant's work. Agree with them or not, Grant and his contemporaries are important figures in Canadian history, and if we ignore them it is only to our loss.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On the importance of punctuation

Today I listened to my phone messages and discovered that someone had attempted to send a text message to my landline phone. Never fear, however: the phone company had considerately provided a machine-read voice version of the text message.

The only thing was, it was an awfully rude message. It began by barking orders ("Call my cell!") and then unhelpfully informed me that if I want to get back in touch, I should. . . have a good day?
Our landline is not working; call my cell.
If you need to reach us, have a good day!
Well, indeed.

(Recovering the original intent of the message is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A memorandum to politicians

or: Three Truths Which, If Broadly Accepted By Major Players Of All Political Persuasions, Would Render The Current Level of Political Discourse Significantly Less Appalling Than It Is At Present

  1. Nothing as complex as North American society can be managed using a single set of ideological principles. Rather, the maintenance of social order depends on a variety of different methods of operating, most of which exist in a constant state of tension.
  2. It is perfectly possible for intelligent, well-informed people with the best interests of society at heart to disagree fundamentally on all major political issues.
  3. Human nature is the root cause of all abuses of power. Transferring power from one elite to another (business, state, aristocracy, or whatever) will thus never be effective for the long term in remedying any social ill.

Move along.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Three cheers for elitism

A. C. Douglas links to a blog post on arts funding by composer David Byrne:
The LA Opry production of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” is budgeted at $32 million. 32 million! Jeez, Broadway shows don’t cost that much; U2’s concert tour might, but then that’s a stadium show… and in those latter two instances the people who wrote them are still living!

[. . .]

I think maybe it’s time to stop, or more reasonably, curtail somewhat, state investment in the past — in a bunch of dead guys (and they are mostly guys, and mostly dead, when we look at opera halls) — and invest in our future. Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close — forgo some of those $32M operas — and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys.
ACD points out, quite rightly, that funding arts education and funding performing arts companies are complementary goals, not mutually exclusive ones. That is, a healthy performing arts community cannot long exist without a reservoir of amateur music-lovers to draw on - people who play instruments, write music of their own, and listen to professional musicians with a fellow craftsman's appreciation - and this sort of amateur culture cannot develop unless men and women have the experience of making music themselves during their formative years. And contrariwise: few things are more inspiring to a young musician than watching a really fine live professional performance, and so without support for professional performing arts organizations any community of amateur musicians would be severely curtailed. The two levels of activity are, or ought to be, mutually reinforcing. And if Byrne thinks the balance between them is askew, with too much emphasis on professional music-making and not enough on amateur music-making, then surely the solution is to find some way to foster amateur music-making without further alienating the professional music community.

(Having said that, I'm not convinced that the LA Ring is worth $32 million, quite frankly. Flip through the production photos of Rheingold and judge for yourself - I don't claim to be a Wagner expert, but surely Fricka isn't supposed to be portrayed by a giant papier-mâché clown? Truly hideous.)

Fine. But what I find really objectionable in Byrne's entry is rhetoric like the following:
[Thomas] Hoving and a couple of others, following this line of thinking, created the blockbuster museum show — which famously brought Tut to the masses, and made the Met and other like-minded museums into temples for all, instead of the dusty halls for academics they had become. Hard to remember, but the Met was once a fussy old place, and now it’s super popular — which is not in itself a bad thing. Although the idea was loudly espoused that art was for all, and all could benefit from exposure to it (something like a flu shot), this idea was not exactly democratic, not as I would define it — though it was certainly portrayed as democratizing art and culture. What the movement was actually doing was letting more people know that culture was, and is, HERE, and you slobs, you hoi polloi, are over HERE. We want you all to look at it, and listen to it, but don’t even think you could ever make it, or that your feeble efforts are anywhere close to these Himalayan peaks we have on display.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the reason to have an art museum is precisely that the work displayed therein is better that you could do yourself. To assert that the average attendee at the Met is not as talented an artist as Picasso is not "undemocratic" - it's common sense.

This sort of anti-elitist, power-to-the-people rhetoric is not new. Inasmuch as it arises from an impulse to cultivate amateur artistry, I cannot fault it; after all, my own livelihood depends on ordinary people from all walks of life who make music together in church choirs, or take part in congregational singing. But by condemning traditional culture as somehow undemocratic or soul-destroying, by yielding to the immature and childish wish to take "Bill Shakespeare" and "opry" down a peg, it misses the point of culture. The great works of the past, properly understood, are not a disincentive to new creation, but a part of an ongoing conversation in which we can participate. They shape our thinking so that our own creations will be part of a living tradition, in the best sense of that word - in some ways similar, in others different.

The composers, artists and writers who we meet in museums, libraries and concert halls knew all of this, of course. So do Indian sitar players and West African drummers and Javanese gamelan musicians, whose art depends precisely upon their engagement with a longstanding tradition dating back to preliterate antiquity. The only people who have forgotten it are affluent, 21st-century Westerners, who need to learn it again.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The world in six embarrassing mistakes

If you told someone in the year 1950, say, that the nonfiction bestseller lists in the 2000s would be full of books about music cognition, you would probably have been laughed out of town. Yet anyone with the slightest interest in music has now read either Musicophilia or This is Your Brain on Music, usually both. Music teachers, always anxious for new ways to justify their existence to poker-faced administrators, were filled with renewed vigour: if popular science books are for us, who can be against us? Yet, despite my admiration for author Oliver Sacks, a particularly gifted essayist, I've managed to enter 2010 without reading either of these music cognition books, in which happy state I would have persisted indefinitely had I not received The World in Six Songs as a Christmas gift.

The World in Six Songs is by Daniel Levitin, and is a sequel of sorts to his This is Your Brain on Music; where the earlier book tried to give the lay reader an account of the relationship between music and the brain, this new book purports to describe all of musical expression as manifestations of six song archetypes, each of which fulfills its own evolutionary role. A book whose stated goal is to "explain" aesthetic experience as an epiphenomenon of neo-Darwinian evolutionary processes sets off all the Neon Arrow alarm bells; furthermore, the first few chapters of the book seem to be designed for the explicit purpose of annoying me. Does the first chapter set out the axiom that classical and popular musics are really at bottom the same thing, that no distinction can be made between them except personal preference, and that anyone who disagrees is ignorant and bigoted? Check. (Has anyone noticed that the level of invective directed against anti-pop recusants increases in inverse proportion to their actual numbers?) Does the book make the nonsensical and historically illiterate equation of orally transmitted folk musics with electrically transmitted pop musics? Check. Is it full of proofreading mistakes? Oh, my friends, is it ever full of proofreading mistakes. Levitin thinks "opus" is the name of a musical genre, falls all over himself in a mercifully brief allusion to Gregorian chant, and cites the Song of Songs with Handel's Messiah as an archetypical example of religious music, even though none of its musical settings are particularly well-known and the poem is religious only by analogy. Anecdotes and facts that originally appeared earlier in the book are spattered through later chapters more or less at random, each time presented as though the reader was encountering this story for the first time. So sorely does this text need a good proofreader that one wonders if Levitin's publisher has some kind of grudge against him; indeed, early in the book, we find that someone at Viking has inserted "[sic]" into the middle of Levitin's body text.

Enough whining. We've established that I don't like the writer's style or his ideological presuppositions - what about the argument?

The book attempts to subdivide the world's musical repertory into six song types. Some speak to particular emotional states (songs of joy, songs of comfort); others express the bonds between two individuals, or between members of a society (songs of love, songs of friendship). Still others are intended to accompany ceremonial display (songs of religion), or are used as teaching tools to pass on the knowledge of the community (songs of knowledge).

This sounds quite plausible, but I don't like it at all.

One problem is that the model is hard to apply to music of any particular length or complexity; the pieces that I find most satisfying blur the edges of several categories, or seem to invent new categories of their own. Levitin realizes this, and so most of his examples are cherry-picked to express a single mood in uncomplicated terms, including car safety jingles and songs by James Brown "I feel good/I knew that I would" and The Turtles "I can't see me lovin' nobody but you". But what happens to works that express more complicated emotions, or to large-scale song cycles or albums that touch on a wide variety of emotions over the course of an hour, or for that matter to the entire corpus of instrumental music? Levitin can't force any of these into his scheme because their worth has always been based on traditional concepts of aesthetic expression - that they help us to exercise an imaginative perception, or that they exhibit objective beauty of a sort that the listener can apprehend.

The chasm that separates Levitin and myself, in this case, is that his conception of music is instrumental rather than aesthetic. For Levitin, there can be no objective aesthetic standards because our preference for music is the result of evolutionary selection over several millenia. We are attracted to certain combinations of sounds as musical, and consider frequencies an octave apart to be equivalent, because a random mutation caused our ancestors to develop these traits and to thereby attain some competitive advantage over other early hominids. Daniel Dennett is approvingly quoted as saying that we find babies cute not because they are "objectively" cute, but because mothers that find their babies cute care for them more lovingly, which is to the benefit of the species. The spectre of intentionality and free will thus safely banished, we can return to our real task: unmasking the instrumental purpose our attraction to music originally served.

This is all very well, of course, but Levitin can't give a clear account of what advantage that random, musical mutation would have given to that first hominid ape. It's obvious, of course, that social practices like music have evolutionary benefits when they're fully developed - a society that uses music to communicate has many advantages in terms of social cohesion, knowledge transfer, and general cultural sophistication - but random base-pair mutations occur in individuals, not simultaneously in entire societies. It's unclear how possessing an aesthetic sense would give a single individual a competitive advantage in a community where no-one else was capable of perceiving beauty. After all, a meaningful musical experience cannot exist without a community of performers and, still more, a community of listeners who give collective meaning to the musical sounds they create. One would think that a sudden, incomprehensible attraction to meaningless sound combinations would be more of a disadvantage than otherwise, estranging the individual from his peers and turning him into a sort of Pleiocene village idiot. Still less can I understand how random base-pair mutation can account for the totality of aesthetic experience: we perceive the different means of aesthetic communication not as separate activities involving different sense modalities (and thus different parts of the brain), but as an interlinked nexus of activities ("artistic expression") which collectively express our society's imagination and view of itself. Neo-Darwinism has no convincing answer to any of these questions, and I would argue that it cannot provide one, and indeed that it is overstepping its boundaries in trying to do so.

Yet even after all of this it's possible that some neo-Darwinian might be able to plausibly model a way that the interlocking aesthetic phenomena I've described might have served some instrumental purpose at each stage in their evolution. It wouldn't matter, though, because our differences are philosophical, not scientific. If I were merely offering traditional aesthetics as a sort of Occam's Razor solution to the limitations of current knowledge, I could be refuted by the next discovery in neuroscience; however, I'm making the stronger claim that Levitin's project will never succeed, because it's based in a materialist philosophy that is essentially incoherent. An account of our musical perception is an account of consciousness, and a satisfactory account of consciousness can never emerge from a neo-Darwinian analysis. Neo-Darwinism treats all lifeforms as automata without thoughts, feelings, or ideas - it cannot take into account free will or goal-directed thought, because those things cannot be accounted for in material terms. If you insist on making neo-Darwinian processes the sole basis of reality, you have only two options: you can either assert that free will and consciousness do not really exist, like Paul Churchland, or you can sweep them under the rug and hope no-one notices, like Levitin.

With better editing, and with a more anthropological focus, Levitin's "six stories" idea could have made a good short book, or a long academic paper. Embarrassingly, however, he insists on trying to explain all of musical perception in neo-Darwinian terms, and the attempt ends in a messy train wreck.

But I'm still glad of the gift; who ever learned anything from a book they agreed with?