Rich Coburn

piano and organ

The truth, the whole truth, and something resembling the truth

This is the second in a series of posts outlining my personal philosophy of a performer’s obligations to and relationship with a dead composer. This one is about what a score means to me, how much information it contains (or doesn’t contain), and how reliable that information is. 

There is very little overlap between rigorous, scientific logic and the culture of thought that I’ve observed in music schools and professional musical organizations. There probably shouldn’t be. But I’m blessed/cursed with an overactive analytical mind, so I wanted to explore what a score actually represents from a logic based perspective. Instructions? Suggestions? Hints? Unsolvable riddles? It’s my opinion that most of the people I work with greatly overestimate the value of the score in conveying information. Here’s why.

Well-researched scholarly editions and manuscripts available on imslp, I find, are often treated like an expression of a Truth. A treasure map to a holy grail of musical expression. I hear people say all the time that “the composer wanted this” or some version of the phrase “everything you need to know is in the score.” And why not? A score is, in essence, the vast majority of the information we have about a work distilled into an easy to use form.

But herein lies a problem. A score presents a lot of information about a piece of music. But how much of that information gets translated into understanding or knowledge? Let’s begin by considering

the difference between information and knowledge.

It’s true that we have an ever increasing amount of information about the music we classical musicians play. I suppose this should be expected, given that we live in what we ourselves call the Information Age. But have you ever noticed that no one calls this the Knowledge Age? Information and knowledge are sometimes used more or less interchangeably, but they mean incredibly different things. Consider the following example.

If I mention that at its closest, Mars is just over 3 light minutes away, that could constitute information or knowledge for different people. But unless you happen to remember that light travels at almost 300,000 km/s, you won’t know that that means that Mars is roughly 54,000,00 km away. Even if you do know that, the scale of millions of kilometers is probably an abstract concept to you.

Information becomes knowledge when it is presented in a form that is organizable and understandable. In this example, you probably don't understand the terms the information is defined by, the speed of light and the scale of 1,000,000's of kms. If you don't understand the terms used to define a statement, you can't claim to understand the statement. The information presented isn't converted to knowledge. 

A musical score represents a lot of information. An orchestral piece or opera can have hundreds of thousands of notes, plus copious indications about how to play them. If you're looking at a scholarly edition, all those notes might be accompanied by a lengthy essay, and you could conceivably be cross-referencing other editions, or primary and secondary sources. All in all, this is a massive amount of information. And luckily, anyone in this position has presumably had an extensive training, preparing them to convert as much of this information to knowledge as possible. So how successful are then? 

We'll get back to that in a minute, but first let’s consider our ability to understand information which quite a bit simpler. If we are able to accurately and reliably process that amount of subjective data, then it should be easy for us to form

Consensus about cold hard facts

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, I challenge you to find a single fact on which everyone in Canada could agree. (Even something as simple as “one needs to breathe to live” will be disputed by some hippie in B.C., probably living in the town I grew up in, who claims to enter meditative states in which she doesn’t breathe.)

Here’s a less abstract example; it's a well documented fact that eyewitness testimony in court is often unreliable, even when several eyewitness report the same thing. The neurological explanation of this phenomenon is fascinating. It boils down to the fact that we don’t record information like a video, in which all the information is preserved and later played back. It’s more like excerpting what we perceive to be the gist of the information, storing it in a way that makes sense to us, then reconstructing it during recall.  

This means that, importantly, information is recorded differently in different people depending on what makes sense to them. Given the huge range of cultural and personal variances on Earth, this explains the extreme difficulty of finding consensus on just about anything. Different things make sense to us, and so we make different memories and therefore analysis of the same facts. In essence, the same fact or event can have contrasting meanings in two people. And if you can't necessarily agree with someone about objective facts,

can you say that you understand a score with great enough clarity and certainty to know what a composer was after?

I’m sure I can’t. For one thing there, there are some very fundamental elements that we don’t have a full understanding of. For example, Roberto Poli argues very convincingly that an opening wedge—what we today call a crescendo—may have had nothing to do with volume for the first several decades they were used (Beethoven, Chopin etc.). And that a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note did not consistently and explicitly specify a ratio of 3:1 before 1852, and may well have represented the ratio 2:1 (triplets) as late as 1917. 

Most people have complete confidence in the fundamentals Poli is calling into question, as did I before I read his book. But the reason for that isn't that we have any kind of proof of our correctness, only that we don't have any obvious disproof. These are perfect examples of facts that can be construed differently by two people (or cultures) depending on their previously established musical frameworks, and therefore what makes sense to them. 

There’s also the question of pitch. Over the last few centuries in Europe, pitch has fluctuated not by the semitone difference that we generally associate with "early music", but by at least a major third. And this isn't a problem only in Baroque and Classical repertoire; as late as 1975(!) the International Organization for Standardization felt compelled to reaffirm its earlier standardization of A at 440Hz +/- 0.5Hz (ISO 16:1975), which implies that somewhere worth noticing, people were still playing far enough away from that pitch to warrant the ISO's time (I'm not talking about A=443). 

Notice that we’re still dealing with completely tangible and quantifiable elements. 

What about tempo, which is flexible and therefore not easily quantifiable.

Every classical musician knows that Andante means “at a walking pace”. (Literally translated, it actually means “going” which is clearly different when we’re talking about speed. But let’s move past that.)

How fast do you walk? How fast did they walk one or two hundred years ago? Studies suggest our pre-car ancestors walked three to four times as much as we (North Americans) do today. We now use walking less as a primary mode of transportation than as a last resort, or sometimes as a leisure activity. It is not difficult to imagine that as the culture, frequency, and reasons for walking have changed, so has our speed.

These may seem like small surface details, but practically speaking, sometimes the details of articulation are all suggested by a shade of difference of tempo. Or the tempo is dictated by where an aria sits in the human voice (i.e. higher or lower than the composer would have heard it), and the technical difficulties that creates. These little things can easily turn into big things.

The concept of "andante" has now brought us back around to the point made in my last post; the intersection of technology and culture forms a framework through which we view our world, and therefore our art. And we’re also back to asking “do we really understand the terms that our music is defined in?”

In this case I’d have to say “no”. I might kind of mostly understand what Andante means in one specific example. Or have a pretty good educated guess as to whether that dotted rhythm means a triplet or not. But I guess what these things mean, I don't know. 

Let’s bring this whole discussion together.

If you don’t understand the terms, the information you are presented with is not going to turn into knowledge. Over this post and the last, we’ve established that there are a lot of terms—like pitch, indications in the score, and cultural considerations—that we have at least a little doubt or lack of understanding about.

Also, we have different experiences, or at the least different recollections of experiences, based on how we think and what makes sense to us. We each have a unique way of thinking, and this becomes exponentially more evident when we compare ourselves to people from a different culture (including a different time). So it's not hard to imagine that we could understand some of the above topics differently from the composer. 

So to me then, a score is an impression of varying clarity of something a composer imagined. That’s not a really revolutionary statement. But awareness of the obscurity in a score also takes away a certain amount of gravitas from the “because the score says so” argument that’s sometimes used to end differences of musical opinion. And more importantly, it invites a lot more exploration and experimentation from the performer. Way, way more, actually.

And that is exactly what the next section of this series is about.

As always, I'd love your feedback, and to know how you see things differently (since that was a main point of this post). Thanks for reading!


Photography / Photographie:
Brent Calis