Musical Meaning and Musicality in Performance

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For many years now I’ve found the distinction that Lucy Green makes between ‘inherent’ and ‘delineated’ musical meanings a useful way to think about music. It’s a dialectic between meanings that are created in and by the musical materials themselves (and she draws significantly on Leonard Meyer, another favourite theorist of mine, for this) and meanings that are attributed to music by the culture in which it subsists.

As is often the case with dialectics, the pairing has a way of constantly deconstructing itself on one hand (you find you can access the inherent meanings except through cultural filters, so do the inherent meanings really exist?) whilst still remaining a robust and useful distinction to make. I wrote about this tendency many years ago in an article that engaged with the question of whether the social meanings we find in music are carried within the music itself or simply read into it.

Through years of teaching, I’ve also observed how this distinction provides a useful way to account for how people learn music. (Indeed, I note that Lucy Green is herself a music education specialist – and one of the few who has found a dedicated readership in ‘mainstream’ musicology and music theory.)

A lot of formal music education is about indoctrinating students into the standard – arguably rather clichéd – narratives of what you should know ‘about’ music in order to make sense of it. These narratives usually include a heavy dollop of composer biography, embedded in narratives of changing style, explained in terms of both cultural values (e.g. enlightenment vs romanticism) and material circumstances (e.g. aristocratic patronage vs public concert halls).

Students of classical music typically find themselves simultaneously resisting this book-learning (‘why do I need to know this in order to play the trumpet?’) and resisting attempts to critique it (‘but of course Beethoven was the greatest composer of all time, how dare you tell me that ‘genius’ is a culturally-contingent category!’). And these are good questions. Is it possible to play classical music well if you don’t know the ‘correct’, i.e. authorised, delineated meanings? And is it possible to continue playing classical music well once you have learned to be sceptical about the values those meanings are founded upon?

But the big thing you notice through teaching is that people just can’t do without delineated meanings. If you don’t provide a framework to make sense of the musical materials through the curriculum, people will invent their own. This is most clearly observable in students with less well developed scholarly methods. Bookish types will go to the library and absorb the standard narratives of musical context and rationale well enough that they sound plausibly well-informed. Less bookish students will draw on a smattering of possibly not very appropriate reading and a couple of half-remembered facts and make up a narrative that connects them together. Knowledge is a like a dot-to-dot picture, and scholarly types produce a recognisable picture by getting lots of dots in place, while imaginative types find a couple of dots and make up their own picture to fit.

Now the million-dollar question is whether the home-grown, unauthorised delineated meanings (the invented picture) are any good for helping performers produce meaningful performances. A rather striking finding of Victoria Vaughan’s PhD on the effect on performances of studying music analysis was that the invented stimulus had just as much effect on student performers as the ‘real’ analyses (though she rather copped out of making judgements about the relative quality of performances). On the other hand, examiners often have reason to comment that particular performances show a lack of awareness for style or understanding of the piece – that is, inadequate grasping of the delineated meanings is undermining the execution of the inherent meanings.

My instinct is that it is less the veracity of the meanings a performer brings to their interpretation that determines the musical quality of the results than the coherence and detail. A scholarly approach does at least give you a method to achieve both of these qualities, since you can draw on a vast, culturally-agreed body of knowledge to feed your imagination. But the inventive approach shows us that the joining of the points, the assimilating research into a personal understanding is an inherently creative approach, and that the difference between those who rely on the ‘correct’ delineated meanings and those who invent their own is one of extent, not of kind.

This is analagous to acting. When I was teaching theatre I was constantly amazed by all the work students would put into creating a "back story" for their character. They would create an imagined life, likes and dislikes, childhood, etc. etc. Sometimes this was real (if playing a historical character) and sometimes imagined (for a fictional character). It is a particular approach to acting (Stanivlaski) which is widely taught and which I am very much against for the following reason.

Having done all this preparatory work I would watch the actors play a scene and try to direct them to help make it better. Often each actor could speak for ages about the analysis they had done on their character's background. It satisfied their intellectual curiosity and allowed them to think they had actually been working. But the results of this work were not evident. It had no affect on the actions and behaviour that I could see in front of me.

As you point out, the veracity of the meanings a musician brings to an interpretation is not important. But what is important is HOW and IF those meanings, history, context, etc. are APPLIED. If it just remains as a block of information inside the head, then it is a waste of time.

Both in acting and music I don't this application of research is taught well or nearly enough. I had students with back stories coming out of their ears, but NO IDEA on how to translate that into performance. There needs to be a conversion from facts in the head to action with the body.

From the Front of the Choir

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