Monday, April 18, 2011

The Work Concept

Two Views on the Application of the Work Concept

This paper compares two passages of writing: Lydia Goehr’s ‘Werktreue: Confirmation and Challenge in Contemporary Movements,’ (the final chapter from The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works)[1] and José Bowen’s The History of Remembered Innovation: Tradition and Its Role in Relationship between Musical Works and Their Performances.[2]

Published in similar times, both pieces explore applications of the work concept[3] in terms of its imperialist tendencies and the way it may regulate practice. Goehr examines John Cage’s philosophy of composition and performance, the role of the conductor in the Western ‘classical’ tradition and the practice of ‘historical performance,’ while Bowen explores the work concept and its application in jazz performance, suggesting that the continued use of an oral tradition may stave off the sometimes paralysing tendency of the work concept. By comparing Goehr’s studies of ‘avant-garde’ (John Cage) and historical (what is sometimes labelled as ‘period music’) practices with Bowen’s examination of jazz practice I hope to illuminate how the work-concept may function differently, depending on the context.

Bowen’s study is, in fact, suggested in some of Goehr’s passages. In mentioning the conceptual differences between works, improvisations and transcriptions, she hints that ‘indeterminacy’ of the latter two may suggest a practice in which the work concept’s regulative force is lessened. This is, in fact, one of the main thrusts of Bowen’s paper.

Through our actions, the work-concept or any other open concept reflects our beliefs, ideals, assumptions and expectations.[4] How the concept is used in packaging music, however, may change. For Goehr, these packages may be considered ‘original’ or ‘derivative’ in their employment of a concept. The former does not refer to those examples produced first, but rather those that are produced under the direct regulation of the given concept. ‘Derivative’ examples are produced indirectly from the concept. This second classification is much more problematic in that there are multiple ways in which this method of packaging may come into being. One such example is when musicians from traditions other than western art music incorporate work-concept performative and philosophical notions into their practice. The motivation for doing so may stem from a personal need for legitimisation or marketing. I echo Goehr in suggesting that we lose something when we hear jazz, for example, in a concert hall. In my experience it seems that the conventions of the concert-hall setting create an artificiality that only serves to obscure the musical aesthetic.

Both pieces of writing come across as non-combative (although Richard Taruskin’s foreword for Goehr may lead you to believe otherwise), instead sharing a mentality that “claims that point to someone’s having got something absolutely right, and claims that reveal a belief in the absolute rightness of an idea, do matter.”[5] Goehr does acknowledge that the “Werktreue ideal can be delimiting in scope.”[6] This is, after all, one of the reasons for her writing this book. However her tone remains distanced and rather objective. Bowen seems unwilling to overtly suggest that the application of the work concept is more open in jazz performance than in fully notated music, although I get the impression that that is what he is driving at. The closest he gets is: “for Wittgenstein’s concepts and our musical works indefiniteness is a virtue.”[7] Both writers seem content, through the illumination of concepts, to work with a premise that “wonder can increase rather than be diminished despite philosophical and historical understanding of these ideals.”[8]

The opening pages of Goehr’s chapter expound on the imperialistic tendencies of the Romantic Movement and how many of the ideals of this era have continued to dominate contemporary music practice. The traditional, static notion of history was transformed, via Romanticism, into a dynamic one. This led to the “reconstructing or rewriting the past” that “was and remains one of the most characteristic ways for persons to legitimate their present.”[9] By stripping past pieces of music of their original connections with time and place it was possible to transport them into the present, endowing them with a sort of timelessness. Thus appropriate musical meanings could be conferred on pieces of music that would never have been conceived as such. This led to the emergence of what Goehr calls the ‘imaginary museum’: a collection of standardised ‘works’ that helped exalt composers, pre and post enlightenment, to a godlike status and the works themselves to a sphere of aesthetic autonomy.

Goehr draws the reader’s attention to the malleability of the work concept to show how it has continued to dominate music practice. She begins by drawing the reader’s attention to a point of view often associated with the bourgeois:

Many persons, convinced nowadays by the greatness of classical music, have found a reason to describe all the types of music in the world, of whatever sort, by means of a work-based interpretation. Such persons have believed that the closer any music embodies the conditions determined by the romantic work-aesthetic, the more civilized it is.[10]

By showing that the work concept may be used in an evaluative as well as classificatory sense, Goehr suggests that malleability is one of the central traits of the work concept that has allowed it to continue in present practice.

4’ 33” (1951) and Music of Changes (1952) are taken by Goehr as examples of John Cage’s failure in undermining the work concept in performance practice. This failure is largely due to Cage’s continued presence as a composer, via regulative performance stipulations, despite his philosophical claims otherwise. By the very presence of performance stipulations Cage has maintained his control over the musical event, and therefore been once again had it subsumed under the work concept as a regulative force. As Goehr states “those who wish to challenge a concept’s regulative force usually find themselves paradoxically situated in a practice that is regulated by the very concept they want to challenge.”[11] She goes onto make the excellent point that Cage tried to bring ‘outside’ music into the institution (being the concert-hall and conservatory) to no avail; these ‘real’ sounds were altered so as to become standardised. It seems that a radical challenge such as Cage’s, in interacting with the work concept, becomes regulated, therefore losing its initial intent.

As Goehr points out, the debate surrounding what are often propagated as historically authentic or informed performances is complex and heated. The charge levelled against those engaged in this mode of performance usually revolves around the indeterminacy of the definition of authentic. A consideration of the factors that may inform a performance of this kind highlights this ambiguity. On one hand, performing on instruments that closely resemble those of the relevant period is often seen as an indispensible part of this practice. On the other hand, these performances often take place in a modern concert hall. Critics of this movement have “wanted authenticists to admit their failure to meet the ideal, or if not that, to argue themselves out of the commitment that to be completely and not just selectively faithful to early music one has to meet all the original conditions.”[12]

Whether the performers choose to strive to comply with the composer’s intentions as perfectly as possible (a reading of historical performance limited to the musical score) or to including the reproduction of as much of the historical setting as possible (including extra-musical elements), it is again the work-concept that is a regulative factor. The above realisations differ in terms of degree, rather than type.

It is in offering a third alternative that Goehr is able to make her case for the early music movement as “perfectly positioned to present itself not only as a ‘different way of thinking about music’, but also as an alternative to a performance practice governed by the work-concept.”[13] If the players still wish their music be true to something, they might consider the possibility that authentic concert music need not be judged in terms of a fixed ideal. While Goehr is not convinced of this ‘post-modern’ move she is “much more certain of the advantages that result from our more modestly allowing different performance movements to develop for themselves their own regulative ideals.”[14]

Goehr’s conclusion is limited to the European tradition of classical music. As already stated in my paper, however, performance in jazz may suggest a way the work-concept may function without delimiting practice.

Bowen begins by establishing that musicologists’ relationship to the musical work and its performances is fundamentally different. Bowen wonders, “Is the score a sample, summary or a sketch?” The history of western art music, much like jazz, balances an oral/aural tradition with a written tradition. The difference in Bowen’s mind is that, in jazz, the oral tradition has survived, preventing the fixing of the work-concept into a regulative one. The two key factors in this regard are:

1. Scores are not musical works. Bowen later cites Roman Ingarden’s assertion that a performance, a musical work and a score are not identical entities.
2. While the sequence of pitches between two performances may remain the same, the performance may vary in practically every other regard

The focus on pitch sequence is an important concept that distinguishes the two traditions. Objectors may cite works, such as Boulez’s third piano sonata, that allow (or perhaps demand) the alteration of pitch sequences from one performance to the next, as a rebuttal to Bowen’s use of pitch sequence to distinguish between traditions. However I would argue that such works are, as gestures, reactionary against this very model of the work, and therefore do not (as we saw in Goehr’s consideration of Cage’s work) re-define the work concept, but rather, are adapted to fall under the traditional work concept.

That jazz has almost always existing in an age that includes audio as well as print reproduction is one of the reasons, for Bowen, that “every performance of the same musical work in jazz will actually differ in pitch content.”[15] In contrast to the need to fix a work as a reproducible object, as outlined by Goehr, the jazz tradition, according to Bowen, has an in-built flexibility that at once preserves and varies the work.

Bowen’s passage on performance begins with an analogy to language. While acknowledging that this comparison may only go so far, it helps him define performance as “a musical utterance which is both example and definition.”[16] This dualism is also exemplified in the tensions between individual expression and communication or between innovation and tradition. Taking the former comparison and invoking the analogy to language, this is a balance between utterances that are personal, in that they tend towards individual idiosyncratic formulations, and impersonal, in that they are made up of universally understood expressions that by their very genericism, do not express anything personal. Since, according to Bowen, “every performance of a musical work . . . is a unique example of the thing and not the thing itself,” then “each performance . . . is a unique moment during which the individual struggles to convey both a unique message and a specific musical work.”[17] This conception of music performance then lays the groundwork for Bowen to describe performances of a single work in jazz practice (he uses Thelonious Monk’s 1944 piece ‘Round Midnight) using Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. This reading contrasts with the traditional, structuralist view that multiple performances vary in nuance but not in content. Wittgenstein helps Bowen describe how several performances may not share any single set of characteristics. Bowen summarises: “No one member may have all of the common characteristics, and any two may share nothing in common (i.e. there is no one essential family trait.)”[18]

The traditional jazz ‘lead sheet’, to use Bowen’s example, is a case in point. It is at once generic enough to allow multiple, contrasting realisations, but also contains details that help identify the performance as a particular work. A performance such as this is at once generic and expressive. Bowen is able to demonstrate this concept in action: “Although there is no intersection set of characteristics, the different performances on ‘Round Midnight collectively share a set of family resemblances.”[19]

Lead sheets are not scores. In score-based, Western art music, the use of expressive techniques such as “dynamics, tempo, phrasing, rhythmic placement, accent, rubato, timbre . . . vibrato and portamento” imbue multiple realisations of the same pitch content with an individual identity. This segues to perhaps Bowen’s most profound point:

While the tradition, like the lead sheet and other forms of authority, can have the effect of establishing a canonical set of essential notes or practices, every performance is an opportunity for the performer to redefine these notes.[20]

Description of performance as canonical but with a space for movement is key to understanding Bowen’s adaptation of the work concept to jazz. In Goehr’s writing the work-concept, as a regulative force in Western art music, could be delimiting. Bowen, however, shows how this particular, ‘derivative,’ (to use Goehr’s term) use of the concept helps allow a movement that has potential for philosophical expression.

In jazz, like western art music, “new performances will be heard against the background of previous performances.”[21] Jazz and western art music differ, however, in that, in jazz “the original recording is the first variation.”[22] This means that, like Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ there is not one recording that is the work; “the history of the work is also like a set of variations over several generations.”[23]

By understanding that, in jazz, the standardisation of a single work is an evolutionary process, we are able to free ourselves of the static dictatorship of the work-concept.

I find this to be both a refreshing and convincing argument. To my mind Bowen is well informed both in terms of philosophical arguments and jazz practice. While Goehr’s writing (at least in the aforementioned book) concentrated mainly on the conceptual and philosophical implications of the work concept as well as an account of it’s formation and rise to governance, Bowen seems here to be developing those ideas to discuss a practice that is, more often than not, avoided in serious discussions of contemporary music and its accompanying philosophies.

Bowen, José A. "The History of Remembered Innovation: Tradition and Its Role in the Relationship between Musical Works and Their Performances." The Journal of Musicology 11, no. 2 (1993): 139-73.
Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music: Oxford University Press, 1992.

[1] Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford University Press, 1992).
[2] José A. Bowen, "The History of Remembered Innovation: Tradition and Its Role in the Relationship between Musical Works and Their Performances," The Journal of Musicology 11, no. 2 (1993).
[3] Outlined by Goehr for much of the book
[4] Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, 253.
[5] Ibid., 278.
[6] Ibid., 284.
[7] Bowen, "The History of Remembered Innovation: Tradition and Its Role in the Relationship between Musical Works and Their Performances," 147.
[8] Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, 243.
[9] Ibid., 245.
[10] Ibid., 248-49.
[11] Ibid., 260.
[12] Ibid., 281.
[13] Ibid., 284.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Bowen, "The History of Remembered Innovation: Tradition and Its Role in the Relationship between Musical Works and Their Performances," 141.
[16] Ibid.: 143.
[17] Ibid.: 144.
[18] Ibid.: 146.
[19] Ibid.: 148.
[20] Ibid.: 149.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.: 151.
[23] Ibid.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Marc you sick cunt update your blog already, need some shit to read.