I always fight a mini-battle with Franz Liszt in the months leading to a performance. Why Franz, why your self-anointing obsession with memorized performances? Couldn’t you foresee the unimaginable complexity of the compositions that followed your own? This was particularly pungent last year as I attempted to master John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, a feat of which I’m proud, but not without immense mental and emotional scarring. I ended up performing them without music, but such a task would have been preposterous to ask of my pianist.
This past Friday at Longy’s Septemberfest concert “La Muse en Voyage”, I pondered the question of memorization in the concert world, particularly in light of the double standard in regards to 20th and 21st century music. And by intermission, I had resolved my complicated battle with Mr. Liszt: he was right. Musicians owe it to themselves, the music, and the audience to perform sans score. While my own experience performing the Mirabai Songs drove home the immensity of this task, and almost rendered memorization arbitrary, disingenuous and at the expense of accurate musicality, the concert on Friday allowed me to evaluate this idea from the objective audience’s point of view.
Cook’s Music: A Very Short Introduction discusses the musical hierarchy that ranks, from low to high, audience, performer, composer; the notion of authenticity; and also the symbolism of music notation. All of these topics came to mind when violinist Jesse Mills and pianist Rieko Aizawa took the stage in Pickman with Lukas Foss’ Three American Pieces (1944). Before any notes sounded, upon seeing the score on Mr. Mills’ music stand, I (as objective audience member) knew this music was not his own. It came from an external source, and he was merely relaying this information to the eager audiences. Following this realization, I felt myself at the bottom of the pit: not only was the performer subordinate to this piece of paper, but I was beyond subordinate to the performer. His elevated location on stage and the stifling silence of the concert hall inundated me with my own ineptitude – it was as if the setting was yelling to us all, “YOU are too dumb to read this piece of paper, so this nice man on stage is going to read it for you, and you have to shut up while he’s doing it.”
I stifled a hearty laugh at the absurdity of the situation. As Mr. Mills and Ms. Aizawa played (wonderfully, I stress), I longed to appreciate a greater authenticity from their performance. If they had been without music – as is the case with most performances of 17th-19th century compositions – I would have been infinitely more engaged, as if his astounding harmonics and seamless communication with Ms. Aizawa were improvisations, reflections, musings on the moment itself. This is an experience I relish in chamber music concerts – a memorized Brahms sonata is one of the most mutually (between composer, audience, and performer) expressive experiences one can have. And, luckily for the recital singer, custom asks that we perform hands-free; Ryan Turner’s performance on Friday is evidence of the gripping hold a liberated singer can cast over an audience. I have had this same experience of expressive “unity”, and usually an even stronger one, at non-classical or atypical classical performances – the most powerful were my favorite band, the Tuareg desert rock group Tinariwen, and Yo-Yo Ma’s most recent project, the Goat Rodeo Sessions, a bluegrass-classical crossover group including Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Chris Thile. What do all of these situations have in common? I don’t have to see the music. I’m sure that in the case of Tinariwen, there was no written music; and in the Goat Rodeo Sessions’ case, the anecdote (according to Mr. Ma) is that he and Meyer learned from score, Duncan and Thile by ear. But in the end, it was certainly of utmost unimportance to the audience.
But as soon as that pesky piece of paper shows up, a flimsy barrier gels in front of the audience. It makes me wonder how far behind the concert world is behind the world of theater, of TV – do actors perform with scripts? No, because otherwise we wouldn’t believe a single utterance of their character. Why do our television networks go through the hassle of creating cue cards? So we can believe our news anchors, our comedians, our sitcoms. So we have an element of authenticity. Why are politicians coached to either memorize their speeches, or look imperceptibly at their podium? So we believe they are speaking directly to us, responding to our presence. Why doesn’t the musician have this same responsibility?
Cook says “the idea that the performer’s role is to reproduce what the composer has created builds an authoritarian power structure into musical culture, whether expressed in the relationship between composer and performer or in relationships between performers … especially between the conductor (who acts as the composer’s representative) and the rank and file orchestral players” (26). Never is this more obvious than when there is a physical object – a proclamation of authority, if you will – proving to the audience that they are incapable of understanding this musical idea without aid. Is there some sort of twisted joy that we, classical artists, marginalized members of society, feel from showing this to the audience? Is this the only aspect preventing us from obtaining the authenticity that blesses rock musicians, who appear to be effusively improvisatory in every performance?
Using our scores is a disservice to all, no matter the century of the composition. As cook says again, “the essential note-to-note structure is only part of the music. For between and around these notes, so to speak, lies a vast domain of interpretive possibility” (64). In a word, authenticity. Mr. Mills and Ms. Aizawa showed this exquisitely in their performance, but, in a sense, it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to attribute it to them. I wanted to attribute it to the composer, because I saw his paper, and that made me, to put it simply, mad.
So, what do I do? No more battles with Franz, for certain, just private battles with composers for making life hard. I will do everything in my power to memorize everything I sing. As a composer, I will always encourage my players (if I’m lucky enough to coach them) to memorize; and if they lose a few notes in the process, I probably won’t care.