[Smt-talk] emotions, adjectives, and music

David O'Dette dmodette at gmail.com
Sun Feb 26 10:13:09 PST 2012

Jonathan's Messiaen anecdote and Michael's thought experiment bring to mind
Ives's performance note for the Hawthorne movement of his Concord Sonata:
"Marks of tempo, expression, etc. are used as little as possible.  If the
score itself, the preface or an interest in Hawthorne suggest nothing,
marks may only make things worse."

David O'Dette
Washington, DC

On Sat, Feb 25, 2012 at 6:46 PM, Dunsby, Jonathan <jdunsby at esm.rochester.edu
> wrote:

>  Re this and other interesting posts, we do need to apply as much thought
> and learning as possible to the evidence. I heard Messiaen say, at a *Vingt
> Regards* master class in London, but in French, "you know, I have to say
> I've always written too many words on my scores." (Messiaenistas may be
> able to provide us with chapter and verse from his voluminous writings if
> he ever elaborated on that point in print.)
> Jonathan
>  ______________
> Jonathan Dunsby
> Chair, Music Theory Department
> Professor of Music Theory
> Eastman School of Music
>  http://www.ithaca.edu/music/mtsnys/officers.html<https://webmail.ur.rochester.edu/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.ithaca.edu/music/mtsnys/officers.html>
> ------------------------------
> *From:* Michael Morse
> *Sent:* Sat 2/25/2012 11:23
> *To:* weverett at umich.edu; smt-talk at societymusictheory.org
> *Subject:* [Smt-talk] emotions, adjectives, and music
>     Walt Everett raises the most cogent challenge to Jonathan Dunsby's
> and Charles Smith's thoughtful comments. "Pinning a word to a.. musical
> object" is indeed weird--but people do it all the time, including such
> august non-slouches as monsieur Croche.
>   The universality of a custom does not of itself speak to its wisdom or
> rigour. I think part of the point of Jonathan's and Charles' comments is
> that it is often the suggestive and allusive dimensions of our discourse
> that are exposed by scholarly analysis rather than their semantic or
> logical substance. What that means in practice is that scholars need to
> detach themselves from common sense categories, not attempt to quantify or
> reinscribe them. With a bit of practice and a lot of largely subliminal
> cultural exposure, a musical pianist can decipher (and "realize") maitre
> Debussy's instruction pretty shrewdly and efficaciously; paradoxically,
> that doesn't mean that the instruction is more than very loosely
> meaningful, for precisely the reasons that Charles and Jonathan (and Greg
> Karl) have explained.
>   There is a simple thought experiment, so cogent that it hardly needs to
> be carried out empirically. Find 10 capable pianists who have, by
> happenstance, never played or seen the Debussy prelude. Give 5 of them a
> score with the emotive performance instruction, five without. Record them
> all, and try to decipher which has seen the words, and which not. I think 2
> correct guesses out of 10 would be an estimate on the high side, and that
> would almost certainly be the two least effective and intelligent
> performances--because the performers would hyperbolize the instruction,
> riding roughshod over the music. The performers who understand the music
> would scarcely need the words, helpful as a loose orientation though they
> may be. (Would any intelligent musician perform Beethoven's Fifth "senza
> brio," even without the "con" marking!?) Debussy is a particularly good
> instance of the genuine menace of adjectives; consider the scads of
> wretched and unmusical recordings wrought by drowning Debussy's marvelous
> rhythmic sense with a wash of vagueness, because Debussy is an
> "Impressionist." Schlock performances of Schubert and Schumann based on
> their "Romanticism" besludge themselves into the same unhappy state.
>   All that said, there is at least a case to be made for adjectives and
> the adjectival as performance instructions rather than critical or, heave
> forfend, analytic concepts. The conceptual imprecision and even
> arbitrariness rightly critiqued by messrs. Smith & Dunsby can be
> ameliorated at least somewhat if it is not the discursive terminus ad quem.
> In other words, the performer's understanding of and reactions to
> adjectival instructions such as "dreamlike," "con brio," or "with the inner
> grace of your first husband," are subsumed in the performance, for better
> or worse. As the experiment above implies, they are not, and cannot be, its
> substance--"impressionistic" thought to the contrary.
> Michael Morse
> Trent University
> Peterborough, Oshawa
>  ------------------------------
> Dear list,
> I find Jonathan Dunsby's statement, here, fascinating:
> Pinning a word to an abstracted musical object seems, well, doubly,
> utterly weird, although music-cognition people do it all the time. I
> personally think they are fantasizing, but there we are.
> Weird, perhaps.  Yet such pinning and fantasizing are exercises into which
> we're drawn if we don't ignore Debussy's instruction to perform ". . . Des
> pas sur la neige" in a sad manner, given the tempo indication ("Triste et
> lent") and the special note at the outset, "Ce rythme doit avoir la valeur
> sonore d'un fond de paysage triste et glacé," to point to just one example
> connected to the concept of sadness, with which this thread began.  The
> exercise suggests many challenges, and none of us deplores a rich fantasy
> life, I hope.
> best, walt everett
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