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The Ontology of the Musical Work

A musical work, in the cultural context of the Western art music tradition, and especially since the romantic era up to the present day, is commonly regarded as the result of a process in two distinct phases; one constructive and one reproductive. The composer produces a score, which in turn is handed over to a performer who makes an interpretation of the notation and reproduces it as specified in the score. The score constitutes the primary source of information (see Figure 1).

Figure: Within the Western art music tradition the score is commonly regarded as the primary source of information.
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In Paul Ricur's hermeneutic philosophy, the traditional view of the author as a one-way sender of a message is disputed. Ricur finds that the author is disengaged from the work by the act of writing [Ricur, 1991]. When writing takes the place of dialogue, the immediate face-to-face communication is replaced by inscription and the semantic autonomy of the text. The disconnection between the author's intention and the meaning of the text is a key issue in Ricur's theory. The inscription of a discourse in writing brings the semantic autonomy of language into play.

The text is the very place where the author appears. But does the author appear otherwise than as first reader? The distancing of the text from its author is already a phenomenon of the first reading that, in one move, poses the whole series of problems that we are now going to confront concerning the relations between explanation and interpretation. These relations arise at the time of reading. [Ricur, 1991, pp. 109-10]

Suppose that we undertake the hypothetical experiment of applying this theory on the literary text to musical production: are there any analogies between Ricur's account and musical practice? Imagine music-making, as it takes place independently of musical notation, as compared to the kind of dialogue that the inscription of text replaces. Improvisation involves making variations on known patterns, and when this is successful, truly innovative music comes out. Imagine a composer writing music: Isn't it necessary for him to interact with the musical `language', or context, in which he is working, in a similar way as is necessary for the improviser? Analogically speaking, the moment that the composer starts making the notation, the 'dialogue' is replaced by the semantic autonomy of the text-based musical context, with its own structural possibilities and limitations. The composer is detached from the music in the act of notating it. In the case of a written text, the intention of the author is not equal to the meaning of the text. The author is present in the text, but only as a first reader. Similarly, this suggests that the construction of a score-based work consists of dialectic interplay between creation and interpretation, in which the composer - even during the act of writing - has to approach the notation by means of interpretation.

By this reflection on the artistic process, and in the light of Ricur's philosophy, the view of the composer representing the productive phase, and the performer the reproductive, is questioned. We arrive at a modification of the traditional scheme of construction/reproduction, instead involving construction, but also interpretation in the composer's creative process.

Figure: In the light of Ricur we arrive at a modified scheme involving construction as well as interpretation in the composer's creative process.
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Another aspect of the composer's practice is highlighted by Horacio Vaggione [Vaggione, 2001]. The composer always has to approach the process of producing a piece of music as a listener, either in the form of inner listening while writing an instrumental score or the concrete listening in the production of a pure electronic piece. This is described by Vaggione as an action/perception feedback loop, reminiscent of the notation/interpretation process suggested by the thinking of Ricur. But there is a fundamental difference between the two accounts: what Vaggione provides is a theoretical reflection on the kind of thinking that is not based on language, but on action and perception.

In order to produce music an act of hearing is necessary, whether it be the `inner hearing' (the silent writing situation) of pure instrumental music composition, or the `concrete hearing' of electroacoustic music composition. These situations involve variants (there are many others) of an `action/perception feedback loop' which can be defined as an instance of validation proper to musical processes. [Vaggione, 2001]
Without any further specification, Vaggione hints at the many other variants of this class of feedback loops at play in the production of musical content. It is important to bear in mind that `thinking' in modes of action does not require a `transcription' into language. What Vaggione reminds us is that `thinking through hearing' and `thinking through performing' are essential modes of interpretation. These involve the physical interaction between a performer and his or her instrument as well as the inner listening of the composer; both of which do not require verbal translation. This kind of interpretation is what we would call `thinking through practice'.1

Our conclusion is that the use of notation and the subsequent musical practice that has followed from it, does not unambiguously divide composer and performer into one `auteur' (producing the work) and one interpreter (reproducing it). Interpretation is a part of both creative acts and the practices of both agents overlap in many ways.

Figure: Our schematic model of the interaction between constructive and interpretative phases in performance and composition.
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Musical Interpretation and performance

Since the 19th century, performances of score-based works have commonly been referred to as interpretations. If we regard performances as interpretations, are they interpretations of the notation or of a wider entity? This is in essence a matter of the ontology of the musical work: Is the work equivalent to the score or is there more to the identity of the work than notation? According to Theodor Adorno, the ``musical score is never identical with the work; devotion to the text means the constant effort to grasp that which it hides...'' [Adorno, 1981, p. 144] A crucial fact about musical works is their historicity. Firstly in the sense that the material that is available to the composer is historically and culturally mediated and thus pre-formed within the cultural context in which he is working. Secondly, meaning in music, and in Adorno's view this also equals the musical work itself, is achieved in the tension between the received formal norms and the `second reflection' or re-contextualisation in the compositional process by the creative `Subject' [Paddison, 1991]. The work is not equivalent to the score but is a cultural construct that materialises in its relation to its cultural context.

Paul Ricur introduces the concept of the `world of the text' as something other than the intention of the author. The meaning of the text is projected in front of the text, and is not to be found in authorial intent `behind' the text, as in romantic hermeneutic philosophy. What is unfolded by the passing from explanation to understanding is the thing of the text, or the kind of world that the text unfolds before the text.

Reading is no longer simply listening. It is governed by codes comparable to the grammatical code that guides the understanding of sentences. In the case of the narrative, these codes are precisely the ones that a structural analysis brings to light under the title of narrative codes.

It cannot, therefore, be said that the passage by way of explanation destroys intersubjective understanding. This mediation is required by discourse itself. I am expressly using the term discourse and not simply speech, the fugitive manifestation of language. For it is discourse that calls for this ever more complicated process of exteriorization with regard to itself, a process that begins with the gap between saying and the said, continues through the inscription in letters, and is completed in the complex codifications of works of discourse, the narrative among others. Exteriorization in material marks and inscription in the codes of discourse make not only possible but necessary the mediation of understanding by explanation, of which structural analysis constitutes the most remarkable realization. [Ricur, 1991, p. 130]

Not only is the author detached from the work by the act of writing. For a reader to enter into the world of the text, a similar process of detachment and analytical interpretation is needed. But writing music is an activity distinct from writing a literary text. A score, to a higher degree than is a text, is a tacit agreement with a present or implied performer - we cannot simply equal a verbal text to a score and a performer to a reader of this text. But there seems to be an immanent call for analysis and interpretation in the construction of musical meaning. Musical meaning may be found through a movement from explanation through analysis to understanding.

The performance of a piece of music is (...) the actualisation of an analytic act - even though such analysis may have been intuitive and unsystematic. For what a performer does is to make the relationships and patterns potential in the composer's score clear to the mind and ear of the experienced listener. [Meyer, 1973, p. 29]

From a general point of view, interpretation in the context of the arts can be understood as assigning meaning to works. To what extent can we claim that performances do this? Turning to definitions, we will now attempt to trace the difference between critical interpretation and what we tend to call performance interpretation.

Being an interpretation of is a relation between a thought or an utterance on the one hand and an object of interpretation on the other. In the case of art (...) an utterance about a work is an interpretation of the work, only if it says something about the meaning of a work, about a meaning it could have or was intended to have, or about the work's significance. [Stecker, 2003, p. 82]
Stecker's definition of interpretation raises some important questions: What musical actions do we regard as interpretation, and in what sense do they assign meaning to the work?

Are the performer's shaping of phrases, relative level of dynamics and accents etc. really to be regarded as an interpretation of the piece, assigning meaning to the music? Markings by the composer of dynamics, accentuation, phrasing etc are often regarded as `interpretative'. This mode of speaking implies that markings of this kind represent the author's interpretation of the meaning of the work. But this seems implausible to us. Isn't it more likely that the reason we tend to regard these markings as interpretational is that they represent a category of musical organisation that often has been left to the performer's discretion? According to our understanding of the musical event all parameters belong to the musical fact.

In the preparatory stages the performer has to make decisions of a kind that do not clearly differ from that of critical interpretation [Levinson, 1993, 38-9]. In order to take a position in cases where a score is incomplete, inconsistent or exists in different versions, a critical interpretation of the score is necessary. This could imply that the difference between critical and performative interpretations is of a floating and unclear kind. On the contrary Levinson argues that they are logically distinct activities.

...a critical interpretation typically aims to explain (or elucidate) a work's meaning or structure - "what is going on in it", in a common phrase - whereas a performative interpretation can at most highlight (or effectively display) that meaning or structure. A performative interpretation, if successful, may enable one to conceive of a work differently in the critical sense - as the performer conceived it in arriving at the performative interpretation - but only a critical interpretation indicates or details such a conception. [Levinson, 1993, pp. 38-9]
In other words, there are many ways in which a performance fails to fulfil the criteria for a critical interpretation. In critical interpretation we do not have this peculiar amalgamation of `object of interpretation' and the `interpretation' itself. This crucial difference between performance and critical interpretation is also acknowledged by Robert Stecker:
If performances and critical interpretations are both representations of works, they are so in quite different senses. If we ignore these differences, we can easily be misled to make invalid inferences. Performances are necessarily constructive; that is, they necessarily add features that the work leaves vague or undetermined. [Stecker, 2003, p. 80]
But not only in cases in which the notation is in some respect unclear or vague is there a call for constructive elements in performance. Construction is really at the heart of the matter. The relation between a performance interpretation and the work is not the relation between an external receiver and an artwork but the relation between different forces at play in the construction of the work itself. The use of notation presumes a common understanding of performance practice of composer and interpreter. This fundamental agreement between a composer and an imagined or present performer is part and parcel of every musical notation. As we have seen in the thinking of Adorno and furthered into the model of `the world of the text', a true instance of a work must be based on an interpretation that goes beyond the mere text of the score. Assigning meaning to a musical work is achieved by way of a critical reading of the work (and not only the score). Musical meaning is constructed in the relation between the musical structures themselves and the musico-historical context - its tradition - and the friction between this context and the work.

In the preservatory culture that Classical Music is today, we tend to speak of works as ideal objects that are `interpreted' in performances that can be evaluated in comparison with this ideal entity. However, we find that musical interpretation is better understood as an analytical and hermeneutic tool that is a part of the agencies of the performer as well as the composer. Performances are not separate from the work but always a part of it - a successful performance is an embodiment of the work2:

Every performance is an event, but not one that would in any way be separate from the work - the work itself is what `takes place' in the performative event.[Gadamer, 1960]
We would like to propose the fairly radical idea of dropping the term performance interpretation. Preceding performance is an act of interpretation, either by means of analytical thinking (critical interpretation) or through an embodied mode of `thinking through practice'. However, it is important to bear in mind that, just as Gadamer reminds us, a performance is not to be understood as an interpretation of a work, but as its final constructive phase.

next up previous contents index
Next: Musical semiology Up: EMS - Beijing 2006 Previous: Introduction   Contents   Index
Henrik Frisk, Stefan Ostersjo