One of the things I constantly bang on about when I write and talk on the subject of the philosophy of music is the failure of most recent ontologies of music to take it seriously as a practice rather than an object. While some (Davies, Gracyk) do take performance seriously in some really productive and interesting ways, they are still doing the ontology of music and/or musical works in the old object-oriented way (which is why so many of my sympathies on the subject lie with Ridley).
One of the main reasons why I’m so deeply interested in emphasizing music as practice over music as object is because I am a performer. Object-oriented ontologies of music tend on the whole to operate best if one occupies the position of audience rather than performer, which to my mind misses quite a lot about what music is and how it works. Much of what’s important about music to a performer is not what the audience wants, needs, knows, or cares about (or, if it is the same, it is not necessarily important for the same reasons or in the same way).
Every time I get to play, I am reminded of this. Making music (using/with oneself, both alone and in the company of others) is an immediate and powerful sort of doing. The focus on formal.”pure” music (all the way back to Hanslick) puts us, I think, on the wrong footing for addressing how the act of playing, even when guided by a set of instructions encoded in a score, a chart, or a set of chords, is still actively and deliberately the work of the performers. In some forms of music, the instructions are vague on purpose, precisely because one expects this. For some performances, the on-the-fly character of the business is less improvisational (in the more structurally guided sense common to, say, jazz) than it is compositional.
Recording technology (as Gracyk and Kania and others have pointed out, and as Benjamin and Adorno readily attest) changes the game for rock and other forms of popular music; the recording becomes the composition, and becomes the music-as-object. Still, I’m not comfortable, as a performer, with letting the recording have the last word (even when the recording itself is a performance, and the technology its instruments).
Last night, I was a part of the band at Andy Juhl’s latest CD release show. For that CD, I recorded violin, viola, and backing vocals. On the string parts, I either arranged, created, or helped to arrange what I was playing, almost all of it on the fly during the recording session. Actually, that “on the fly” bit is important — it gives the lie to the sense one gets from words like “arranged” or “created” that there was some deliberate generation of a thing of some kind. What I did was this: I listened, and I played. After some trial and error, I played more or less consistent things. While this activity shares something with improvisation, practically speaking, contextually it’s not the same. When I was called upon, months later and with only one piece written down (a part I helped Andy to write with violin and viola, which he then rearranged for violin and flugelhorn), to perform this music, the act of remembering it was not a matter of trying to strictly reproduce the recorded artifact. That would have been impossible, as I cannot actually play two violins and a viola at the same time. I could, however, try to capture something of what I was trying to do, compositionally speaking, when I played for the recording.
Sometimes, live performances like this are arranged in the moment — these are the players we have, and this is what we do. That is the song.
All of the photos in this post were taken at that CD Release Show. If you want to see more (it was a pretty cool show, in a lovely local venue), check it out on Flickr.