Sunday, June 1, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [1]

A true story.

Years ago, but not that many, I was having a conversation with N – a good friend, a fine pianist and outstanding chamber musician. He also, like many musicians, taught theory to undergraduates. He's retired now, but at the time we had this conversation he was a full professor at a well-respected school.

It was after dinner and we were enjoying what was left of the wine. I had recently been to a music theory conference where one scholar reading a paper used a term that I hadn't heard before – theory-based performance. I was telling N that the idea was further discussed afterward on the smt list with a few participants enthusing over the idea of a theorist getting together with, say, the Juilliard Quartet in rehearsal and collaboratively preparing a "theory-based performance" of, say, a Mozart quartet. Sort of the ultimate test of a theory, although it was never clear what it would be tested against since it would still, like everything else in "applied theory," eventually run up against the wall of first person avowals. (Still, I was intrigued  entertained by the image of Doctor Ruth invited into the Juilliard's bedroom to coach them on how to improve their performance. But back to my conversation with N.)

Unspoken, but pretty obvious from the exchanges on the list, was the exciting notion that a theorist might be brought into the composer-performer-audience loop to provide "expert advice" prior to a specific performance that would bring that performance up a notch or two, clarify larger formal aspects or details that a performer working alone may miss, etc. [I don't recall the precise content of the smt list discussion, but enthusiasm for the idea was palpable.] I told N that this appeared to me to be an extension of the older notion of "theory-based listening" (not to be confused with "ear training," which has its own set of problems). At any rate, the conversation finally got more specific and came around to the relevance of Schenker to performance as well as (new) composition and whether Schenker training might improve a listener's experience and how could you tell if it had. Finally I asked N if Schenker played any role in his own work. (I was thinking of his work as a performer, but I wasn't clear about that.) His answer:

"My God! If it wasn't for Schenker I wouldn't have anything to teach!!"

We both laughed at his unguarded admission. And the wine was gone, so it was time to go home.


Carson Farley said...

I have to admit that I did not learn much from Schenker. Schoenberg was more interesting to me in that his theory of composition concentrates on motivic development as priori for musical unfolding in contrast to Schenker's emphasis on harmonic direction/superstructure.

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying your posts. This thread has a thought-provoking title. It has been my thought for some time now that music theory -- especially certain branches of it -- have been, as you say, "desperately seeking relevance." I really wonder how much longer we can keep this up.