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Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance.

One of the most famous passages in the Talmud describes a heated debate about the ritual cleanliness of the so-called "oven of Akhnai," constructed out of broken fragments. After failing to persuade the other sages of his point of view, Rabbi Eliezer boldly called upon Divine assistance: If his was the correct position, he declared, its validity would be shown by a variety of natural wonders. Immediately trees moved and a river flowed backward. Yet his opponents remained firm. Finally, be played his trump card: "If the Halakhah [Jewish law] is with me," Rabbi Eliezer proclaimed, "let it be proved directly from Heaven." Immediately, the Talmud reports, "a heavenly voice went forth and said to the Sages: 'Why are you disputing with Rabbi Eliezer? The Halakhah is in accordance with him in all circumstances.'" Yet even this miracle proved unavailing. Another rabbi "rose to his feet and quoted a portion of a verse (Deuteronomy 30:12), saying: 'The Torah is not in heaven!'" That is, once God delivered the Torah on Mount Sinai, it was up to human beings, fallible though they might be, to interpret what was given. God had no privileged status in subsequent interpretations of his very own commands. The Talmud further relates that God, when asked about this episode, "smiled and said: 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me!'" (The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition, III: Tractate Bava Metzia: Part III [New York: Random House, 1990], 234-37). The smile, of course, is crucial to the interpretation one gives to the entire episode and its claims for interpretive authority.

The story of the oven of Akhnai has become famous not because of its discussion of ritual purity, but for its view about the relationship between present-day interpreters and those who assert a special past relationship to the text in question (including, of course, the text's author). That relationship is also the primary concern of Richard Taruskin's marvelous new collection of essays, Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. Throughout the book Taruskin opposes those who would privilege as uniquely "authentic" - indeed, define as uniquely pure - any preordained method of performing music. In recent decades, of course, performers and scholars have identified "authenticity" with the intentions of the composer - an authenticity that can only be revealed by close attention to the written score or by careful recreation of the circumstances and styles likely to have attended a work's first performance. From this perspective, the modern day performer is and should be the humble servant of historical information gleaned from close study of the relevant sources. Taruskin objects that little or no room is left for "imaginative response, empathic identification, [or] artistic insight" (p. 59). He argues that this approach stems from a "Romantic notion of the autonomous transcendent artwork [that] entailed a hierarchized, strictly enforced split between emancipated creators, beholden (in theory) to no one but the music, and selfless curators, sworn to submission" (p. 10).

Taruskin is a resolute foe of the hierarchies inherent in this conception of performance. He also chastises what he calls the "utopian" impulse behind the "authenticity" movement, which he describes as "an idolatry that only defeats our humanity. . . . To sacralize works of art is to place them above the human plane - and ourselves below. Artistic integrity is precious. It matters. But there are things that should matter more, even to artists" (p. 358). Revealingly, Taruskin offers this indictment while discussing a recent recording of a motet by Antoine Busnoy. In the name of authenticity, the performer insisted on including without revision a passage referring to "the lying crowd of Jews" ostensibly responsible for the death of Jesus. As Taruskin well understands, more than simple aesthetics may be at stake in a performer's decision to present certain texts. The musical text, like the Torah itself, ought not be viewed as residing in some ideal heaven.

But Taruskin's complaint is not "merely" ethical, though one ought not discount the importance of such argument. For even if one finds attractive the notion of the "selfless curator," it is quite simply un-achievable. Performance is necessarily and inevitably a form of intervention between "the score" and the audience. Indeed, as Taruskin points out in two essays on the editing process itself (pp. 83-89, 155-63), the construction itself of a canonical "score" from multiple sources requires many conscious interpretive decisions (not to mention the subconscious choices that are made without any reflection). And, of course, this is true as well of the selective collection and filtering of other pieces of historical information deemed relevant to "authentic" performance.

Taruskin thus presents devastating arguments against the very possibility of "interpretation-free" performance. This ideal was often identified with Igor Stravinsky, about whom Taruskin has just published a two-volume work and whom Taruskin views as playing perhaps the key role in the genealogy of twentieth-century music aesthetics. Stravinsky's modernism, claims Taruskin, is the true basis of the modern day passion for authenticity. He argues that the interpretations favored by "authentic performance" devotees tend to fit not the aesthetic criteria of the earlier age in which pieces were written, but a modernist aesthetic - featuring clean lines, sparse textures, unsentimental phrasing, and a deliberate flight from the ponderousness and heaviness (and overt emotionalism) of late romanticism.

Taruskin's critique of authenticity is primarily philosophical and methodological. Taruskin has nothing against the actual results of musicians' quests for "authenticity"; he simply disdains the ideology surrounding their presentations. His complaint is that authenticists, like other ideologues, try to discredit competing presentations as "incorrect" or, indeed, incompetent, when the proper focus should be on whether the performances are more or less enjoyable and artistically effective.

Although Taruskin routinely throws cynical acid on the claims of authentic performers, he is hardly a thoroughgoing skeptic who believes that nothing can be truly known about the past (including past conditions of performance). Taruskin is himself a distinguished historian, and a prerequisite of being a historian is the belief that knowledge of the past is in fact possible. For example, Taruskin effectively criticizes devotees of authentic performance for their (modernist) opposition to ornamentation or improvisation. In doing so, he relies on historical research to show that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, often embellished and improvised while performing his own works (see especially pp. 283-89). Far from claiming that historical research is impossible, Taruskin asserts that contemporary authenticists are not good enough historians. Rather, they are presentists, who dismiss or overlook embarrassing information when it conflicts with the demands of their modernist aesthetic.

Nevertheless, Taruskin would be the last person in the world to argue that improvisation must be featured in contemporary performances of Mozart because Mozart himself improvised or because he expected (or even intended) that other performers of his works would do so. For Taruskin that claim is simply a iron sequitur. He admires the work of contemporary scholar performers like Robert Levin, who emulates Mozart by writing his own cadenzas. But that is because Taruskin applauds Levin's own willingness to grapple with the music and to try to achieve what Levin conceives as the most satisfying presentation of it. What Taruskin prizes above all is active engagement with the music of the past, however that engagement is accomplished.

Indeed, many readers will be struck by Taruskin's extraordinary generosity tn many "authenticist" performers even as he skewers their ideological pretensions. Taruskin is nothing if not passionate, and his intense enthusiasm for some of these performers will send all but the most determined opponents of the authentic performance movement rushing to their local record stores to hear the recordings he describes.

His comments on Roger Norrington are a good example. Norrington, Taruskin asserts, "is doing what important interpreters have always done (quite often, as here, with a palliating smokescreen of restoration), namely, recasting tradition in contemporary terms and according to contemporary taste" (p. 238). One notes, of course, Taruskin's dig at Norrington's "palliating smokescreen" that presumably hides from view the latter's own imaginativeness as a performing artist. Surely as important, though, is Taruskin's willingness to praise, sometimes quite extravagantly, the actual results of Norrington's dedication. Reviewing Norrington's performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the London Classical Players ("Resisting the Ninth"), Taruskin writes that "all the members of this extraordinary band of sixty-five deserve to have their hands clasped and their backs slapped for their contributions to this outstanding enterprise." And he reserves special praise for "the mastermind behind it all, Roger Norrington" (p. 236).

One discovers a similar tone in his review of the Malcolm Bilson and John Eliot Gardiner cycle of the Mozart piano concertos, which employs period instruments and fortepiano. Again Taruskin cannot resist a dig at Bilson's pretensions: "It is perfectly evident that these performances, despite the period hardware they employ, reflect neither the practices nor the values of Mozart's time. And that, of course is quite all right. There is no reason in the world why they should, barring reasons of purely didactic (or possibly sci-fi) curiosity" (p. 274, emphasis added). Yet Taruskin has only praise for the results of the collaboration, an "achievement [that] not only casts a treasured body of repertory in a new and blazing light, [but] . . . settles once and for all the question of the fortepiano's viability as a concert instrument for today" (p. 273).

Text and Act is, in every way, a pleasure to read, whether one's primary interest is the theory of music performance or simply being informed about some of the most interesting recordings currently being made of some of the "classical" repertory. But we think it has additional importance as well. We are neither professional musicologists nor professional record reviewers; we are professors of law. Hence it might be useful to describe what we believe the larger significance of Taruskin's argument is, and simultaneously explain why two lawyers were approached by Notes to write about a book that seems, on its face, to concern only musicologists.

One reason that we were asked is that we had earlier written a long review-essay of Nicholas Kenyon's collection of essays Authenticity and Early Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), in "Law, Music, and Other Performing Arts," University of Pennsylvania Law Review 139 (June 1991): 1597-1658. (Taruskin's essay in that book is reprinted as ch. 4 of Text and Act.) In our review we noted that many of the debates currently troubling the field of music performance theory are quite similar to those taking place within law. For example, to what extent can or should judges view themselves as the selfless servants of the legal texts placed before them? To what extent can or should judges achieve that selfless role by ostensible adherence to the "original intentions" of those who drafted the laws in question? The debate surrounding Robert Bork's futile nomination to the Supreme Court put these issues on the front pages of American newspapers, as did former Attorney General Edwin Meese III's attempt to promote a "jurisprudence of original intent" as the only legitimate approach to constitutional interpretation.

Just as musicians must perform music, lawyers and judges must perform the law - they must give concrete meaning to the dry ink on the pages of a legal text. Taruskin has something to say about both enterprises, we think. His title, Text and Act, might equally have been the title of a work on legal interpretation. And his attack on authenticity is equally relevant to our concerns. Like the performer of music, the performer of law "cannot please or move the ancient dead and owes them no such effort. . . . Our obligations are to the living" (p. 24). Musically, this means "pleasing or moving an audience in the here and now" (p. 23). Legally, this means achieving results that are most likely to prove beneficial to the people of the United States - a people who must try to live with one another under conditions that were literally inconceivable to the eighteenth-century composers of the constitutional score. The Constitution, too, does not reside in some originalist heaven barking out commands at helpless (non)interpreters below.

Latter-day "authenticists" in law often assert that their interpretations are uniquely authoritative because they conform to the original understandings of the framers or the ratifiers of the Constitution and its Amendments. One can well wonder about the ability in practice to achieve any relatively uncontroversial interpretations of these original understandings. But, putting such epistemological issues to one side, one notices as well that "original understanding" is often invoked opportunistically to justify the political ideologies of particular judges. They are as presentist as the assertions of many authentic music performers. To give only one example, both Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia have loudly asserted that interpretations of the First Amendment must not stray from that Amendment's original understandings. Yet in the Supreme Court's most recent affirmative action opinion, which involved a federal law, neither Justice so much as mentioned the explicit text or the original intentions of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, which applies only to state governments and not at all to the national government. Moreover, at least some of the original partisans of the Amendment seem to have explicitly contemplated the possibility of race-conscious remedies for the newly freed slaves. None of this turned out to matter to Thomas and Scalia, who can be described as morally offended by affirmative action. Just as Mozart's practice of improvisation proved an embarrassment to the musical authenticists of today, so the original intentions of the Reconstruction Congress might prove an embarrassment to the Supreme Court's most vehement opponents of affirmative action.

If authenticity in law or in music cannot be the touchstone of interpretation, does that mean that "anything goes?" Not at all. At any point in time, certain interpretive gambits are surely "off the wall," while others are within the range of possible solutions. The real theoretical question, though, is what accounts for our ability to construct boundaries of interpretive possibility and to denounce some musical or legal performances as fraudulent. The world can be divided into those who look for algorithms, formal criteria, and determinate procedures to answer this question, and those who denounce the search for such mechanisms as fruitless (and even as a potential harbinger of tyranny). Like Taruskin, we doubt that such algorithms exist, and we believe that the evaluation of performance must necessarily rest on pragmatic grounds. The lack of algorithms does not mean that we must throw up our hands and pronounce ourselves unable to assess the merits of different performances. As noted, Taruskin certainly has no hesitation in doing that in regard to music, nor do we in regard to law. Standards of assessment cannot be reduced to formal criteria or decision procedures. Instead, as the literary theorist (and law professor) Stanley Fish has repeatedly argued, we apply the often inchoate standards of our "interpretive communities" that enable us to recognize a performance as well done or a failure, plausible (even if not the very best) or simply beyond the pale.

Taruskin does not touch on these latter questions much in this book, probably because few live (and, one suspects, even fewer recorded) performances in fact challenge the very notions of plausibility we are concerned with here. Although Taruskin dismisses some recordings as badly executed - he refers to the Hanover Band's version of Beethoven's Fifth as "scrawny [and] inadequate" (p. 999), he does not discuss any performances that call into question the basic competence or commitments of the performer. One might contrast this situation with that of the dramatic arts, where producers and directors sometimes take such liberties with the text that audiences wonder whether to ask for their money back.

We are left curious as to what it would take for Taruskin to say of a performance "this just doesn't count as an even minimally faithful rendition of Beethoven." At what point would he invoke the authority of the score, for example, as limiting the liberties available to the performer? In particular, it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on some of the more daring opera productions of recent times. All this means, though, is that we find ourselves eager to read still more of Taruskin. He happily achieves what Russell Baker once defined as the highest form of writing: to discuss serious issues without descending into a ponderous tone of "seriosity."

SANFORD LEVINSON The University of Texas at Austin

J. M. BALKIN Yale University
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Author:Levinson, Sanford; Balkin, J.M.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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