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The Interpretation of Music: Philosophical Essays.

Aesthetics, like other branches of philosophy, sub-divides as the century nears its end, and over the last decade and a half the philosophical problems peculiar to music have received the attention of a group of philosophers who have brought to the subject an analytic sophistication which was unthinkable even in general aesthetics in the middle of the century. It is a sign of the times that an anthology appears, not even on the aesthetics of music, but on the peculiar philosophical problems to do with musical interpretation.

Most of the contributors to this collection of nineteen previously unpublished essays concur in making a distinction between a work of music, its interpretation and its performance. Several distinguish the interpretation of music by a performer from an interpretation by a critic who is writing about the work of music (Hermeren and Levinson). Levinson argues that the critical interpretation underdetermines the performing, in as much as what a critic says about a work is compatible with a number of different ways of actually playing it. This connects with another theme, the possibility of a multiplicity of interpretations of a piece of music in either sense (Sibley, Krausz, Martin and Kraut).

A second group of essays is less closely related to the general theme of interpretation. There are a number of papers on that old chestnut, the basis for describing music in expressive terms (Berenson, Scruton, Sparshott, and Walton). Berenson attacks the purist view that emotional experience has no part to play in mature listening. Scruton discourses on the more complex and interesting judgements we make, such as the criticism of music as sentimental.

Of the remainder, two essays reflect matters of considerable topicality. Lydia Goehr writes modishly about what she calls the "politics of interpretation". "Interpretations themselves are social acts that express or enforce our values and power relations ...". In this she reflects a recent interest in the way that ideas about the power of music connect with what has come to be identified as "ideology" (in a broad sense of that term). The thesis is not, I think, wrong so much as overstated. Of all the arts, music is the most remote from social and political concerns (which is not the same as saying it is detached from them). Thus I suppose a sufficiently ingenious thinker can make out a case for saying that to play the opening of the last movement of the Waldstein with Beethoven's pedalling expresses a power relation of a different sort from that expressed if you don't, but the relation is likely to be tenuous. For example, it might be that the interpreter abrogates to himself the right to "improve" on the composer's written instructions. But equally the decision to pedal or not to pedal may have to do with how the pianist thinks Beethoven's work can best be realised on a modern piano with its much thicker bass. Certainly values are involved but I cannot see that musical interpretation is special in this way. All human actions are value impregnated in this etiolated sense.

The other growth area in musical aesthetics is the business of ontology. There is an interesting and surprising essay by George Martin on the type-token debate. He argues that this much touted distinction applies to the relationship between work and performance which lies within the world of the listener, but that the composer's world contains no works which stand as types to tokens. What the composer creates are sets of instructions.

I imagine that it is the threat of Platonism which pushes Martin in this direction. For Platonists like Levinson, Kivy and Wolterstorff identify a work of music with an abstract sound pattern and there are familiar difficulties with this. But replacing the work with instructions for its performance will not help. The Platonist can equally well be a Platonist about instructions.

Urmson, in his essay, distinguishes a work from a performance using the analogy of the relationship between a Dundee cake and a particular instance of the cake. Scores, he says, are like recipes. Well scores may be, but it is hard to see that musical works are, which is the gist of Martin's proposal. There are surely problems about replacing the idea of the work of music with the notion of instructions. There is, after all, a difference between eating a dish cooked by a famous chef and eating a dish cooked by somebody else according to his recipe. Or compare a chair made by a famous designer and one made according to his drawings. Listening to Beethoven's music is as much like the first as it is the second. Could a mere set of instructions convey a sense of spiritual unease, or an ambiguous relationship to the culture?

Finally, if there are two different (possible?) worlds, the world of the composer and the world of the listener, how do they connect? After all, part of the reason for which the listener values music is because it puts him in touch with the creative mind of the composer.

At this point Martin's position does not seem materially different from that of Nelson Goodman who identifies a work with a notated score, a thesis on which several contributors comment. Raffman has a subtle argument based on the claim that pitch is a psychological category. But as interesting as anything in the book is a piece by Bojan Bujic who points out that notation was, until recently, merely an aide memoire for performance and that its elevation to canonic status is something which would surprise most of the composers whose work dominates the repertoire. Our concepts change. To perform most music with Goodmanesque ideas about the primacy and sanctity of the notation is anachronistic; its consequence may be inappropriate performing practices.
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Author:Sharpe, R.A.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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