A New Sense of Direction

I have to admit that I am only now reading through the theories of Heinrich Shenker for the first time. I am reticent to mention this in an atmosphere of assumed understanding. This is not to say that I have been oblivious; rather, quite the opposite. What may be more accurate is that I have never taken the time to read the theories from the horse’s mouth/pen (the mixed metaphor clearly falls apart.)

One tenet that keeps sticking out in my mind as I read is the connection between analysis and performance in Schenker’s mind. Perhaps he takes it a bit far to suggest that there is only one true performance of each piece, or, even more so, that performance is superfluous to the music that exists in the score. He does, however, demonstrate that performers can lead the listener through each piece by performing an analysis (not the literal graphs that so many recognize, but rather the resultant understanding.)

Benjamin Zander, a leading interpreter of Mahler and Beethoven recently spoke on TED.com about Classical music. I think he expressed much of what Schenker intended in a humorous, yet powerful way. He takes the audience through “performances” of the same piece as played by a young piano student who progressively gets better. The student begins by placing emphasis on every note; then beat; then measure, phrase, then… they quit lessons. These students generally leave their studies right before being able to demonstrate the direction of the music by only emphasizing structural goal points. I think Schenker would be proud.

Granted, Schenker’s theories traditionally pertain to a limited selection of music of which Brahms is emblematic. Theorists, however, have been feverishly working for years to bring his thinking into the music of today (as are some of my colleagues.) If nothing else, I think this principle of direction in music can, and should, be carried forward. I have heard plenty of awful performances of new music that use emphasis not merely at the the measure- or beat-level, but at the pure note-level. How, distasteful! I think there is a call for performers of new music to find the direction and then, only then, perform.

This does not get composer’s off of the hook. We can not leave the performers to flounder in a murky sea of notation. Rather, it is our responsibility to at the very least compose a sense of direction into each piece. Even better: we can make it obvious. I understand that not all compositions must have direction (i.e. soundscapes and the like), but for those that claim to be “music” in the western tradition, I hardly think that this is an option.

1 Reader Comment

  1. Bob Knupp

    The only way to get to the core of Schenker is to read Schenker himself. He’s strange, but strangely insightful. To me, the value of the whole train (blog title…) of thought lies in the middleground: discovering large scale-connections (but not too large), and developing the intuition to musically convey to a listener the inherent cohesiveness of a work. In this way, large works (10 min. or more) can easily grasp the attention of a listener—if a performer becomes one with the music.

    As for performers of new music: practice and discovery of music begins only after the notes are learned, period.

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