How often have you gone to a musical performance of one of your favorite compositions, only to walk away with mixed reactions: slightly disappointed because the performance had its flaws, but also having been affected by the performance - at least a little?
That was my experience last week when I saw the touring production of Spring Awakening, and it happens to me somewhat frequently. It was my second time seeing Spring Awakening and I've listened to the original cast album countless times since it was released. The show is great - a must-see if it comes to your area - and the cast - overall fairly young - did a fine job with it.
One issue with the production, though, was its venue here in Champaign: Assembly Hall. The home of the basketball team. The venue for a recent Kid Cudi concert and an upcoming Bob Dylan concert. It's not the best place to view theatre, but I make do with it for its convenience and the great shows that come in from time to time.
Other problems were some of the audio and lighting glitches, which are understandable. They were only in town for this one performance, and they likely didn't have a lot of time to test everything out, like they would if they were settling in to a venue for a week or more.
Unfortunately, too, the female lead (Wendela) was less than stellar, and during her solo and duet songs I started to focus more on my disappointment rather than the story that was being told.
Yet, even with those distractions, I was still moved by the overall production and performance. Part of me recognized that, even though it wasn't flawless (can any performance really be, though?), nor was it as good as the original cast album I've heard so many times, that it was the same work of art, that it had similar effects on me as when I saw it the first time and when I listen to the cast album. How can we do this with music: recognize something that isn't quite the same as being, essentially, the same thing?
We see visual arts as an object, because they are. They're something we can see, touch, smell. Music is different. We can (sometimes) hold a score, but that only gives us a part of its experience (unless you're Arnold Schoenberg). Ideally, we should be able to know music through listening, but sometimes that can only give us part of the whole picture, too.
Theories of aesthetics can be summed up as two types: that music is an object, or that music is an activity/experience (I'm being severely reductionist here for the sake of brevity). I tend to lean towards the latter, but there has to be some truth to music being an object - how else could I know Spring Awakening as Spring Awakening?
My main problem with the idea of music being an object is that it's deeply connected to the idea of a canon of music, and that Western art music is "the best" and the ideal to which all other musics should be held. In our diverse and post-modern society it's difficult to defend this position, especially since so much of "Western art music" comes from non-Western composers and/or has influences of world music.
But I digress from my original question. How do we recognize something as the same music even if it's not played accurately, or even the same as it was intended (how do we know what was intended?) or how we've heard it before? How can we recognize Beethoven's 5th Symphony in an arranged form for a 9th grade orchestra? Or a jazz standard like Summertime arranged by Gil Evans?
(Or, as Nicholas Cook writes, "If you play the (Chopin) E minor Prelude and get one note wrong, then nobody will claim that what you played wasn't the E minor Prelude. But heaven knows what they will say if you get 95 percent of the notes wrong.")
If, as John Dewey says, art is experience and our reaction to it, does that mean a composition changes with every performance? Embedded in the word "composition" is the idea that it's not only written down, but that it doesn't change ... yet it does. We refer to something as "Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony" or "Oklahoma" even though no two performances are the same. What is it about music that allows us to do this?
How was I still moved by Spring Awakening even though it wasn't what I've heard and seen before? This is a question almost unique to music, since most visual art isn't flawed, or doesn't change from one viewing to the next (unless that's the intent of the creator).
I don't know the answer. I'm reading a lot in hopes of finding something I feel comfortable with, but I doubt that I - or anyone - will be able to come up with a solution satisfying to everyone (or even a majority). To me, that's one of the wonderful things about music: its multiplicity.
What about you? What have you seen or heard that wasn't "perfect" but was affective nonetheless? What is it about music that lets us recognize these similarities and differences as the same "thing"? Is one view of aesthetics better - or, perhaps, more accurate - than another?
Leave comments below. Let's start a dialogue. This is a topic I'm keenly interested in, and I'd greatly enjoy hearing what you have to say about it.