Monday, April 12, 2010

Rote Politics

Ron Silliman points to this post with the statement Why memorizing poetry is inherently right wing.   The question of memorization is, of course, sometimes an important one for musical performance as well and sometimes we musicians also make a similar distinction between rote and "by heart" memorization.  Generally speaking, the pro-memorization camp is our conservative party and it is typical for competitions and recitals on the establishment circuit to insist that musicians play without sheet music visible on stage.  (This insistence comes with that same weird macho-but-prissy swagger that only conservative pseudo-intellectuals carry.)  While there are cases  in which getting rid of the paper is unavoidable — in opera, for example, or with some percussion instruments for which visual contact with a music stand cannot be maintained —, I side decidedly with the opposition party here.  This is because when playing notated music one can too frequently discover that notation is a gift that keeps giving; reading music is seldom a task which is completed with rehearsal and a live performance is often a valuable additional opportunity for discovery.  This possibility was brought home to me first by playing baroque music, realizing continuo and ornamentation in real time.

Addendum, 14/4/2010:  I think that I wasn't clear enough here.  My problem is not with memorization but with the insistence than musicians play without notation and the deprecation of musicians who chose to use notation.  Although my own memory is probably average, when I rehearse something well, it is almost inevitably committed to memory, but I still want to have the notation available.   And not for insurance but out of optimism, that there is still more music to be found in the act of reading.  


Elaine Fine said...

As a person incapable of performing music from memory (well, I can do it, but it always sounds arhythmic and out of tune), I have come to the conclusion that performing music from memory ends up being "about" the performer, while performing music from music ends up being about the music. Having the notes and rhythms there allow a performance to have spontaneity.

String players are free to futz with bowings and fingerings in performance when reading music, but if we are playing from memory, a creative moment can be the first step to pure improvisation!

Memorizing poetry is something completely different. Reciting a poem from memory (usually) does not involve carefully-coordinated bodily motions that are essential to the coherence and integrity of the work. Reciting a poem from memory means that you have it in hour head to entertain you when you are doing other things (like, say, walking).

Singing songs from memory (a compromise argument) is a lot like reciting poetry from memory, but the physical apparatus for the singer is all internal. And it is easier, because we have the structure of the music to remind us of the shape of the poem.

Kathryn Rose said...

I grew up being expected to memorise music for exams and performances, but it was never something that was particularly difficult for me to do. I memorised quickly and by the time I had a piece learned properly, I tended to have it memorised anyway. It was very much about remembering what the music sounds like, rather than strict muscle memory.

In general I find that I perform better when I can get away from the dots -- whether that is memorisation, or improvisation. My playing is technically more accurate and much more representative of what I'm trying to do when I'm not looking at sheet music.

However, the practise to performance ratio is much lower for me now than it was when I was growing up, and my memory is a little slower too. I'm not sure how much the latter is because I don't perform from memory as often and how much is that I am no longer a nine-year-old with poor sight-reading skills!

I work with people who have poor reading skills and also poor aural memory, or rather poor confidence in their own aural memory, so they claim not to be able to read the music but then are too scared to sing when the dots are taken away. I think in that situation, gently and gradually training people to do some (not all) performance from memory may help them increase confidence a bit.

Anonymous said...

In the realm of algorithmic composition, there is a subtle characterization issue,as far as memory is concerned.

One faces the conceptual dilemma of whether a computer has to memorize the music it's playing:

If a sequence is being generated on the spot (by using, say, a markov matrix), where do we stand in terms of memory? Clearly the computer still has to use some RAM to carry out that procedure.

But it's not really "memorization" (permanent storage on a hard drive). RAM is simply being used as an auxiliary device to transform a series, this is basically real-time music.


Anonymous said...

I also think it's important to address the issue of memorization of improvization.

All good improvisers, contrary to what many believe, have a general scheme which they follow, so as to avoid getting carried away by the controlled chaos of their own artistic spontaneity.

As far as the use of a score in performance is concerned, I think it's a must. Orchestras do it, choirs do it, great performers, such as Richter, do it.

Got to stick to what the composer wrote.

Otherwise imprecision here, imprecision there, you get a critical mass of errors, this becomes a vague variation on the composer's original, carefully designed work.


David Wolfson said...

I write a lot of vocal music, and I'd just like to add another way in which the situation is different for singers as well. In vocal performance, there's the distinct illusion that the performer is actually speaking to the audience (it's those pesky words), and so even in a recital situation (as opposed to opera), the barrier of a music stand between the singer and the audience is to be avoided if possible: body language is a part of any vocal performance, too, which will disappear behind a music stand.

As an audience member, I always am enthusiastic about a performer who plays from memory, particularly for that reason: you can get a sense of their involvement in the music that you can't when they're behind a stand.

And as a composer, I venture to say that don't regard the performer as a delivery system for my "carefully designed work;" I regard my job as that of carefully designing something for a performer to communicate with an audience with.

fredösphere said...

Very interesting. I'm a natural memorizer and a conservative / libertarian, so add me to your pile of anecdotal evidence.

Still, I'm not buying it. I, too, compose with an emphasis on vocal music, and prefer memorization for the reasons David Wolfson gave. Also, I find reading music as a pianist painfully difficult. (Not so as a singer, BTW.) I experienced an epiphany in my piano practice a year or two ago when I realized I could make progress faster if I deliberately memorized first, then learned the fingering. It's that looking back 'n' forth between score and hands that I could never manage; my analytical brain goes to sleep. (That's a handicap on my part, no question; but one adapts as one must.)

If the score in your head is identical to the one on the page, then how could the one on the page possibly be superior in any way? And if the score in your head is not identical to the one on the page, how can you claim to have memorized it?

fredösphere said...

I'd like to add that I think my previous comment is a bit glib. It implies I have (and everyone else should have) a photographic memory of the score. I should have made a much more modest claim: that I am usually so distracted while trying simultaneously to read and play piano music, that my memorizing of the score, however imprecise, will yeild a better result. Your milage may, and in fact will likely, vary.