Come On Everybody

Erna Sack and Johannes Heesters in Nanon (1938).

I’ve been experimenting with transferring 78 rpm records to the computer; here’s a couple of sides from the legendary German coloratura soprano Erna Sack.

Johann Strauss, Jr:
“On the Beautiful Blue Danube” (mp3, 4.2 MB)
“Voices of Spring” (mp3, 4.3 MB)

One of the main things Sack was legendary for was her high C. And not that high C, but the one an octave up—five ledger lines above the treble staff, if you’re keeping score at home. She deploys it at around the 2:38 mark of “Voices of Spring”; the same riff, slightly lower, also turns up at the end of “The Blue Danube.” (To my ear, it sounds closer to a B, but given the vagaries of recording and playback speeds, I’ll give it to her. B would be crazy enough.)

If I was coaching a soprano with those kinds of notes, I probably wouldn’t begrudge her interpolating them wherever even just barely reasonable; if you got ’em, might as well use ’em. But if I was composing for the same soprano, would I build the piece around those notes? Nope—I’d certainly leave room for some ossia high-wire acrobatics, but I’d first make sure the music was maximally effective without them. Here’s why: I like the idea of notation. And to notate a piece that only one person would probably ever perform defeats the purpose, in my mind.

In a more detailed way, it’s about the difference between a piece of music as a series of sounds and as a set of notated instructions. I’m as fascinated by the latter as the former, not because I’m disinterested in sound, or devoted to augenmusik, but because I think that the translation from sound into notes and back into sound again is one of the most magical aspects of composition. There’s a slippery vagueness inherent in each step of that progression that’s the essence of the compositional challenge: designing a situation that allows for the greatest chance of an interpretive lightning strike without degenerating into diffuse aimlessness, or, on the other side, stifling precision. The exact position of those thresholds vary from piece to piece, and from composer to composer; under the right circumstances, everything from indeterminacy to total serialism can be effective. That’s the nature of notation: any notation at all is structuring the performance, but even the most fanatically detailed notation is necessarily incomplete.

For me, to structure a piece around the unique abilities of one particular performer closes that door. It’s not that I’m trying to make my music technically easier—far from it, in some cases. (And I’ve paid the price.) And I like writing for performers I know, keeping their personalities and particular sound in mind as I imagine the piece. But I make sure that, down the line, someone else should be able to pick up the same piece and make a go of it. The life of the music isn’t on the page, or even in the initial realization: it’s the possibility of other performers being able to take the same notes and, using their own sound and their own experience, make something brand-new out of them, something I hadn’t considered, something the original players hadn’t considered, creating a performing tradition for the music that’s not a set of rigid guidelines, but a fluid range of possibility that each subsequent interpreter can explore and expand.

That’s just my opinion—the advent of recording has opened up the possibility of the complete opposite approach, fixing an irreproduceable musical event for anyone to experience, at any time. I’ve dabbled with that on occasion in the form of electronic and sequenced computer music, and that ability to tweak and refine to your heart’s content could very well be a crucial element of the success of a work, depending on the ultimate goal. But I’m still too addicted to the thrill of hearing notes that only existed in my head suddenly conjured into existence, running out into the world, taking on a life of their own.

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