Monthly Archives: November 2012

Musical Villain Series: Did Stravinsky Ruin Music?

Igor Stravinsky (ca.1920s-1930)

Nicholas D. Lewis

I am not one to cast aspersions, but we should be honest with ourselves: today’s performance culture has been sterilized.  Seventy or eighty years ago, the performance culture was defined by liberal interpretations and individualism.  Now, the creativity involved in the music process has largely been stifled; what appears on the page has a higher value than the ideas of the performer.  As a result, it is difficult to tell performers apart as they often strive to sound the same. Somebody or something must be the catalyst for this decline, and the arguments I’ve heard are large-scale conflations and wholly conjecture.  I am therefore writing a set of five short and blunt articles that offer a candid look at the cause of this sepulchral situation.

The first person to be held culpable is Igor Stravinsky.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy’s compositions. In fact, I spent a whole summer
compiling a catalog of his works. But his skill as a composer does not negate his blameworthiness as a musician. It is not a dubious exaggeration to claim that Stravinsky may be one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century in terms of both composition and musicality. In the late 1930s, Stravinsky was a frequent lecturer at Harvard University, and he was also publishing a fair number of essays on music in various magazines and journals. A significant portion of these essays and lectures dealt with the relationship between the composer and the performer, and the position that Stravinsky held was that it was a ‘crime against the composer’ for performers to take the interpretation of a piece of music into their own hands. In other words, every instrumentalist must obey exactly what is on the printed page; anything else represents an impurification of the composer’s intentions. Stravinsky drove this dogma home so potently and forcefully that many academics were won to his side. Since those same academics were the ones who would most directly influence student musicians through teaching, this mindset over time became institutionalized.

On Another Note… Or Pitch?

Pitch Class CircleNicholas D. Lewis

So it turns out that music theorists often don’t make the distinction between the terms note and pitch.  If music theorists don’t make the distinction, then what motivation do students have to speak correctly?  Like father like son; like teacher like student.  Comment on the bottom of the page about whether or not you guys knew the difference.  It will serve as a case in point, and statistics are good.  And worry not, I promise I’m not being too much of a pedant.  It turns out that this difference is fundamental to the way that we talk about music theory, so it’s actually important.

pitch refers only to the frequency of a given sound.  That means it’s actually impossible to name a note based on listening to someone playing a piano… Theoretically at least.  More on that later. The idea of a note in Western culture was developed by the need to transmit sounds in a semiotic (symbolic) way.  A note is therefore the symbolic representation of a pitch on paper, and is defined by a system of rules that have no other function than to define tonality.  When speaking of pitch, it is therefore technically impossible to speak of tonality.  The two ideas are separate and incompatible.

Well, some interesting arguments can be derived from these definitions.  Most importantly, it turns out that the idea of perfect pitch inherently collapses upon itself.  The idea that a person can hear a pitch and tell you what “note” that pitch represents is rubbish.  Today I was in a room with someone playing piano, and a smart-aleck in the back stood up and proudly said “You’re playing a C”.  I hate to burst his bubble – and that may be an impressive bar trick – but that “pitch” actually doesn’t correspond to any note.  Why?  Let’s analyze this on three levels:

1.  Even if we forget the definitions of these terms, the “note” could have been a B# or a D-double-flat.  It depends on the tonality of the piece.  In rare cases, could it have also been an A-triple-sharp?  You bet!

2.  Taking the definitions into account, it turns out that pitches represent nothing other than a frequency.  You can sing the pitch that a note represents, but the converse is a fallacy.  You cannot write a pitch (without harmonic context… But even then, it’s still technically impossible).

3.  I know in western culture an A4?440 hertz.  That’s great.  Turns out that this is arbitrary and actually depends upon the culture and time periods. In Baroque tuning, an A4?415 hertz.  If we take a person with “perfect pitch” and blast at them an A4 in baroque tuning, they would probably say that the “note” is an A-flat or G-sharp, or something in that ballpark.  But they’d be wrong.

If a person can hear a note and tell me the frequency, then they may have “perfect pitch”.  But in terms of how perfect pitch is normally defined, the notion is just silly.  Notes are notes, and pitches are pitches.  As far as I can see – from a practical standpoint – they live in different worlds.  One in the air, one of the staff.