I’ve just read Amanda DeBoer Bartlett’s article ‘The Failure of Music’ which you sent me. Interesting reading, but I feel it misses some aspects of failure which are important, certainly to me and doubtless to others.
I’m quite surprised that she doesn’t mention the aspect of ‘striving’ at all. I believe this is much of what is going on in Ferneyhough – that the complexity of the music is such that it’s impossible to be accurate, but the effort involved in trying to achieve it is part of the effect of the piece. I feel that this omission, as well as her general approach seems to miss that there is a difference – both in mindset and performance effect – between aiming to fail, and trying to succeed (but failing). The former is bound to be frustrating and feel like it is negating all that training, but the latter is about stretching that training perhaps to – or past – its limit to find different modes of expression.
The way she writes, she seems to have in her mind that perfection must be a goal, that the training for a full, rich tone is what ought to be the goal, and that pieces that don’t aspire to this somehow let her down? Are you reading this too? And related to this, she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that that traditional style of performance comes with baggage. Bel canto technique, or what we’ve been calling ‘flutiness’, have historical associations that the composer may wish to dissociate from, or compositional interests may be at odds with them – my interests, for example, are not in melody and harmony, but in timbre, texture, the performer’s physicality (breath, bow, etc.).
I find it quite disturbing that she describes a successful failure performance as resulting in “a silent, shaking performer in the corner of the room”. While there are doubtless some sadistic composers out there, and no doubt also many who are a bit clueless about what they are asking of their performer, it worries me that she seems to feel that she can’t succeed in the performance if the performance is to fail. This is what I mean by her seeming to have in mind that perfection ought to be the goal.
For me, failure can be a positive force – as fear can be a positive force – and a successful failure-piece can involve interesting loss of control, for example. When this is combined with amazing technique, the result can be fascinating – for example, those notes in Fortune Favours the Brave where I asked you to hold them until you had no more breath. Your breath control is incredible, so the experience of waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for the end of the note, and then to have that be out of control places failure in a context of triumph. If you were to choose to believe that every note must end cleanly, then yes this would be a distressing failure – except it’s decided, not accidental, the fallibility is desirable, just another sound in your arsenal.
She seems to also think that ‘failures’ of tone like this indicate an automatic inability to communicate, but what these changes lead to can be a richness in tonal variety that in itself communicates something. Much depends on how well the piece is written and how well the performer understands the intention – as she herself points out in the last paragraph. I think it’s worth asking a question of what is it that is to be communicated? Because I feel that much contemporary music is trying to communicate in a different way from, say, the 19th century. A bel canto aria’s mode of communication is very different from, say, Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, and the content to be communicated is different too.
I also wonder how much of her dissatisfaction is to do with encountering poor writing for the voice… and I wonder how much of the desire for an ‘untrained’ sound comes out of a composer’s preference for pop music over operatic singing…
I’m not understanding at all what she’s trying to say about fear of the body and fear of the voice. I feel she may be reading more into this than is there, but then I don’t know what repertoire she’s been burnt by!
Where I feel she is absolutely right is about trying to produce specific emotional effects in the audience. I feel that manipulations like this are perhaps artistically suspect, and are something I do not attempt. I once had a woman come up to me after a performance and tell me she’d had tears in her eyes and it was one of the best moments of my life, to feel that my work had somehow connected so deeply with someone, but while it was absolutely what I wanted it was not something I had explicitly engineered the piece to evoke. I feel that we can only plan our actions, as composer, as performer, put as much into it as we can and hope for a deeply-felt reaction.
And finally, this reminded me of a conversation I had in Ghent where, after my presentation about putting my notebooks online, someone said that ‘vulnerability’ didn’t seem quite the right word, and I responded with something to the effect that there might be two kinds of vulnerability – one comes from a place of fear and the other from a place of opening up. I think these are not mutually exclusive, but the choice to open up to failure is quite different from just performing a piece that has failure elements build into it.
Hope all this makes sense. It’s quite late now!