Double Interpretation

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The word interpretation has a double usage in music. It refers both to meaning – how a musician understands a piece – and to action – the concrete performance decisions they make.

Of course, these two senses of the word keep collapsing into one another. Listeners only have access to the musician’s concept through the concrete sounds they produce, and the musicians themselves likewise develop their internal representation of a piece through the act of learning to produce it physically. The abstract quality of meaning has no real means to exist independently of its realisation.

Nonetheless, this double aspect of interpretation is essential to keep the music as performed connected with the imagination, of both performers and listeners. You sometimes hear the word interpretation used as if it was a synonym for ‘plan’: get louder here, and slow down there, change tone colour on this word, and bring out the bass line on that.

But to treat interpretation as meaning only its concrete patterns of action results in an essential impoverishment of musical experience, because it detaches the realisation of meaning from the imaginative source that motivates it. Getting louder and softer has no meaning or value in itself; its only function is to make the performer’s imaginative concept of the music perceptible to the listener.

Indeed, to this extent, the very notion of ‘plan’ is fraught with danger. Sure, you want an ensemble to have some kind of shared purpose in their performance. But articulating this in terms of a sequence of concrete operations places a layer of instructions between the performers and the music they sing. It invites people to connect with the idea of ‘slowing down’, rather than with the feeling of wistfulness or beauty of harmonic richness or whatever combination of musical-imaginative elements sparked the response that an easing of tempo was needed. You can hear when people are performing the plan rather than performing the music.

There’s an interesting post on Owning the Stage where Tom Metzger responds to a director’s anxiety that she’ll come up with a bad plan. He suggests that so long as she is rooting her plan in a careful and sensitive connection with the song, it’s pretty much bound to come out okay – there are lots of right answers, and anyone taking a modicum of care over finding their own is more than likely to produce something effective. His answer, that is, locates the validity of the second meaning of ‘interpretation’ in its connection with the first.

But given the primacy of understanding and imagination in this method of producing a plan, I wonder if it would be even more helpful to let go of the idea of plan and just encourage people to connect with the first layer of interpretation. For, if the performed interpretation articulated in the plan is the outcome of one’s understanding of the music, and if the plan can’t be enacted convincingly without also connecting with the imaginative level of understanding, then the plan itself is at best redundant, and at worst gets in the way of the performance. Maybe it’s a useful tool to help build interpretive skills, but we should remember to keep our focus on the house we are building, not the scaffolding we use to help put it up.

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