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International Music Conferences - the Exchange of Ideas - Arthur Butterworth
 
Recently I attended an international meeting of devotees and informed authorities on the music of a famous twentieth century composer. It is re-assuring to know in these times of a seemingly-declining interest in the great European classics, beset as they are by so many threatening aspects of cheap populism in the arts, that there are still many discerning people who go to great lengths to encourage and preserve their heritage. Not just to preserve it, but to explore and seek further enlightenment by research. This is perhaps the raison d’être of all academic pursuit: to find out more, to seek out reasons, to pass on to others what careful intellectual exploration might have revealed.
 
Music is a unique - indeed universal - means of communication; it is a language. It is unique inasmuch as that it is quite unlike any other spoken or written language; for it cannot be translated but exists only in its own terms. While it is true that, in association with the written or spoken word, in whatever other language, music can, by mere association with that language, take on something specific which the written or spoken word so clearly and unmistakably conveys. All vocal art then; be it opera, oratorio, lieder, folk-song, popular music of every kind, imbues the music which is its hand-maiden with a specific or emotional meaning which, by itself, pure instrumental sound is not capable of achieving, although by implication and symbolism it might appear to possess this desirable asset; but this is never more than a subjective quality dependent on each listener’s own interpretation. Bearing in mind these fundamental differences between written and vocal languages and that of otherwise purely abstract, non-vocal music perhaps it needs to be accepted that attempts to explain how and why a composer’s music functions as it does can never truly be explained: for it is a unique, untranslatable language.
 
However, it is the purpose of academicism to try to find explanations; to offer new insight into how the situation has appeared to musical philosophers. Such international gatherings of those seeking to know more have this ardent purpose: sharing ideas about a common interest.
 
Musical academics, historians, philosophers, or whatever other term might describe their intellectual pursuit of the art do not necessarily imply that they are themselves practical musicians who actually use musical language in the sense that they are performers - as it were “speaking” the live language of music. For many academics it would appear that their own pursuit of music takes on something in the nature of a passive one: commenting on, reviewing, speculating upon known or unknown historical facts about this or that composer or a particular musical work. Conferences - especially high-flown international ones - can become exalted intellectual affairs in which highly-qualified persons often from world-wide academia express personal opinions evolved from their own profound contemplation of a favoured branch of the art of music.
 
Now there could be a parallel with musical performance itself:
 
At a concert, especially one with a celebrated conductor, soloist or group of performers, whether they be a string quartet, solo pianist, or a large orchestra, one assumes that such performers will be so familiar and assured of what they are to offer to their audience that they will be able to perform with absolute self-confidence. Soloists in particular are almost invariably assumed to know their concerto so well as not to need to read a copy of the music in front of them, their eyes glued to it so that they know what comes next. They can perform from memory. They remember Schumann’s famous phrase: “To perform with the score in their heads and not with their heads in the score”. Any conductor worth his salt does this too; for while the score might well be on the desk in front of him, he does not really need it; it is there only as a kind of safety-net should something untoward happen in the course of the performance. It might surprise many listeners to know that even rank-and-file orchestral players more often than not know their parts so well that they do not need the band part on the music-stand. It is said that at one time - maybe in the early 1900s - one German orchestra invariably played from memory, not just the conductor but the whole band.
 
But what of academics lecturing in public? They are surely in a similar situation to the concert-performer. Their earnest dissertations and august theses which get them such lofty academic distinction (all those high-sounding doctorates!) are all well and good when, after much careful research they are written for us to read. However, it is not unusual for academics at prestigious conferences to read - in other words themselves to “read out” in their own spoken presentation - their papers to an audience of earnest and often critical colleagues. Unfortunately it seems often to be the case that these learned academics, undoubtedly capable as they are of writing their theses, are less good at using their own, unskilled voices in actually speaking or lecturing to an audience. They lack the natural oratory of an actor, public speaker or political personality, and that extrovert, inborn mesmerising ability of the capable orchestral conductor to communicate. It is largely a matter of personality. At such international conferences one can make allowances for foreign speakers grappling with a language which is not their mother tongue; for the most part they speak English excellently so that one admires their abilities to put over to the listener the essence of what they want to communicate.
 
Ironically at a conference I attended recently it was those whose mother-tongue is English who seemed least effective: there was a mumbling instead of clear-cut articulation, poor projection of the voice, hurried, un-modulated expression, un-smiling facial expression.
 
One wonders what their university students thought of them when having to attend dreary lectures. Most of all I found several who, seemingly, just had to rely on reading from their own voluminous prepared notes. What would we think of the concert soloist who had to rely on having his eyes glued to the copy in order to perform a forty minute concerto? It is my belief that a lecturer should never need notes; he or she should be so absolutely assured of his subject that he can speak with a reassuring spontaneity that proclaims to his listeners that he really knows what he is talking about. I am myself not primarily an academic although I spent a few years lecturing at a university music department, but I never once lectured from notes. I have also been a conductor and have conducted many complete concerts from memory, because I took the trouble to learn thoroughly, the works I was to perform - including some years ago the Beethoven 9th Symphony.
 
The usual practice is for the full score to be on the conductor’s desk, so that one can flick over the pages when really necessary.
 
There is also perhaps a codicil to much of this: it concerns what has come to be known as “body-language” - how one appears to one’s auditors. It is now universally recognised that male attire has become quite casual - “sloppy” if you like. Does this in itself quietly suggest how culture is remorselessly declining? Lecturing to a distinguished audience would, it seems to me require a certain etiquette and expression of the sense of occasion, a gesture to one’s listeners perhaps? The distinguished Danish academic of the early twentieth century - Georges Brandes - invariably appeared at his public lectures in full evening dress. To appear in attire more suited to a casual barbecue down at the local pub on a Saturday night seems somehow incongruous.
 
Arthur Butterworth

 


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