Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Archive and the Repertoire

A few nights ago, thanks to the munificence of Jewel Dakini, Mary and I were treated to a free ticket to see Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra play through three Mozart piano concertos: 16, 18, and 25. It's part of their Mozart year effort to play all 23 piano concertos, come hell or high water. And I have to say, it tends towards the former. Kahane is an amazing performer, of course, and it is a good ensemble. There is nobody I would rather see run though all 23 concertos. But... number 16? I had never heard, or heard of, this one before. Of course, I am the furthest thing removed from a Mozart person, so that's not saying so much. But looking through the Mozart books I happen to have at hand, it seems I am not alone. Charles Rosen tells us that it "is difficult for many listeners to appreciate...this is not the Mozart we love." Neal Zaslaw's Compleat Mozart mainly focuses on the fact that it was published in his lifetime, and an annotated copy he sent to Nannerl has one of the few written-out examples of Mozart's own ornamentation. Maynard Solomon just tells us that it was one a series he composed to bring in some money in 1784. From hearing it once, I can tell you it is a pretty dull piece of music.

So, in other words, there doesn't seem to be a lot of reasons to play this piece. I know, I know, that's musicological hearsay. But I think that's the thing--is there a musical reason to perform this? Or is it simply necessary to play it because it completes the set? Do we play because we enjoy playing it, or listening to it? Or do we play it simply to reaffirm the canon in the most extreme sense: not only is it only played because Mozart wrote it, but furthermore we only play it because it is one of his numbered piano concertos. If it was not by Mozart, and if it was one of his piano/orchestra pieces not given an official number, we'd never have to hear it again.

Last spring I was in a seminar which was lucky enough to have Diana Taylor of NYU come give a guest presentation. Taylor's book The Archive and Repertoire has caused many waves in the field of performance studies. Its basic idea is that performance, defined broadly, is an important repertoire of knowledge and memory. Traditional histories are defined by the static existence of the archive, the official history of events and actions. The idea of an embodied repertoire gives a powerful new voice to alternative histories.

At her presentation at my seminar, Taylor was asked why she chose the term "repertoire." She replied that it seemed to imply a sense of flexible possibilities, as in the OED definition "the entire range of skills or aptitudes or devices used in a particular field or occupation." In conversation afterwards, I pointed out that in the world of classical music, repertoire has a much different meaning. It refers to a set of musical works: either of a certain kind ("the nineteenth-century symphonic repertoire") or those pieces a performer is able to play ("My repertoire includes the Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Berg violin concertos"). There is a similarity between Taylor and Classical Music's usages, in that it refers to a set of skills of a sort. But in classical music those skills are not flexible tools, they are skills restricted to performing a very specific piece of music. In fact, in the first sense of repertoire used by classical music, as a set of works of a certain kind, there aren't any human performers anymore: the repertoire is not embodied skills, but abstract musical works. Whereas Diana Taylor's notion of the repertoire is about listening to an alternative set of knowledge, the classical music sense of repertoire is about preserving the archive--those canonical works that "we" have ideologically chosen over the past several centuries, at the expense of other histories and people.

Why do we play Mozart's 16th Piano Concerto? Is it for the archive, or the repertoire?

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