Context

(Originally posted on February 20, 2011)

Fairly recently on facebook, I commented on an online video clip that I watched earlier.  It was of an European virtuoso violinist making a recording of Bach violin concertos.  In the video this young violinist said: “I love to hear about authentic interpretation and baroque violins; however, we do not know how it was actually played. So the freedom of interpretation is much wider than some people might think.  I do believe that I play for the people of the 21st century.”  My comment was about this quote that stuck with me… It struck me as too shallow a thought for an established violinist to have.  She seems to ignore something that I consider crucial: the importance of the context of those early works.

I love machines that fly.  I love airplanes and I love helicopters.  I am a huge fan of the Saturn rockets and other NASA launch vehicles, and of spacecrafts!  And I love the whole story of American endeavor of getting to outer space and to the moon in the ’60s and early ’70s.  One of my all-time favorite TV series is HBO’s miniseries From the Earth to the Moon from 1998.  I still have the VHS tapes of this series (yes, it was still the era of VCRs) and I still go back to them every once in a while.  One of my favorite episodes is about the crew of Apollo 15 getting some practical training to be real lunar field observers under geologist Dr. Leon (Lee) Silver (“Galileo Was Right”).  The most of those astronauts were just exceptional military pilots, not scientists, and they needed to develop scientific minds in order to get the most out of those astronomically expensive Apollo moon-landing missions.  In this episode Dr. Silver takes the crew and back-up crew of Apollo 15 Lunar Module to Orocopia Mountains in California, and introduces to them the concept of the context.  He tells those astronauts that field geology is like solving a mystery of a dead cat— the dead cat itself could only tell you that it’s dead and it was a cat, and you have no idea what killed it, but if you tell him it was found in the middle of the road, or in the kitchen of a restaurant— its context is the difference between roadkill and a meal.  The professor then picks up a rock, a fist-size granite, and tells them that the rock has its story.  How it was made, how it got here, what happened between then and now— to find out the whole story, you have to understand the language of the rock.  On the moon surface, they have to be able to give the most complete descriptions of things they see; not just about which rocks they are going to bring back but also their context.  To be his eyes on the moon, first they have to learn to speak the language of this little rock here— the professor tells them.

To interpret something is to tell or re-tell the story of something as you take it.  But your story of a dead cat is going to be more specific if you know where the cat was found— and your story may be hugely different depending on where it was found.  Your understanding of its context will determine the scope of your interpretation.  If you try to understand the context of Bach’s violin pieces, the more you find out, the narrower and more specific your interpretation will get— and that is my point.  The freedom of interpretation, in playing baroque music especially, should be much narrower than some of those star violinists may think.

Not only in Bach but also in any field — music or else — the lack of efforts to understand the context seems to be the cause of many problems today.  You can easily criticize any public figure by extracting a line from his/her statement and interpret it outside the context.  Without the context, you can shape a story in any way you like.  That’s what some of those political pundits on TV or radio do daily.  Another significant example is the Scriptural passages; since it is not that easy to fully understand the context, those passages can be interpreted to affirm whatever your moral standard is…  The Bible can be used to denounce slavery as inhuman, and at the same time, can support it.  The lack of context can be one of the most significant causes of any religious tensions we have in our world today, or so it seems.

What, then, is the context of the music by J.S. Bach?  It’s really anything and everything that contributes to your shaping the story of it.  Knowing the instrument for which composers intended is one very important area of its context, and that’s the reason some of us play the period instruments.  Musicological study is really about understanding the context.  Familiarizing yourself with the language of the music of Bach is what it is.  if you are a musician trained in the field of so-called classical music, you know how baroque music sounds.  You know how classical or romantic music sounds.  And if you play many pieces from the classical era, you learn to recognize distinctive expressions or writing of a classical composer, and oftentimes you can tell if it was by Haydn or Mozart.  That’s understanding the musical idioms which is also a significant area of the context.  Understanding the notion of articulations and how to execute them is another.  We’d better know what a slur is in the context of baroque music.

If you ask professional modern violinists what baroque pieces they revisit every now and then, the most of them would just list the Bach.  They don’t really play anything other than Bach’s six solos, concertos and six obbligato sonatas— because they are the great ones, and other baroque composers’ pieces don’t inspire them enough.  This fact diminish their chances to get to know general baroque idioms.  You don’t think playing only Haydn will make you understand the coherent idioms of the era…  Knowing and to be able to actually dance some of those partita/suite movements are perhaps important if you care about the context.  Getting to know what the music was about in Bach’s time, and to understand that instrumental music was considered less important than vocal music is a huge step toward understanding the context of Bach’s music.  A piece of baroque music is a vehicle to transmit some kind of message, not music for music’s sake— understanding this notion will get you jump-started on your new endeavor.

But… who has time to delve into the context of a piece you are going to perform?  It is a life-long journey, and.. quite frankly I believe that the reason I exist in this world is to help others in their endeavors to understand the context of Bach’s music.  I just don’t want them to dismiss the context of it like this violinist in the online video clip seems to be doing.  What she’s saying basically is that, since she doesn’t know where the dead cat was found, she’s going to make up a story of her own.  I’d like them to at least try to solve the mystery of the dead cat.  Well, some of you may ask: what’s wrong with making up a story of my own?

We should not assume that everybody doesn’t know where the dead cat was found just because we don’t know.  For example, let’s just say that we have a beautiful piece of East Asian calligraphy here.  It looks beautiful and it looks nice on the wall, but we have a tiny problem: we don’t know which side is the top side.  It looks fine this way so we don’t care; we’re going to enjoy as it is, let’s not bother to figure out the correct orientation of this piece of art!  ..Well, what’s wrong with this picture here?  This scenario may be totally okay in a personal residential setting, but you don’t want to do that in a public place like a museum.  And if you really care about the art, you’d want to know its content and context.  You may even want to put it on another wall with a different theme after realizing what’s actually written in there.  To hear a Bach performance that ignores its context, to some people, can be as awkward (or even offensive) to an East Asian as to see a calligraphy piece on the wall upside-down.  Really.

I agree with the violinist from the clip, though, about one thing; that we perform for the 21st century audience.  That’s why I think that the musicologists are not always the best storytellers, however comprehensive their understanding of the context may be.  Interpretation is about how to tell/re-tell the story as you understand the subject based on its context.  Storytelling, or delivering, has a lot to do with rhetorical skills of the orator [performer], and that’s why the notion of rhetoric is important in performing baroque music.. but this has to be a topic of another blog entry.  Our storytelling should NOT be just ‘reenacting’— our storytelling should be about telling in the way that’s most effective for you to send the story out to the audience today, and if it means you need to pre-inform the audience about how you are going to do it, so be it.  That’s exactly what program notes are for.  Let them in on the context!  Let’s all enjoy the story together.

The crew of Apollo 15 brought back a moon rock of significant importance in understanding how the moon came to be.  What they found was a rock of anorthosite.  The press called it the Genesis Rock, and it is considered to be one of the most significant scientific discoveries of Apollo.  Those ex-test pilot astronauts becoming fluent enough in “the language of this little rock” and knowing which rocks to sample is one thing, but to be able to inspire them to be lunar field observers is another… I would have loved to attend Dr. Silver’s field lectures.  And someday I want to be able to inspire my musician colleagues to the journey of contextual exploration like Dr. Silver did.

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