June 14, 2016

Incomplete Beauty

I've been reading about Medieval music theory. For fun. Again. (Yes, I know I'm insane.)
What caught me this time is how rhythmic notation developed. Of course, music had rhythm before rhythmic notations came into use. There just hadn't been a clear way to write it down before. And developing rhythmic notation was a messy process. There were stretches when notated rhythm was rather like a written version of Morse code only more complicated. Each little blob of ink in a tune had to be counted to figure out the rhythm of any of the notes and the meaning of the lines and dots changed depending on how many there were and what order they were in (and that's the simple version).
This lead me (or returned me) to this idea: Music notation is incomplete. It has to be. Each new notation idea was created after the fact; after musicians had been playing something "that way" for so long someone decided to attempt to represent it in writing (usually in a highly imprecise way). No written piece includes all the details of the music. Think about tempo rubato in Chopin's music. Or Jazz and the art of learning to Swing a rhythm. Our rhythm notation simply has no way of showing either of these musical ideas fully. We know they are there and even mark them in the score but we cannot show exactly how to play them. They must be demonstrated in all their glorious variety.
And this is good. Music shifts, changes and creates itself fresh with every performance, rehearsal, jam session or car sing-a-long. We add to the written music and suddenly new musical ideas start to surface. Nothing is every static even if the notation on the page remains the same.

Music notation is incomplete until the moment of performance. All the striving for perfection or the definitive version that happens in many arts simply doesn't apply to music. We help to complete the music, audience and performers alike, by allowing it to sound and that is perfection enough. And each performance, public or private, is unique since what we bring to the music changes moment to moment. We break rules, add ornaments, swing a rhythm, hum along, change the words, make mistakes or even play the music as written and suddenly a new sound exists.
It seems to me that notation (or the composer) sometimes struggles to define music, to make it permanent and lasting. It is a losing battle but if we remember that notation is not complete, the written music becomes a seed that sprouts and re-sprouts endlessly. The beauty of the incomplete is that it can bring about many moments of music over and over without ever being finished.
To paraphrase The Lady's Not for Burning by Christopher Fry: "I can pass to you generations of roses in this wrinkled berry...What is not, you have in your palm. Rest in the riddle."