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    Curation Theory?

    The follwing was originally intended to be a blog entry about the connection between concert programming and architectural design. I abandoned it in the draft form below for various reasons, but when I read the recent thread on modes of listening, I thought this may be of interest to others. (Or maybe I just wanted to see how the new discussion format works.) It takes the modes question in a different direction.  Those put off by the length or style (this would be entirely understandable) may wish to just scroll to the end below the asterisks. 


    Little of all we value here

    Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year

    Without both feeling and looking queer.

    It's Sunday, August 17, 2014, a cool summer morning in the village of Warm Springs in the Shenandoah Valley on the edge of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.

    I am sitting in a room again.

    The room is in a cottage that was built in 1790, give or take a year. Over many years, the cottage became the seed for a much larger house. A kitchen was added, a sitting room, a couple more rooms square it off, then a second floor with more bedrooms. It's impossible for me to tell the order in which additions were made. An open pillared porch two stories high wraps two sides of the house. A separate summer kitchen cottage eventually added in back. Altogether the very definition of hotchpotch architecture. In back there's a steaming brook leading from a public bathhouse, still standing, where Thomas Jefferson came to "take the waters." My wife and I have stayed here often over the past twenty summers.

    I look down at the sloping floor. Crooked door frames, warped window frames, slanting ceilings. There isn't a single ninety-degree angle left in this entire structure, the result of the house's attempts to conform to the demands of Mother Nature and man's attempts to fight off entropy. Mother Nature will win of course. Some day this house, like all houses, will suffer the same fate as the deacon's one-hoss shay –– although, absent the deacon's clever fixes, it will be a prolonged death following the path of a different logic.

    But for now, after nearly 225 years defying gravity and civil war, the house still stands. A silent narrative. Charming, comfortable, livable, reassuring – but a building no deacon or architect –– only Force Of Circumstance –– would design. Fragments of my own memories are locked within its walls now. I love this place.

    But the house is tired.

    In fact, there's nothing that keeps its youth

    So far as I know, but a tree and truth.

    (This is a moral that runs at large;

    Take it.––You're welcome.––No extra charge.)

    I get up and pour another cup of coffee, then settle back down. My mind wanders to some words Wendell Berry wrote in an essay entitled "The Preservation of Old Buildings." I've quoted them often enough I know them nearly by heart. But I look them up again to get it right.

    The question is whether we are to be tourists or participants in our heritage. I am interested in the question because I believe it to be an eminently practical one: I do not believe that tourists can preserve anything, including themselves, for very long. And one of the tragedies of the modern world is that it has made us tourists of our own destiny. It has taught us to turn to the past for diversion rather than instruction. It has taught us to look into our inheritance for curiosities rather than patterns.

    My thoughts about old buildings lose focus and start to be replaced by an amorphous mashup. A hotchpotch of half-baked ideas.

    I don't make a habit of seeking out historic structures for the sole purpose of inducing meditative experiences. The owner of that old house where we've stayed so often has become a dear friend, but in truth, music has been the only reason we've returned to Warm Springs three or four times every summer over the past 25 years.  Garth Newel Music Center ten minutes down the road from this old house is an extraordinary, little known chamber music venue.

    The previous night (August 16) cellist Andrés Díaz performed at Garth Newel. He was the reason we were there on that particular weekend. Here is the program he performed with pianist Genevieve Feiwen Lee:

         Bach: Suite No.3 in C Major, BWV1009

         Beethoven: Cello Sonata in D Major, Op.102, No.2


         Xi Wang: Rhapsody for cello [unaccompanied]

         Shostakovich: Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40



    My thoughts on that Sunday morning when I wrote the above, had turned from contemplation of the way the house was put together and then experienced by me, to the way a music program is often put together and the way that program as a whole is experienced by me. In particular, I was fascinated by the fact that the Xi Wang piece (a wonderful, searing 5-6 minutes - both the work and composer were new to me) totally "worked" in the overall program's structure. In an architectural design sense, it shouldn't have fit at all.  The program (and many others upon reflection) reminded me of the hotchpotch architecture of the old house & how a piece so out of place could seem just right. So the question was: Why? Leading to the question: has "programming theory"in music been developed to any extent? Is there yet another recent current out there that I've missed?

    Yes, repertoire studies have been around for a while, but I'm not so sure that "program building" (i.e., the architectonic art/science of combing works into a potential gestalt transcending its parts), beyond the usual pragmatic & often mundane considerations, has been a focus of study either in the music theory community or the wider musicology community.

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    • 2 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • This seems to be one of the things that performers and audiences discuss all the time, but theorists/musicologists rarely mention.

      An issue that is perhaps related--one which musicologists have discusse--involves the ordering of works within opus numbers. For instance, Haydn's Op. 9 Quartets have different orderings depending on what edition one follows, or whether one follows Haydn's own entries in the Entwurfkatalog. (The traditional ordering of his Op. 9 follows that of the first Paris edition). I have heard people argue that the ordering of works within opus numbers has a decided impact on the overall effect.

      Poundie Burstein


    • This is really an urgent topic as what is at stake in the curatorial aspect of programming is the vitality of the listening audience.  Too much recent programming has simply mimicked CD programming, including the dead spaces between tracks (movements). 

      The issues involved include such things as approaches to tonal coherence: Horszowski always proceeded through tonalities as traditionally organized.  I agree with the point to which Poundie refers that important  cues from the sequence of pieces within a given opus:  Chopin mazurkas, Brahms Op. 76, e.g.  I have come to treat these as cycles, the continuity of which is managed not by tonal coherence as much as by pivoting on isolated tones.  Testing these subtle connections I find audiences more responsive to seeming non-sequiturs than to cohesion via the circle of fifths.

      I find, too, that attentive listening is enhanced by starting with contemporary sound rather than adopting a time line model.