Do you read liner notes? I always begin to do so. If there’s something of substance, not only do I read them but I cherish them, making them part of the big conversation that is the work of art. Nothing exists in a vacuum, given that an audience has to be there (if a leprechaun plays a tune in the forest and no one hears, is there music?). Liner notes become a big part of a performance when they engage with the issues of the piece being performed. While music is an abstract form, the liner notes can explicate, telling us how the performer meant us to hear.
Sometimes the notes do more, venturing into the realm of important theory. Such are the liner notes of the CDs of Stewart Goodyear. His notes for his complete set of the Beethoven piano sonatas are an extraordinary series of observations that have enlarged my understanding of the music, my experience of Goodyear’s wonderful performances, and –perhaps most important—my relationship with Beethoven.
Just a few weeks ago I encountered Goodyear’s new recording of The Diabelli Variations, including a significant essay in the liner notes. Goodyear tells us about Carl Czerny, a composer who had an interesting way of understanding music, conceptualized around four categories:
- studies and exercises
- easy pieces for students
- brilliant pieces for concerts
- serious music
We’re told that what’s so remarkable about Beethoven’s composition is that he manages to defy these categories, transcending these boxes with music that can be fun, can be brilliantly virtuosic and also, serious music, perhaps all at the same time.
While I’m not sure I agree with Goodyear (if i disagree it’s almost a matter of semantics… let’s set that aside for now) I love his ambition, that he’s not just tickling the ivories, but also theorizing mightily as well. I would tend to see Czerny’s boxes as his own way of understanding music, and not necessarily one that everyone else followed.
As I type this it’s late at night after a very exhausting evening rehearsal. I was probably the only one really wiped out in a room full of much younger people, having transcribed most of a dozen songs (there are two still to be found), plus a few surprises tossed my way, such as Das Lied der Deutschen (which I played & sang a few times without the music). Singing full out, i didn’t pace myself, but loved pouring it all out in this room full of talented performers at Ryerson Theatre School. In von Horvath’s play Tales from the Vienna Woods we’re mostly encountering light music, which is another category different from any of Czerny’s boxes. A waltz tune –whether understood as music for a dance or merely a composition to be heard—inhabits a different box again from what Czerny gives us.
But what if we take one of those light compositions and re-contextualize it with something of greater meaning? For example, what if we’re Stanley Kubrick and we take a Strauss waltz melody, but use it to accompany a journey to Earth orbit, in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Surely we’re no longer in the presence of a light dance tune, because the context changes the weight of the piece.
Kubrick accomplished a comparable miracle in A Clockwork Orange when he put the wacky orchestration of Rossini’s Thieving Magpie alongside some very disturbing visuals. The music may be the same as always, but I think we hear it differently, the composition becoming a backdrop to something substantial.
It’s pretty early for me to be presuming to know how the various tunes work in the von Horvath play we’re creating. But the point is, to demonstrate how context can change how we understand a piece of music, putting it into a different box, if you will. To me, the boxes are arbitrary classifications that exist in one place –such as Czerny’s head– but that vanish in the light of day or the exigencies of a later culture, such as Kubrick’s re-framing.
I wish sometimes that I could get back to the elegance of a formulation such as that of Czerny, where every piece, every concept and yes, every citizen knew its place. Our messed up world isn’t so neat or tidy, as obstreperous in refusing to stay in neat orderly boxes as the Droogs. I suppose that’s just the way it is, although when I’m coming home after a rough day, it’s really lovely to be able to put a CD into the player in the car, and especially to be able to hear Goodyear play Beethoven.
For awhile at least, everything makes sense.