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Subject: 'All Manner of Absorption, Critical and Experiential'
From: Genevieve Castle Room <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Genevieve Castle Room <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Fri, 28 Oct 2016 02:06:30 -0400

text/plain (101 lines)

Why do some musicologists believe that accessing opera through recordings
or on DVD is somehow a devalued experience? Thankfully I came across an
extract by David Levin (below) where he addresses Carolyn Abbate on this
topic and I agree with all his points.

I am not sure what Abbate in her academic Ivory Tower is ranting about. Her
assessment sounds arrogant, elitist, and just plain groundless. To be
clear, I love to attend live opera though I don't go often since most of my
favorites are rarely staged. (Example: the last time 'Mathis der Maler' was
performed at the Met was 1968)... But yes if I am rested and the theatre
has comfortable seats and good acoustics I will be the first to snap up
tickets. And sure, a live opera performance may have the potential to
surpass a recording. However, this doesn't justify putting aside the
alternatives because for me it is only through studying complete audio
recordings that the opera's structure will "engrave itself on the mind's
ear".... Comparing the AESTHETIC experience of attending a live musical
performance with that of listening to a sound recording, and I think we all
know that the former is not superior to the latter!

I can only say that I wish she had been introduced to Glenn Gould when he
was alive decades ago as he believed concerts were dead, that recordings
were superior. He stopped concertizing arguably at the height of his
career. He is said to have developed a "love affair for the microphone". As
we know he was a hugely talented and influential artist who happened to be
an extreme eccentric. That's how I would describe Ms. Abbate on the other
side of the argument. Only she has not distinguished herself as did Gould!
Yes, she is entitled to her opinion for herself but I would say that she
might be a pseudo-eccentric or a wannabe eccentric: [e.g. "look at me -- I
have outrageous opinions!"]

Anyway - here is the extract from Levin's book.


Carolyn Abbate has argued that live performance is a precondition for an
encounter with music's carnality, materiality, and ineffability. In
Abbate's view, live performance -- and a critical practice that is alert to
it -- presents a challenge to conventional musicology (and indeed,
academic) criticism. The "eventness" of live performance cannot be held in
one's fingers, as Abbate puts it, and as such, it cannot be grasped by
conventional hermeneutics. In lieu of marshaling an abstract work's meaning
and measuring its interpretive value (which Abbate, following Vladimir
Jankelevitch, dubs academic "gnosticism"), she proposes an alternative
practice, a radical (or "drastic") musicology that listens to music in
performance, and in so doing, is open to manifold embarrassments, personal
and professional, that might result:

[Quoting Carolyn Abbate]: *"Rather than bringing out souvenirs and singing
their praises or explaining their meanings one more time, I want to test
the conviction that what counts is not a work, not, for example, Richard
Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg' in the abstract, but a material,
present event. This entails seeking a practice that at its most radical
allows an actual live performance (and not a recording, even of a live
performance) to become an object of absorption."*

This is a compelling project and one with which I sympathize. But I am
troubled by the fine print, that our absorption in the work's performance
(its eventness and materiality) is limited to live performance, that it
must not extend to recordings. Abbate's reasons are clear: she is intent on
minimizing mediation, on opening herself (and having us open ourselves) to
"the state that the performance has engendered in us." But surely that
state is itself the product of mediation? And surely it is less the fact of
mediation but rather its function to which Abbate objects? Recordings, in
this line of reasoning, are unwelcome because they serve the hermeneutic
cause of documentation, fixing for critical scrutiny that which (in live
form) is otherwise ephemeral, experiential, drastic. This makes good sense.
And yet, there is no reason why we couldn't be transported by a recording
as by a live performance: it is, I think, a question of openness and
approach. We are certainly not barred from encountering, in the course of
experiencing an opera on DVD, "musical performance's strangeness, its
unearthly quality as well as its earthy qualities, and its resemblance to
magic shows and circuses."

It is true: an opera in the opera house and an opera on television are two
different things. But I do not think that one of them has a lock on
strangeness, transcendence, or materiality.... I would amend Abbate's
proposal, suggesting that we allow for live performance *and recordings* to
serve as the objects of *all manner of* absorption, critical and


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