Let us imagine that we wake up one day without being able to remember anything, not even our own names. That day, when we hear a church bell ring – the sound of the church bell – we would not know that this sound represents a building, that this building represents a religion, the religion represents values, beliefs and social structures. On that day, all that we have is the sound itself – tik tak. However, in the world as we know it, the sound of the church bell is embedded in a specific context and carries meaning and so does every piece of music, art, text and poetry.
So when we interpret, read, play any piece of music, a score, a leadsheet, a transcription, we are engaging with signs and symbols, that are connected to specific sounds, that again are connected to many different sounds that represent time periods, values, socio-cultural contexts, aesthetical ideals and so forth. These sounds can indicate social behaviour, codes, sometimes even political ideas, movements, trends.
So, to interpret any piece of music, score, or leadsheet, be it Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Gershwin or the Blues means to move within specific systems of values and beliefs that we knowingly and unknowlingly repeat, re-enact, connect with, break with and engage with. And because any piece of music is embedded in context and connected to time periods, when we interpret a piece of music we are also always interpreting the past (and the present) with it. In other words, if we repeat signs and symbols that have been written in the past, we can only bring them to our present through repetition. We could say that each single note has already been repeated. In Limited Inc. Jacques Derrida explicitly refers to the Sanskrit word “iteran”* which at the same time means “repetition” as well as “alteration”. Iterability entails repetition and alteration at the same time. And if we connect iterability with the concept of interpretation being a form of repetition, it means that every interpretation always carries the possibility of change.
Let us start from the present moment: as I am typing this, the present of each typed letter already becomes my past. Yet with every typed letter, the already typed is expanded. Within this movement, the meaning of the already typed is changing too and from every moment of the present we interpret the past differently. Because the present is constantly moving into the future, while the repetition in the present also redefines our understanding of the past. Hence, our horizon of understanding is also expanding and changing, and the way we interpret and understand sounds, words, objects is never fixed. One could say, therefore, that our past and our present are always co-related and redefining each other at any given moment.
So where do we start the work of our interpretation? How are, for example, Schubert songs supposed to be sung? This question has followed me since I started working on the adaptation of lieder into songs. In the classical tradition it is common to think in terms of Werktreue or truth to the work, which could be described as a search for origin of the piece of music. When I sing Schubert songs the way I do, people sometimes ask me if I’m allowed to do so. When they ask me that, they are implying that there must be a version that is considered the correct or ‘original’ way, in which it was sung and heard in the beginning? Yet there is no exact moment of beginning to start from, there is no ‘original’ we can grasp because we cannot experience the moment of origin. The moment we see the piece of music, the white sheet of paper filled with signs and symbols - we are already late, too late - we will never know what they meant in the moment of emerging. And as Arno Böhler states, "Im Anfang ist die Wiederholung" - "In the beginning is repetition"* . The importance in that quote for me lies in the German ‘Im’. Arno Böhler does not say Am Anfang [At the beginning] , he uses Im Anfang [In the beginning], which is an important difference. The ‘Am’ indicates that there is a definitive moment of origin, from where we can start from, whereas ‘Im’ opens up the beginning suggesting that any beginning does not bring a definitive moment of beginning with it, but is embedded in beginnings. We can understand what Arno Böhler means by visualizing drawing a circle in the sand. If we imagine doing so, with the intention of finding how it came to be, we put our finger into the sand and start to re-trace the circle. We re-trace the past in the search for the beginning, for the moment of origin. But by doing so, through the act of retracing, the circle is already changed and we cannot determine the moment of origin, the beginning gets lost. Through retracing, repeating, the circle is altered and every grain of sand is moved into a different position.
Because every repetition brings with it an alteration, our interpretations of pieces of music, art, text, poetry constantly change. Because our past and present are constantly co-relating and changing, so is the way we interpret signs and symbols, pieces of music, in my case, Kunstlieder. And as I cannot disconnect myself from my everchanging past and present, I interpret pieces of music, lieder/songs and their different ways of being performed from the point of view embedded in my horizon of understanding.
Every Interpretation could be described as a search through the act of repetition regardless of genre. Melodies could be described as musical sentences notated in signs and symbols, a musical thought that someone left to be repeated and interpreted. And interpreting musical thoughts of a stranger may be as personal as reading a diary, but in a more abstract way – the mindset of a complete stranger, the musical vision of stranger becomes part of your own, making it possible to develop a personal connection with somebody one has never met. I’m repeating, interpreting ideas, thoughts of someone I have never met and with it they become part of my journey, part of my life, part of my performance. Through interpreting we are bringing musical thoughts (back) to life, thoughts that the moment we start to repeat them, haunt us and become part of our thoughts. The obligation towards the composer and the composed lies in exactly that - in us being haunted through repetition. When we interpret we are entering a relationship with the person who left the signs behind for us to discover and when we perform, we are entering a relationship with the audience who experience our self(s) in the process of sharing what we discovered and keep discovering through the art of repetition. It is the different ways of repeating that creates diverse interpretations and different ways of performing them on stage. But regardless of genre, it is the search for our interpretation and our ways of searching that keeps us engaged Even if we can not catch up with the moment of origin, we can keep searching and like the sound itself, can the search for our interpretations of musical works remain.