1.2. Context 1: The author, the reader and the text
Within this research the meaning of the word “text” is not limited to something written, but can be used for all expressions through literature, paintings, music, etc. that can be observed and interpreted. The author, painter or composer creates the text and the spectator observes and interprets the text by reading, looking, listening or playing.
The author creates something with all kinds of intentions; and subsequently the spectator might hijack or simply ignore these intentions.
My own position as composer is that of author and first reader of my work. I have a lot of “good” intentions in the sense that I consciously use allusions to works of others in order to evoke references, which the reader is challenged to interpret.
I use the word “interpret” not as to “explain” (also not in a musical interpretation). “To interpret”, means to give a possible rendering, based on certain choices. “Interpret” as a consequence of ”understanding”. The result is “to give meaning”.
The consciously used allusions to other works together form a Referential Network. These allusions or codes open up a space for possible interpretations of the music. Important here is that I don’t say, “I open up a space to give a meaning to the music”, as if I have used some kind of ultimate secret that the interpreter has to discover; this is not the case. The relationship between (absolute) music and a specific meaning is complex and falls beyond the scope of this research. My research is about a compositional strategy that is important for a composer and to see if it creates a common ground for the composition and an interpreter. What I want to achieve with this is the joy of hearing something new and provoking recognition at the same time.
I realise that recognising allusions or codes presupposes a shared cultural background of author and spectator. Writer and semiotician Umberto Eco even argues that a text should be approached with respect for it’s “cultural and linguistic background” (Eco 1993: 85). Although I do recognise the value of a shared culture regarding a text, I also accept the idea that in the translation of a text by a spectator, interpretations will be changed and added to, and that different cultural backgrounds create their own dynamic which can be surprising and valuable.
In the next part I will discuss a poem by Kees Schippers and two compositions, one by Pierre Boulez and one by Gyorgy Ligeti, in order to show how a text, by means of reference, steers the interpretation of the reader on the one hand, and the compositional strategies of the author on the other.
This idea of referencing as a compositional strategy and to steer interpretation can be related to my compositions.
How can we understand a text?
How can we understand a text while reading? To investigate this I present a small poem by the Dutch poet Kees Schippers (1936):
Ik heb je lief zoals je soms
gelijk een gouden zomerdag bent
nee nee nee
ik heb je lief zoals je bent
ik heb je lief zoals
ik heb je lief
Someone who doesn’t read Dutch will surely not understand it. Here is my English translation (with help of Pete Saunders and Magdalena Jones):
I love thee as thou sometimes art
alike to a golden summers day
no no no
I love thee as thou art
I love thee as
I love you
If you can read both languages, you will notice that I’ve chosen the word “thee” or “thou” for “je”, and “art” instead of “are”, that is maybe not an obvious choice for a poem written around 1980, but I hope this choice will become clear within the context of this text.
To understand Yes one has to interpret the poem. To interpret not only means: “do I understand every word and do I understand every sentence”, but also “how do I understand the words and sentences”. A possible interpretation could be: Yes is a love-poem in which somebody declares his love but gets annoyed at not being able to find the right words. Every word seems one too many. Because of this only a minimal statement “I love you” remains. It is a small and clear poem in which no sentence seems vague.
But how do you understand Yes if you also know Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? The first sentence of Yes is a direct reference to this famous sonnet, which makes the poem, apart from being small and clear, also a comment on the sonnet.
I don’t know if this reference is intentional, I didn’t ask the author. The interpretation is from me as a reader.
Schippers’ poem does away the comparison of “thee” to a “summer’s day” and answers the question raised by Shakespeare, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? with “no, no, no” and “no, no” and again “no” (while the title of the poem Yes could be the answer to the six “no’s”).
To broaden our scope, Schippers is not only reacting to Shakespeare, but to a certain tradition in which descriptions or evocations of a beloved one are expressed by a metaphor. This has a long tradition in literature:
Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
- Portuguese troubadour (13th century) :
Le[o]noreta, fin rosetta
- Beaudelaire (19th century):
Ta tête, ton geste, ton air
Sont beaux comme un beau paysage;
Le rire joue en ton visage.
Comme un vent frais dans un ciel clair
Within this context Yes is not only a specific reaction to Shakespeare’s sonnet, but the sonnet is a model for a certain type of love poem in which metaphors are used, to which Schippers reacts. If this certain metaphor-type of a love poem didn’t exist, Schippers’ poem couldn’t be read and understood within this context. Maybe even it wouldn’t exist at all.
Although written and sounding words are something different from written and sounding notes, we can transpose the idea of “degrees of interpreting by reference” to other disciplines, like music. Thinking of what Boulez said about his 2nd Sonata in relation to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (see Introduction), one could say that Boulez’s 2nd Sonata couldn’t be read and understood outside the context of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata; or wouldn’t exist without it.
Ex. 1: Beginning 2nd Sonata Boulez &
Beginning Hammerklavier Beethoven
Schippers uses a concrete reference to his precursor (the first line of Shakespeare’s sonnet) whereas Boulez tries to avoid clear references at all cost. The strongest connection between the Boulez sonata and its classical precursor is the four-movement structure with its distinct tempos (the second and third movement are reversed):
II. Scherzo Assai vivace
III. Adagio sostenuto
IV. Largo, Allegro
III. Modéré, presque vif
Because of this difference, the referential connection between Schippers and Shakespeare is as strong as the referential connection between Boulez and Beethoven is weak.
Ligeti’s Horn-trio (1982), on the contrary, is a musical example in which a clear reference is made, although at first sight it might be a puzzling one: the opening statement in the violin, which is later repeated by the piano, is a transformed quote from Beethoven’s Les Adieux. But on top of the first page it reads: Hommage à Brahms.
Ex 2: Hommage picture
Ex 3: Ligeti's Beethoven reference & Beethoven’s Les Adieux
The Hommage à Brahms is easy to understand because the horn trio is written by Brahms. But why start then with a Beethoven reference? The story goes that the Hommage was not Ligeti’s choice, but a requirement of the commission. It was written for the 150th anniversary of Brahms, and the chairman of the ZEIT foundation, who commissioned the work, requested the Hommage and also suggested to incorporate music of Brahms into the new trio. Ligeti refused the latter and as a compromise included the first (Steinitz. 2003: 251-260). To start then with a Beethoven reference might be Ligeti’s sense of humour, like the fact that the quote is a kind of horn-call, but the only instrument that doesn’t play this motive in the trio is the horn.
One could say that this is just spielerei, but the last remark about “the horn-call that is not played by the horn” already suggests a compositional consequence. Another aspect of compositional consequences due to the referencing in Ligeti’s trio is that it also has an effect on pitch organisation, texture, and gestures in the composition. In Ex. 4 you see the Les Adieux reference from the first movement, played by the piano, and the beginnings of the other movements. As you can see, the intervals used in the reference, major 3rd - augmented 4th - minor 6th, form a point of departure for the material in the other movements.
Ex. 4: Ligeti – Les Adieux reference in the piano, first movement,
and beginnings of the other movements
If you compare the trio with the Boulez sonata, it becomes quite clear that Ligeti preserves more of the Beethoven reference than Boulez did.
In my opinion, the strong referential connection between the poem by Schippers and the Shakespeare sonnet, or Ligeti’s trio and the transformed Beethoven quote, adds richness to the text because it gives access to an interpretation that exceeds the text itself. One should also notice that both examples, by means of transformation, create a distance to the reference. In the case of Schippers, the transformation is literally inside the poem because he erases the first sentence in two steps to come to an original work. The originality in Schippers’ poem is the way in which he creates a distance between his own poem and the poem he is referring too. The fact that the reference is obvious is an important part of its originality and by including a reference that could be known by the reader, Schippers encodes his poem in a specific way. The reference generates a specific interpretation.
The other poems mentioned above are connected to Yes in a more complex way because of the lack of a direct reference. The connection is on the level of tradition or culture in which it is normal to compare a beloved one with a summers’ day or an apple tree. A reader will understand that the beloved one is not an apple-tree, nor resembles it literally (are there strange branches growing out of his body?), nor is he like an apple tree. The tree, like the beloved one, bears something you want to put your teeth into. Imagine you wouldn’t know the idea of a metaphor. A comparison like this will probably be strange and confusing. (Just think about the way children can take language literally.) Imagine you would never have seen a “young man”, what image would you have of a young man who is like an apple tree?
A reader who doesn’t know the sonnet of Shakespeare will interpret “Yes” differently than the reader who does know it. The latter will probably understand why I translated the poem using the words “thee”, “thou” and “art”. A third reader could object to this translation, arguing that Schippers belongs to a group of writers called the “Zestigers” (“From the Sixties”) and therefore would never use the posh words “thee”, “thou” and “art” so it’s stylistically not appropriate to use it, etcetera, etcetera…
The “Zestigers” is a group of artists that wanted to level the gap between “art” and “real life”: “The artist, who is not an artist anymore: a passionless, pragmatic eye” (Armando, my translation).
“De kunstenaar, die geen kunstenaar meer is: een koel, zakelijk oog.”
What I want to show here is that the interpretation of an observer can be steered by references that are attached to a text - in this case the references are Shakespeare and the “Zestigers”- and that these references can lead to different choices. For example, accepting the word “thee” in a translation as a wink to Shakespeare, or rejecting it because of the aesthetics of the group Schippers belongs too.
The same could be said about Ligeti’s use of the transformed Beethoven quote. A trio that recognizes the quote will have a different interpretation of the piece than a trio that doesn’t. Having said this, I do realize that the relation between a text and a reader is a complicated one. In the next section I will look at the relation between the author, the work and the reader, and see how different authors thought about this.
About the relation author – work – text – reader
Roland Barthes, in The Death of the Author, raises a fundamental question: who gives meaning to a text? As an example he takes Greek Tragedies in which the text is filled with words that have a double meaning. Each character in the play only understands one meaning that, of course, is different to what the other characters understand. “The perpetual misunderstanding is precisely what is meant by the tragic” (Barthes 1968: 6). Yet, according to Barthes, there is one person who understands the double meaning of the words and sees how and where it goes wrong between the different characters: this person is the reader. Barthes: “In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issues from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author […] but the reader” And therefore “the true locus of writing is reading” (Barthes 1968: 5-6).
Barthes’ point, reasoning from a reader’s perspective, is that he wants to free the reader from the author. The reader should stop searching for, or deciphering as Barthes calls it, the one “true” meaning of a text: “the “message” of the Author-God” (Barthes 1968: 4) or the “genius creator” in the words of Foucault (Foucault 1998: 221). The reader has his own responsibility. A text is not a closed object with one authoritative interpretation, but is open, and the reader interprets this text using his own cultural background. Barthes doesn’t deny that an author has a relationship with his text, but the author is more like a “guest” and not the “owner”. Eco even says that the author’s intentions are inaccessible while the reader’s intention is questionable (Eco 1993: 122).
From the author’s perspective I would like to add that the multiplicity is first collected and united by the author who is also the first reader. An author encodes his text so that there can be any understanding in the first place, and he encodes it in such a way as to stimulate interpretations within a certain (aesthetic) frame. For example, when an author uses allusions to existing works, he creates an aesthetic frame for the text and the reader. At the same time an author can’t but accept that in the act of interpreting the work this encoding gets (partly) lost or changed. In music there is even a double interpretation: from the composition to the performer to the listener.
Brian Ferneyhough, who was once asked: “with what kind of ears should one listen to your music?” showed that one can think differently about this. His answer was: “With my ears”.
Here I paraphrase from a debate at the festival Complexity? held in Rotterdam in 1991, which I attended.
What does Ferneyhough suggest with his answer? That his music can only be understood from one specific perspective: his perspective? And that Ferneyhough’s perspective never changes? If so, then his answer refers to the “ideal listener”: only the listener who meticulously studies the artistic lifecycle of the author, who tries to become the author, is the one that can truly understand the work. But then there is still the problem of the static Ferneyhough. Ferneyhough's answer seems an honest answer, but I don’t believe it. Apart from the fact that he is asking for the impossible (which he knows of course) which also has the scent of exclusion, it is the understanding that his music forms in me, which is all I have to go on, even if my understanding is not the composer’s (which is inevitable). It does say something about the positive, static, exclusive, modernist position of the author to a possible reader. What a modernist author expects from the reader of his work is, for that matter, not very flexible.
It would be a pity if this statement would lead to the conclusion that I am an advocate of some kind of “audience-friendly” art, which I am not. “The audience” as such, as a mass with similar characteristics, likes, and experiences, does not exist. Apart from this: it is not known how a new experience relates to a certain audience, therefore an artist can’t create boundaries for this. See also the article https://medium.com/@ianpoweromg/experimental-music-and-the-impossible-audience-5838447a3f50 by Ian Power. It would also be wrong to conclude that I denounce modernist art because of this attitude, or that I denounce modernist art at all.
It is fair to say that the author encodes his work primarily for himself, to create logic and coherence, and for the sheer fun of playing with ideas and material. “The listener” doesn’t exist, or it is the author himself, and even he is not a static and constant factor. But an author can’t help but make choices, and by doing so he leaves traces, within and outside the text, for example by means of allusions and titles or liner notes that influence possible interpretations.
In his Theory of the Text Barthes makes a difference between “text” and “work” (Barthes 1981: 39). “The work is a completed object, the substantive, while a text is a methodological field that can be thought endlessly. A text as a methodological field means any methodological perspective that is used to describe or analyse a text and by doing so steer and colour the interpretation” (Barthes in Makaryk 1993: 640).
In this respect the author is responsible for the work and one or more possible interpretations of the text, while the reader is responsible for adding interpretations to the text, based on the work.