Score is Not Territory

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

William Sharlin (1920-2012) was among the twentieth century’s most active and innovative composers of synagogue music. A masterful choral writer and self-described “freak” for the canon, Sharlin’s music freely crosses stylistic borders and evades conventional limitations and expectations of the worship setting. At its most elegant, his music seamlessly blends melodic modernism, jazz harmonies, Renaissance form and Jewish folk material. And nothing he wrote was ever finished.

Like many artists, Sharlin was never completely satisfied with his output—or, more accurately, ceased being satisfied with it after a short duration. Well into his eighties, he compulsively made changes to vocal lines, expanded harmonic coloring, and added figures to piano accompaniments. Some pieces were left on the brink of indecipherability, while others bear only surface resemblance to their original conceptions. He gave this treatment to published and unpublished pieces alike, and would complain whenever his music was reprinted without his express consent, as he almost certainly possessed a more recent version.

None of this editing or re-editing was done from a place of frustration. It was the inevitable byproduct of a perspective that saw written notes as temporary suggestions rather than concrete representations. For Sharlin, whatever appeared on the page was but a carefully constructed abstraction (though he was meticulous about how it should be presented). Notation was the model of an artistic reality, not the reality itself.

The above example complements the now widely accepted view of composition as a fluid and potentially unending process. Written notes are performed into existence. They only become music when they are heard. And each interpretation brings something new.

The creative functions of performance and reception cannot be overstressed. A piece is defined and redefined by the tempo, articulations, dynamics, attacks and tone qualities with which it is rendered. No two presentations are precisely the same, and each gives its own character to the composition. (This is clearly demonstrated on jazz albums that include two or more takes of a selection.) Listeners likewise play an active part in the creation of music, as their ears, minds and bodies make meaning of the sundry sound clusters. In this fundamental way, the involvement of performers and audiences, whether the music is live or recorded, is an extension of the compositional process.

The unfolding phenomenon of composition expands in cases where the composer continuously modifies his or her work, or leaves us with renditions capturing different stages of critical editing. Each of these versions carries with it unique nuances in addition to those always present among performers and listeners.

The upshot here is that the written note, while central to composed music, should not be confused with the end result. The depiction is not the depicted. Score is not territory.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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