Mutable Mobiles – thoughts on science, musical scores, and improvisation

Neil and I participated in the 2019 International Guitar Research Centre (IGRC) conference in Hong Kong, an academic gathering which took place alongside The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts International Guitar Forum and the Altamira Hong Kong International Guitar Symposium and Competition. It was an incredibly packed week of presentations, lecture/demonstrations, and concerts, and a momentous time to be in Hong Kong, as I have reflected on in my history of science blog.

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We walked through this park each day – past a community garden and playground – on our way to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Neil’s lecture/demonstration at the conference explored the practice of improvisation and guitar music in the early 19th century. He brought our nifty packable Terz guitar to play examples of improvised preludes. An excellent overview of all of the IGRC papers and performances can be found here. 

In this post, I would like to turn my historian-of-science eye towards the IGRC proceedings and apply insights of the French philosopher Bruno Latour to the practice of music. In his book, Science in Action, Latour refers to the accumulation of scientific data and the dominant explanatory theories as “immutable mobiles.”  The process of writing down and circulating scientific discoveries results in scientific knowledge that travels without being changed by local observations (i.e. that is mobile and immutable). Universal scientific findings are findings that are true everywhere. According to Latour, the repeated iterations of information layered multiple times results in scientific knowledge that has gained legitimacy and authority. In the same way, I suggest, a musical score, composed and set down on paper, widely circulated and played over and over by many different musicians, starts to become an authoritative “classic.”

The period we refer to as “Classical” in Western music is generally thought to be the period from about 1780 to 1850. Much of the music composed was published to be purchased by a broader public of expert amateur musicians. These were often highly accomplished players, however, they were not necessarily trained in music theory or the intricacies of improvising from a bass line, as were professionals, especially during earlier periods. The composers who wrote for these musicians, such as Leopold Mozart, specified the exact notes these musicians should play and did not expect them to add to what was written on the page. By the time Beethoven was publishing his music, all musicians were expected to stay true to the score.

Nevertheless, the practice of improvising continued to be a vital part of music-making. Virtuosi famously invented cadenzas to impress their audiences. Amateurs also played improvised preludes and passages, especially in the early 19th century. This was true for guitarists as well as for pianists and other instrumentalists and for singers. This tradition was largely lost by the mid-to-late 19th century in classical music but continued to be a key element of new musical forms such as jazz and eventually rock & roll.

Therefore, when we play musical scores from the early 19th century, we can think of them as mutable mobiles. These scores were published and meant to travel – one could hear the same duet variations of Fernando Sor’s Souvenir de Russie, Op. 63, or Mauro Giuliani’s Rossiniani, in Paris, as well as in Vienna or St. Petersburg. The evidence, nevertheless, suggests that these standards of the guitar repertoire were also meant to be interpreted somewhat freely, perhaps with an improvised prelude, a flashy cadenza, or even some flexibility in the interpretation of an arpeggio.

Like a scientist – a term invented during this period – the early 19th century musical artist created musical performances working from both a written score and from his or her own observations and experiments. In the early 19th century, science too was often performed for a public audience. Sir Humphry Davy, for example, exhibited his own improvisatory flair while demonstrating the properties of gases. Such improvisations were expected. Improvisation was part and parcel of early 19th century culture, both in art and science.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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