Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Decomposition 3: emphasis

[This post is part of the "Working Week" series.]

Deconstruction is a shift of emphasis while reading. It actively challenges the principle of composition: "coherence and the right distribution of the emphasis" (Grierson 1944: 135). We have just dealt with coherence; to better understand the decomposition of emphasis, consider two different ways of playing Bach. Wolfgang Sandner has said that Keith Jarrett (the famous jazz pianist) plays Bach "emphasizing nothing, demanding nothing, concealing nothing and withholding nothing. In one word: natural." He cites the pianist himself in support of this thesis. "This music does not need my assistance," says Jarrett. "The melodic lines themselves are expressive to me." Compare this with what Sandner says of perhaps the most famous interpreter of Bach, Glenn Gould. "Obviously," writes Sandner, "he did not even trust his own analyses. He remained in search of clues. He spread the tones, loosened their coherence, emphasized side-lines and with his extreme tempi subjected the works of Bach to a kind of stress test." There may be no better way to summarize the spirit of deconstruction: don't trust your own analyses but continue the search for clues; emphasize side-lines and read at extreme speeds (whether fast or slow); all in all, subject the text to a stress test. You can experience the difference by listening to their recordings of the thirteenth prelude in Book I of Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier (BWV 858). By slowing it down, and emphasizing the space between the tones, Gould is able to draw our attention to our own contribution to the music, our listening (Basbøll and Born, 2007). It is important to keep in mind that Sandner is talking about two performances of the same composition, two "readings" of the same "text". The composer may have preferred one or the other, but there is no basic sense in which one is "right" and the other "wrong". Each reveals something about the composition. A "natural" emphasis may offer a great deal of immediate aesthetic pleasure, to be sure, but deconstruction is the pursuit of a more difficult beauty. Decomposition results from an excess of emphasis.

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