Resetting the Score

A question for the composers out there: How would you feel if someone took all of your scores and re-set them in a notation program or, if necessary, a desktop publishing program? I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with critical editions of baroque music, editions that probably took a musicologist many hours of sifting through sketches, manuscripts, and older editions to prepare. And here I am just blithely entering them into Finale 2010! Will this process of re-reading and collation ever happen with contemporary music?

My guess is that it won’t. Without even mentioning the possibility that notation carries musical information beyond its recognized symbolic content, I think it’s safe to say that composers today exert enough control over their published scores (even when they’re prepared by professional engravers) that what eventually makes it into institutional fixity can be taken as gospel. And that fixity is in itself novel: Not many large publishers seem to trade in PDFs, but they certainly could; one imagines they must have digital versions of all their products, even those that are facsimiles of autographs.

Hopefully this situation will have a net positive effect on the performance practice of new music: The notion that some of a violinist’s interpretive decisions were made for her 150 years ago by an editor is pretty unsettling, I think we’d all agree. By the same token, though, I wonder whether this clarity of authorship will lead to an even more fortified concern with textual fidelity, and performers will be too careful to follow the letter of the score; after all, barring a contractual obligation, why should performers strive to play exactly what’s on the page? (This is a somewhat provocative position to take, I know—but it’s not like some unseen force will crush the life out of our violinist if she decides to play a particular passage piano rather than fortissimo. We’re all human beings here, and a performer-composer relationship operates on mutual agreement, not legal or physical coercion, one hopes!) Once I’m dead, I hope that my scores—that is, if anyone’s still interested in them—will be reproduced faithfully on paper, but what can I do to make sure they’re reproduced faithfully in performance, even when I’m alive? Not a thing, really, and that’s part of what makes the idea of written music so compelling.

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