Edward T. Cone: Not Theory, Practice…

On Music Theory

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to get back to something you said at the very beginning of this conversation about why you don’t consider yourself a theorist. You were talking about how it had become such an area of specialization. I want to tie in the notion of how music theory came into being and whether you feel it has helped the appreciation of music or has hurt the appreciation of music?

EDWARD T. CONE: When we talk about musical theory, we are talking about two distinct things. One is included in what we’d call undergraduate theory courses. As Sessions often pointed out, theory courses were not courses in theory; they were courses in musical practice. I don’t know where they got the word theory course. I know when I was in high school they used to have courses in theory and harmony. And it turns out that theory was simply how you construct scales, and harmony was how you put chords together. Theory was simply the background for learning harmony, which was always taught then instead of counterpoint. The point is, whether it’s harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, or whatever, it’s not really theory in the sense of “theory.” It’s musical practice. That is certainly not detrimental to music, but absolutely necessary to music. I think one of the unfortunate things today is the fact that a lot of institutions don’t seem to be stressing it enough, instead stressing pure creativity without any basis in practical exercises. However, what is now called Theory with a capitol “T” is really an abstract exercise of trying to build systems or categorizing systems that are already built. The great example of a theorist is, of course, Schenker, who took the practice of tonality and made it into an all embracing theory, a very narrow theory, but no less one that he felt embraced all possible works in tonality. In the same way theorists like Babbitt have worked with the twelve-tone system. When you read someone like Perle and Babbitt on their system constructions, you feel that it has less to do with the writing of music than in justifying certain approaches. I wouldn’t say this is detrimental to the actual production of music, but I think it’s something quite different from the actual production of music. Most successful music had been written in the spirit that Ralph Kirkpatrick expressed when he told Arthur Mendel—while they were discussing what you do about the rules of ornamentation in Bach—Kirkpatrick said, “I think what you do is learn all the rules and then play it as you feel it.” It seems to me that theory in its proper use is a guide to practice. It’s learning the rules, and then composition is forgetting them.

FRANK J. OTERI: That Kirkpatrick remark is very interesting… You mentioned Babbitt. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the pianist Martin Goldray who did a disc of Babbitt’s piano music for CRI, I guess about a decade ago?

EDWARD T. CONE: No, I don’t know that one.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a wonderful, wonderful disc. The playing is rapturous; it’s joyous. Ingram Marshall told me about this interview with Martin Goldray. He’d never studied the theories behind Babbitt’s music.

EDWARD T. CONE: He hadn’t?

FRANK J. OTERI: No, he learned the notes and he played it, and brought into this music so many insights that probably, if he got so bogged down in the theory behind it, he would have been terrified to do what he did with it. The notes were right. He wasn’t changing anything. It’s a wonderful recording that begs the question, should performers always be well-versed in the theory behind the music they’re playing?

EDWARD T. CONE: I think it entirely depends on what use they make of it. For example, I’ve played some of Babbitt. When I did, I would analyze it as closely as I could, sometimes with help from him. Then in playing it I always felt that this had to be simply submerged and become completely in the background, and that I would then play as if I were playing Beethoven.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a wonderful disc of Roger Sessions‘s piano music performed by Robert Helps where I almost feel like he is making Sessions’s music sound like Chopin. It’s wonderful. I guess the theory came back in when I was rereading your essay on Sessions’s sense of the melodic line and I had gotten that from that performance. But until I reread your essay again—I had forgotten because I read it almost twenty years ago—I never had gotten that from any of the analysis I’ve read about Sessions, but it was clearly there. In a way, performing a work is making some sort of statement of the analysis; it is a form of criticism of the composition. It is a way of showing the world what you feel is in that piece.

EDWARD T. CONE: Yes. I’ve written an article you may not have read because it came out in England in a book on piano playing, “The Pianist as Critic.” In it, I went into this whole point of view that any performance is a criticism of the work. It seems to me that a performance should be a criticism of the work, but should not be an analysis of a work. The analysis should have been done. The performance is not the analysis.