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January 24, 2007



Sorry to join in so late in this conversation. The blogger's post about mastery got me thinking not so much about the author's/composer's mastery but about the narrator's/performer's mastery.

I wonder if you want to differentiate between unreliability on the part of the narrator/performer/musician and straight up incompetence (lack of mastery) of same. I think the idea of unreliability in music consisting of failure to deliver on clear expectations in a musical piece is a good definition. But while it might be possible to establish musical expectations in a piece (I agree that allusions to well known works and motifs or sampling of said works a la hip hop are great ways to accomplish this), when would the audience decide that the botched delivery of the expected music is unreliability and not just a performer's goof up? Seems like it would take an awful lot of recurrences for the audience to catch on that this is artful dysfunctionality and not merely lack of rehearsal time.

"the author is playing with us by making us hear stuff from someone whose perceptions are skewed." If that's the case, then just have the narrator/performer consistently transpose her singing up a half step (or whatever the real musical terminology is) or something like that. When it's established that narrator/performer has the skewed perception, there you have unreliable musical narration.

Seems to me that it's easiest to establish the musical expectation exogenously: the tempo of the first movement is printed as adagio in the program and the narrators/performers immediately and continuously play at the wrong tempo. Or the program notes say the piece will allude to some well known work, and the narrator/performer (either with the musicians or on her own) references an altogether different piece. I think it would take a much longer time to establish a musical expectation via repeated motifs endogenously, within the piece itself. Much faster to tell the audience what to expect ahead of time so that unreliablity can be delivered right away.

"the problem with this experience for me (and the analogous musical situations suggested by the unreliable narrator comment posse) is that one must buy in to the Mastery of the author, who by using this technique is assuming himself to be presenting us (reliably!) with a certain and realized, if unreliable, narrator." I don't think anyone in this audience will begin by questioning the mastery of the author/composer/blogger because her mastery has been established (once again) exogenously. Institutions with financial and cultural capital, institutions that are known before the performance of this piece to be culturally savvy and competent judges of good taste and talent, have put their imprimatur on this piece. Provided the institutions have a good track record, people will assume (pre-suppose?) mastery on the composer/author's part. The assumption of mastery is the composer's to lose; it can be lost to be sure, but I think it's there to begin with in this particular piece.


I think I understand a bit more what you mean by the 'unreliable narrator'. It's a device used to help tell the story, to give us insight into the mind of the narrator, or perhaps to wake us up and make us pay attention.

Could this be similar to a musical piece that seems to be in one key but resolves in an unexpected way? A happy melody played in a minor key?

Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer were at Sanders theater a while back when, between songs, a cell phone rang, loudly. No one stopped it, the audience looking around angrily at first, then laughing nervously. Bela and Edgar started playfully playing to the rhythm of the ring, and suddenly we realized that the whole thing was a setup. The rings were coming from the PA system. Made us laugh, woke us up.

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