In this week’s New Yorker Justin Davidson has an article on the purpose of orchestra conductors. He relates this fascinating quote from Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony:
“I no longer feel that the test of the value of something is time. What’s much more important is the power of a musical experience in a given moment. And that can happen with a Paganini violin piece that most of us agree shouldn’t be called a masterpiece. I think of composers as setting up possibilities, not creating objects. There’s no such thing as Beethoven’s Seventh. It’s only a hypothesis. . . . Pieces of music are wormholes, which we can enter to escape our normal experience of time.”
If I understand Spano correctly, he is not slighting the work of geniuses such as Beethoven–merely pointing to what makes music different from many other art forms. My old philosophy professor Paul Weiss (who taught me at Catholic University three decades after teaching Bill Buckley at Yale) questioned whether music can properly be said to exist outside of performance, in the way that, say, a painting exists even when no one is looking at it.