John Zorn
John Cage
J-S Bach


Of Interpretation

[1] Why a page on interpretation? Why pay attention to such a complicated concept, especially in relation to music?  The reason is more simple than the task I put before myself. In the explanatory notes on Die Kunst einer Fuge, Zacher consistently speaks about 'his ten interpretations' of 'Contrapunctus I'. Still, I believe that his project goes beyond the 'normal' meanings of the concept of 'interpretation'.

[2] Many analytical philosophers distinguish between the use of the concept of interpretation in a linguistic (philosophical) discourse and in a music(ologic)al discourse, although it is difficult to base this distinction on exact characteristics (see, for example, Hermerén in Krausz, p.17-20). When applied to discursive texts, interpretation commonly functions as an explicative or an elucidating explanation of a (written or spoken) text. It facilitates understanding. Interpretation: the act or process of explaining, the power of elucidation. Philosophical interpretations of a text include reconstruction of the chain of arguments, identification of gaps and missing premises, exposure of hidden assumptions, discussion of different ways to deal with or eliminate contradictions in the text, etc. An attentive interpretation may disclose an orderly (limited) series of meanings that are inherent a priori in the text itself. One thing is clear: the original text is not clear enough; it needs further explanation.
What is said here with regard to linguistic (philosophical) texts may also apply to works of art. Critics offer interpretations of them. (I am leaving aside here the debate about the boundary between description and interpretation.) Critical interpretations ascribe meaning, explain, and relate, aiming to provide an account of the importance of a work and its function (cf. Levinson in Krausz, p.34).
In deconstruction, these notions of interpretation are problemized or carried to their extreme. Deconstruction does not try to elucidate texts in the traditional sense, for example, by attempting to grasp a unifying content. Neither does it want to supply all sorts of additional features (supplements). Deconstruction acts against the assumption that a single interpretation would be able to concretely and conclusively lay down the meaning of a text. The textuality of a text cannot be locked into one single interpretation. A text always has cracks and fissures by which it is unavoidably exposed to the outside. It is open to another reader, to ever changing interpretations. (Derrida emphasizes the active and transformative character of interpretations. To him interpretation is an active translation; it (under)mines the organism and the history of the domestic text, just as it punctuates its end, like the registered trademark of a labor that is finished, yet still in progress (cf. Dissemination, p.357).) In addition, each reading places a text in a new context, a context that is always open. This means that a context never determines absolutely one interpretation, nor can it comprise a clearly demarcated construct of interpretations.
How far can and should one go with interpretation? No matter how much one tries to convey (musical) ideas as accurately and carefully as possible, it is impossible to protect them against effects that seem strange, incomprehensible or even repulsive. It does not mean that these effects are based on wrong interpretations. Neither does it mean that the act of  interpretation is completely randomly determined. (Derrida emphasizes the importance of a scholarly competence in reading and understanding, knowledge of the works of an author, a familiarity with multiple contexts that determine a given text, and so forth. This form of scholarship is also advocated by Zacher.) However, the nature of the restrictions with which one should comply cannot be set down in general terms once and for all. Liberties that cannot be permitted within a certain context become acceptable and interesting in a different context that, in turn, has restrictions of its own (cf. Dissemination, p.63-4).

[3] What does interpretation mean in the realm of music? In The Interpretation of Music - nineteen essays on the aesthetic, cultural, and historical aspects of musical interpretation -, analytical philosophers of music find it very difficult to formulate an adequate answer to this and they certainly do not succeed in delivering any univocal answer. Most of the contributions in the book start from the premise that interpretation is synonymous with performance, the act of bringing a musical composition to sound. However, Michael Krausz and Jerrold Levinson distinguish between interpretation and performance. With that, we arrive at the triplet, work-interpretation-performance. According to Krausz, numerous performances may embody a single interpretation, understood as the explanatory analysis that precedes a performance (cf. Krausz, p.76). Levinson elaborates this point by arguing that a performance is never a fully transparent reproduction of an interpretation. Furthermore, he observes that the reverse may also be true. One performance may lead to several interpretations; performances may trigger the formulation of interpretations. Levinson states that interpretations aim to explain (or elucidate) the meaning or structure of a work, while performances at best highlight these (cf. Levinson in Krausz, p.38). So what both authors advocate is that several singular events may converge, connect, and concentrate at the same point of departure. (This point then becomes the same and an other at the same time.)
Levinson further stresses the more neutral nature of a performance. 'Performers provide us with access to discourse we do not have access to otherwise'. In this, he compares them with another kind of interpreter, namely translators. According to Levinson, both transmit rather than explain (Levinson in Krausz, p. 37). (It should be clear that this notion is not at all shared by proponents of deconstruction.) Göran Hermerén agrees with him on this. 'The purpose of a P-interpretation [performance, MC] is to present the work, or rather a version of the work, to the listener. This is different from the purpose of explaining the work, of showing what the common, unifying theme or thesis (if any) of the work is, of relating this work to other works, of placing it in a literary, social, and political context, and so forth'. Furthermore, a performer cannot be selective; he has to play all the notes. An interpreter of (musical) texts, on the other hand, has no need to comment on each line in the text (Hermerén in Krausz, p.19).

[4] Would Zacher's project be an interpretation or a performance? One thing to consider is its neutral nature (cf. Levinson). One can hardly say that Die Kunst einer Fuge serves only to transmit; Zacher certainly does not intend to create the most neutral intermediary for Bach's work. The ten different versions of 'Contrapunctus I' are also ten analyses of the composition. Every time, a different aspect of the work is elucidated; every time, a different angle presents a new thesis; every time, the work encounters other works. These analyses, however, do not precede the played versions. Rather, interpretation and performance coincide.
I will briefly return to textual interpretations and analyses. An analysis is situated 'hors-d'oeuvre', outside the work. There is a clear distinction between an analysis that operates as an external (meta)language and the work that it describes. But the authority of each analysis (or interpretation) depends, in large part on the discourse at work within the work. Analysts feel secure and in control when they succeed in showing that the work actually features elements that  present the views they are defending. The border between inside and outside becomes problematic here. Each analysis prolongs and develops a discourse that is authorized by the text. So its external authority is derived from its place inside. It can always be read as a part of the work rather than as a description of it (cf. Culler, p.199). The analysis is at once outside and inside the work. Is this also the case when we speak about music? Or about Die Kunst einer Fuge? As noted before, it is difficult to draw a line here between interpretation and performance. It is not a case of interpretation in the sense of explanation or pure transmission. It is (also) an analysis, albeit not in a scholarly way. Does a musical interpretation, an analysis in music, a performance, resides outside or inside the work? What, then, is the work? These are some of the questions that are raised by Zacher's project. Die Kunst einer Fuge asks for all of these concepts to be re-evaluated. They follow us. They persecute Die Kunst einer Fuge. As though they are specters. Arrivants. Revenants.
And, there is still more. The border between interpretation/performance/analysis and composition fades in Die Kunst einer Fuge. By citing Bach and using associations with works of other composers, a new composition, so to speak, is generated. More so than in the case of Derrida's texts, the border between one's own contribution and the work of someone else gets blurred. It no longer seems possible to make a clear distinction between 'Zacher's' and 'someone else's'. The border between interpretation (citation) and autonomous composition shifts. The 'original' text remains intact; Bach remains present. Titles, dedications and musical means refer to other composers. However, the combination also clearly indicates Zacher's presence. His signature can be heard throughout the work, without having the effect of absolute domination over the musical material. The individuality of the other composers sounds strange in this work, as though it originates from another context. Zacher's individuality sounds strange in this work, as though it originates from another context. Bach's individuality sounds strange in this work, as though it originates from another context. Presence dissolves in absence. Presence dissolves in presence.

[5] A discursive text can be understood in several ways. It can be supplemented in various ways. Certain ideas can be connected, others disconnected. The focus of interest can be placed in various areas; one may look for different levels of meaning behind the literal meanings, etc. Similarly, a score leaves a great deal of freedom to the interpreter. We are accustomed to having several interpretations of one musical text. In music, it seems difficult to speak of the one correct explanation or interpretation that would reveal the 'true meaning' of the score.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of disputes within musical discourse about correct and not so correct interpretations, readings and misreadings, understandings and misunderstandings. One only needs to take a quick glance at the debates regarding the proper instrumentation of Die Kunst der Fuge and the order in which the fugues should be played to find evidence of a true Historikerstreit (dispute between historians). (cf., for example, an extensive overview in Ugo Duse's book Musica e Cultura - Quatro diagnosi. Important theorists such as Heinrich Schenker insist that there can only be one correct interpretation of a work of music.) Even if there seems no reasonable expectation that this view of one strict interpretation could obtain reality, it does serve as an ideal.

[6] Die Kunst einer Fuge is not an interpretation in the traditional sense of the word. The difference is that Zacher is not interpreting in one direction in order to establish the one true interpretation of 'Contrapunctus I'. Nor does he intend to expose an (original) meaning that would reside outside of Bach's text. Zacher does not intend to reproduce a polysemic web. His interpretations are not an explanation or a hermeneutic quest for the deeper layers in Bach's composition that would lead to a fundamentally finite gamut of possibilities; neither do they intend to determine understanding (Verstehen) or meaning. Rather, there is dispersion and multiplicity (due to numerous connotations) in Die Kunst einer Fuge; there are multiple readings, attention to material properties (cf. for example, the fifth interpretation, entitled 'Timbres-durées', where the length of the notes determines the composition, and also the whole idea of intermusicality that is active in Die Kunst einer Fuge) and undecidability. Dissemination. No 'vouloir-dire', not a quest for the meaning, the intention or the truth of a text. Zacher makes the multiphony of the text audible. His readings are snapshots in time, a temporary fixation in an ongoing process of structuralization, never the last word. Die Kunst einer Fuge not only offers a critique of the interpretation cult (of authenticity) within Western culture, but implicitly sets up an encounter between this culture and alternative views.

[7] Although a single correct performance of a musical work may perhaps be an unrealizable ideal, some philosophers in The Interpretation of Music do specify a number of preconditions that need be satisfied in order for a performance to be 'true'. What are the appropriate (ethical) constraints of the performer's freedom? Levinson is guided, for the most part, by the question of 'how various prescriptions of rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and so on should be precisely realized within their permissible ranges' (Levinson in Krausz, p.35). According to Robert Martin, performances may vary within the constraints of the composer's instructions and the rules and conventions of the performance practices that change over the years (cf. Martin in Krausz, p.123). Both considerations raise as many questions as they try to answer. What are 'permissible ranges'? Where and when are they exceeded? And who decides on that? Levinson, for example, does not want to engage in interpretations in which the performer blatantly and knowingly departs from a work as it has been constituted in an effort to comment on the work in some way, since the permissible ranges then become even more vague. (He mentions rhetorical pauses, interpolated bits, sudden improvisations, excisions, reorchestrations, reharmonizations.) Pertaining more specifically to Die Kunst einer Fuge is Hermerén's question of 'how far one should go in the attempts to find new ways of performing the music of the old masters' (Hermerén in Krausz, p.25). He finds himself unable to answer this. Perhaps, J.O. Urmson's remark in the same book may serve as a conclusion, 'Where the limits of legitimate interpretation lie will, no doubt, never be agreed ... but there are limits' (Urmson in Krausz, p.161). According to the above, the coordinates of these limits can be set by the score, the composer's intentions, and the conventions; the score and the intentions seemingly being the most stable. But, how fundamental is the score? Levinson cites the example of pianist Paul Jacobs, who felt the need to correct a couple of supposed mistakes in Arnold Schönberg's Drei Klavierstücke, Opus 11. A certain fidelity to the instructions in the score has thus been overruled here. There is strong suspicion that the composer has made some mistakes (cf. Levinson in Krausz, p.35). What is the performer's obligation to the composer? Urmson provides us with some possible answers that, again, only seem to add to the problem. 'It is his duty', he states, 'to interpret it in the way in which he believes the score sounds best in accordance with the understanding of musical notation current at the time of composition; it is his duty to interpret it in the way in which he believes it sounds best, even if this involves some departures from the instructions contained in the score; it is his duty to interpret it according to the known views of the composer on interpretation at the time of composition; it is his duty to interpret it in a way that would be approved by the composer if he heard the performance, however surprising to him' (Urmson in Krausz, p.162).
In this same line of argument are the questions raised by Hermerén. 'What is the purpose of the interpretation? To discover what the composer wanted, to suggest a reading that illuminates a contemporary moral or political problem, to propose the most aesthetically rewarding approach, to rally the masses around common goals,  ... to defend the object of interpretation against criticism, to describe the historical, social, psychological conditions for the creation of the work interpreted, and so on?' (Hermerén, p.13).

[8] It is not clear whether Levinson and Martin would consider Die Kunst einer Fuge as a series of  interpretations within 'permissible ranges'. Zacher seems not to be seeking the most adequate, correct, or best interpretation of 'Contrapunctus I'. He seems much more focused on (intrigued by) the infinite multiplicity of Bach's text, on opening unknown listening perspectives, on the confrontation between this and other texts or methods of composition. In doing so, he exceeds the accepted conventions of the interpretation praxis. But then, the ten versions of Die Kunst einer Fuge are not a deliberate deviation from 'Contrapunctus I'. Zacher does not change a single note in the score. No reharmonizations, no excisions, no interpolations. (He adds something without adding something!) Despite his taking advantage of the absence of detail and specifications regarding instrumentation, dynamic markings, etc., his work cannot be understood as a play between the incompleteness of the score and the resulting possible multiplicity of interpretation practices. This can sooner be heard when various performances, for example, performances for string quartet or harpsichord, are compared. Neither can we say that Zacher's project consists of several arrangements or adaptations of 'Contrapunctus I'. Again, none of the notes have been altered. Die Kunst einer Fuge involves an exploration of the limits and supplements to Bach's composition. However, it not only delimits, it also introduces the possiblity of opening new areas of listening experience. To deconstruct 'Contrapunctus I' is to search for the inaudible within the audible. Zacher deconstructs when examining musical traces, marks, and differences as they occur during composition and as they are inscribed on the musical text. Although Zacher speaks about 'this series of interpretations' of 'Contrapunctus I', it is important to note that the idea of interpretation can no longer be viewed in the traditional sense. Perhaps, in this respect it would be better to speak of encounters, invitations, play.

[9] One reason for the possibility of deconstruction, the possibility of dissemination, is that the author can no longer guard his or her works once they are made public. Texts then become independent in a certain sense and the original author's intent may lose pertinence; it may even be ignored. Texts do not coincide with the author; they are traces left behind in passing. Still, many authors clearly leave their marks in their texts.
'I, Marcel Cobussen, state ...' tries to leave not much room for ignoring the author's intention. Returning to music, the same may be said about Die Kunst der Fuge. Bach's signature is decidedly present in 'Contrapunctus I'. The masterly treatment of the fugue represent Bach at the height of his powers. Still, Zacher shows that Bach's position can be challenged. By forcing the issue of the interpretation of 'Contrapunctus I', the work escapes the mark of the original composer. The work is first expropriated (withdrawn from its original context) and then appropriated by the praxis of another (in fact, many others). The question is: who is really appropriating 'Contrapunctus I'? Derrida clearly leaves his mark in texts that he deconstructs, but this is not so much the case with Zacher. Once again, I emphasize: Bach's notes remain unaltered. And Zacher's own input becomes unclear because he works with specific compositions of different composers in each of the ten performances (cf. Gerd Zacher's Kunst einer Fuge) . To whom are we listening? Who has the last word? Bach? Zacher? (One of) the others? But why decide?