Viewpoints and Sculptures

Along the way in the essay “Modern Piano Reduction”, Arnold Schoenberg makes a unique claim of music being like sculpture. Jonathan Kregor examines such a comparison:

“For like a three-dimensional sculpture, Schoenberg contends, there is no single perspective which offers a completely comprehensive view of a large ensemble masterwork: ‘Almost all composers proceed in the same way when handling the orchestra; they realize even details that are not under all circumstances going to be audible’. Consequently, the key board arrangement facilitates a mean of understanding the original, but in a highly circumscribed way. It should, according to Schoenberg, ‘only be like the view of a sculpture from one viewpoint'”.

Schoenberg is referring to piano reductions of orchestral pieces. The analogy, however, has a broader reach. Any time one listens to music, she makes up that one viewpoint Schoenberg wrote about. Wherever her viewpoint may be, she won’t catch everything.

That might be one of the more profound things about sculpture: there is always some part of a work that remains unseen; no viewpoint which can capture an entire sculpture. The same may be declared about music. Who is to say which seat, recording, performance, venue, or piano reduction can capture all of a musical moment?

And yet do people bemoan that they cannot see all of a sculpture at once? Do we stick to one spot in the room in hopes that if we peer long enough we can?

No, we move around the sculpture to gander from all sorts of angles. Sometimes we get close up to observe one feature. Other times we stand far back to take in as much as we can. No viewpoint is ever exhausted. Perhaps none can ever be.

That is what we can and do take to music.


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