Buddha figure

The Ethics of Transcription in Music

Ferruccio Busoni's Notions of Musical Essence
Substantiated by Eastern Philosophies of a Unified Spirit

Apr. 25, 1994

For over a century, important composers neglected the flute as a solo instrument. Other than a multitude of virtuosic showpieces, no serious solo flute repertoire emerged between the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of the twentieth century. Therefore, as a flutist, I must confront this reality when seeking diverse and balanced recital programs. Inevitably, I must turn to transcriptions if I intend to perform substantial nineteenth-century literature. Hence, I am faced with many ethical questions concerning the performance of transcriptions. Musicians addressing issues of authentic performance practice ask this same question: Is there a moral imperative to ascertain and then represent the composer's intentions when performing his/her music? Rather than even attempt to answer this question, I will instead investigate the mysteries which lie beyond it. The previous question assumes that the composer has autonomous control over his/her musical idea. I am fundamentally opposed to this notion and aim to challenge the idea that a composer is actually directly responsible for his/her creation.

Ferruccio Busoni, in his essay "The Essence of Music", offers an alternative perspective on musical creation. He claims that, "the human being can certainly not create, he can only employ what is in existence on the earth." Busoni conceived of both the composer and the performer as transcribers. In order to clarify this concept I must first reformulate the notion of "performer" in terms of semantics. Webster's Dictionary defines the verb to "perform" as follows: "1. to do so as to carry out, complete…execute 2. to fulfill” This understanding of the word "perform" necessitates the subordination of the performer which Busoni did not believe in. Instead, let us look at the meaning of the verb to "create"1. to cause to come into existence; ... 2. to invest with a new rank." If we consider the latter definition, then the performer, too, can be thought of as a "creator" or better still, a "recreator". Both the performer and the composer create their own individual expressions of a universal musical idea which Busoni calls the Essence of Music. In other words, neither musician is creating the essence; they only create the outfit which embodies that essence at a particular moment - be that the moment of notation, or of interpretation. To notate or perform the essential musical idea is "to invest it with a new rank". In The New Aesthetics of Music Busoni considers the issue of transcription with regards to these concepts. He feels that one who transcribes a piece of music has no less authority over a musical idea than the composer or the performer. As I understand it, the source of the idea comes only from the Creator, the One Universal Being.

Busoni, using the words of the French novelist Anatole France, asserts that, "the content of a piece of music existed and exists complete and unalterable before and after it has sounded." This refers to both the abstract sounding of a musical idea resulting from its notation and the concrete sounding of an idea resulting from its performance. These events, Busoni feels, are transient and only temporarily embody an eternally existent musical essence. Upon reading these ideas, I was struck by their resemblance to numerous concepts within Eastern mysticism. In these words resound transcendental notions of the "OverSoul" as well as Jungian ideas of the "Collective Unconscious". Subsequently, I was not at all surprised to learn that Busoni was quite familiar with several doctrines of Eastern thought, Only after I personally associated Busoni's ideas with those of Jung, Emerson, and various Eastern mystics did I learn about his exhaustive library of Eastern-oriented literature. Included in his library were such works as H. Kern's Buddhism in India (1901), three volumes of Die Reden Gothama Buddhos translated by Neumann (1922), Chinese Ghost and Love Stories translated by Martin Buber, Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching texts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as early works by Hermann Hesse, I also learned that the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau brought a prominent Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond during his two years of reclusive living there.  Carl Jung had associations with Eastern philosophies as well. Harold Coward, in his book Jung and Eastern Thought discusses Jung's studies of yogic practices of the fourth century Indian mystic, Pantanjali. These connections are not coincidental. By drawing further parallels between Busoni and Eastern mysticism, I hope to develop a means of discourse by which Westerners can negotiate this rather metaphysical approach to understanding the essence of music.

Busoni never divorces his conceptions of musical content and form. For him, the  essence of music and the physical form. Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau aimed to fuse notions of spirit and matter. When they developed their philosophies of Transcendentalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Striving to understand their connection to nature they created the idea of an "OverSoul". "Emerson's celebration of the action of the whole Soul, ... means a celebration of a consort of faculties: instinct, conscience, and intellect." He does not discern between one's physical and psychic experience of the natural world. Instead, he marries the concepts of body and mind. This marriage is represented in the "OverSoul" and differs radically from the philosophy of Emerson's seventeenth-century predecessor, Rene Descartes, "who based his view of nature on a fundamental division into two separate and independent realms; that of mind (res cogitans) and that of matter (res extensa)." Emerson's unification of these realms reflects his fascination with Hindu concepts and images. The Maitri Upanishad reads: There is a Spirit who is amongst the things of this world and yet he is above the things of this world. He is clear and pure, in the peace of a void of vastness. He is beyond the life of the body and the mind, never-born, never-dying, everlasting, ever ONE in his own greatness. He is the Spirit whose power gives consciousness to the body. This Spirit is the source from which Busoni believes all music derives. He, like Emerson and the Hindu mystics, has a unified conception of the body and the mind. In musical terms, let us consider the Essence of a musical to be its "mind" and the notation of a musical idea to be its “body”.  Busoni discourages the division of these two phenomena. He claims that, "the time has come to recognize the whole phenomenon of music as a "oneness" and no longer to split it up according to its purpose, form, and sound-medium". Jung, too, makes the radical shift from Cartesian divisions of mind and matter. He describes the "oneness" as one's "Collective Unconscious". Harold Coward explains: Jung has caused a Copernican revolution in the conception of psychic reality by doing away with the narrow opposition between a human psyche and a material cosmos which has dominated Western thought for so long. For him man is a physico-psychic being that partakes not only of a physical world, but is also part of a psychic universe infinitely wider that his ego-consciousness . ...With the collective unconscious we enter into a psychic world or cosmic dimensions, which is in direct continuity with the personal conscious and unconscious psyche. The continuity of which Coward speaks is essential for understanding Jung's relationship to Busonian thought and Eastern mysticism. "The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of a phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness." Busoni believed that any given composition was simply a manifestation of this “basic oneness”.  Therefore, a division of these two phenomena. He claims that, "the time has come to recognize the whole phenomenon of music as a "oneness" and no longer to split it up according to its purpose, form, and sound-medium". Jung, too, makes the radical shift from Cartesian divisions of mind and matter. He describes the "oneness" as one's "Collective Unconscious". Harold Coward explains: Jung has caused a Copernican revolution in the conception of psychic reality by doing away with the narrow opposition between a human psyche and a material cosmos which has dominated Western thought for so long. For him man is a physico-psychic being that partakes not only of a physical world, but is also part of a psychic universe infinitely wider that his ego-consciousness . ...With the collective unconscious we enter into a psychic world or cosmic dimensions, which is in direct continuity with the personal conscious and unconscious psyche. The continuity of which Coward speaks is essential for understanding Jung's relationship to Busonian thought and Eastern mysticism. "The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of a phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness." Busoni believed that any given composition was simply a manifestation of this “basic oneness”.  Therefore, a subsequent performance or transcription of the work would also be a manifestation of that same "oneness" inherent in the work.

As physical beings, existing in this life, on this planet,we have a difficult time grasping these abstract concepts. Fritjof Capra acknowledges this in his book The Tao of Physics
He admits that:

In ordinary life, we are not aware of this unity
of all things, but divide the world into separate
objects and events. This division is, of course,
useful and necessary to cope with our everyday
environment, but it is not a fundamental feature
of reality. It is an abstraction devised by our
discriminating and categorizing intellect. To
believe that our abstract concepts of separate
'things' and 'events' are realities of nature is
an illusion. Hindus and Buddhists tell us that
this illusion is based on avidya or ignorance.

It is this ignorance which leads us to believe in the autonomy of any work of art or piece of music. However, to see any one composer's work as an individual creative accomplishment for
which he/she is solely responsible would have moral consequences in the Hindu tradition. The Bhagavad-Gita teaches:

When one sees Eternity in things that pass away and
Infinity in finite things, then one has pure
knowledge. But if one merely sees the diversity
of things with their divisions and limitations,
then one has impure knowledge.!

And if one selfishly sees a thing as if it were everything, independent of the ONE and the many, then one is in the darkness of ignorance. To be in the darkness of ignorance is to be "unenlightened", perhaps similar to the Christian notion of "unsaved". Busoni worked towards his own personal enlightenment while he encouraged his students to do the same. Concurrently, he developed a means by which he seemed to judge other composers based on their level of "enlightenment". In other words, he would assess a composer's artistry by measuring how closely he/she had come to being "in touch" with the oneness or Essence of Music. McGill professor, Tamara Levitz, who writes in her dissertation about Busoni's teaching methods, told me that Busoni asked his students to just allow themselves to contact their "oneness" with the Essence of Music. He warned them not to actively seek the Essence from external sources. Alternatively, he preferred his students to take a more Taoist, passive approach in their quest for musical Essence. He explains in the Essence of Music that the distance between a composer and his or her oneness will only be reduced, "through an unremitting effort to accumulate all previous achievements and those yet to be achieved." Here, Busoni seems to be referring to something like "past-life" recall. He hints at a yogic, inward approach to finding musical Essence. This inward search seems analogous to the practices of Eastern meditation. Capra says that "the principal aim of the Eastern mystical traditions is ... to readjust the mind by centering and quieting it through meditation… the balanced and tranquil state of mind in which the basic unity of the universe is experienced." With meditation, one can understand the Eternal Oneness of the Universe.

Lao Tsu describes the eternal Tao, or Way, in the following poem, "The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease.! Creating, yet not possessing,! Working, yet not taking credit.! Work is done, then forgotten,! Therefore it lasts forever." We can find the origins of many of Busoni's ideas in this poem, "Creating, yet not possessing" expresses Busoni's belief that no composer owns his/her musical idea, the fact that Busoni often did not want himself or his students to write down their compositions come from the line "work is done, then forgotten." And the last line "it lasts forever" seems to have influenced Busoni's conception of Time. He had a cyclical rather than linear understanding of time. As early as the sixth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Heraclitus "taught that all changes in the world arise from the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites.., he saw any pair of opposites as a unity... Heraclitus believed in a world of perpetual change, of eternal 'Becoming'. For him, all static 'Being' was based on deception and his universal principle was fire, a symbol for the continuous flow and change of all things." This continuous flow parallels what I consider to be the premise of Busoni's argument: the idea of music existing, "complete and unalterable before and after it has sounded." To further illuminate this concept I will make an anlalogy to Buddhist understanding of reincarnation.  In this faith, there exist Four Noble Truths: Dukkha or suffering, the knowledge of Dukkha, the cessation of Dukkha, and the transcendence of Dukkha. This suffering derives from the fact that, as humans, we are bound to Samsara the cycle of birth and rebirth. Our level of enlightenment depends upon the kind of karma we accumulate during each incarnation. Through discipline in yoga and meditation, one can eventually reach Nirvana the transcendence of Samsara. This means that until we attain enlightenment, until we reach the "state of mind in which the basic unity of the universe is experienced" we return to Samsara to be reborn again and again. If the basic unity of the universe is what we consider the essence of music to be, then a composition is simply an incarnation of that oneness. And the composer strives to understand the perfection of that oneness. However, Busoni acknowledges that although Bach was much   closer to enlightenment than Busoni, himself; much closer to understanding the oneness of all musical ideas, Bach had still not entirely arrived at perfection. Thus, he was still bound to Samsara Therefore, those of us performing or transcribing Bach's music, like himself, still equally belong to Samsara and similarly act only to manifest a given incarnation of the Musical Oneness. Busoni sees Bach and all composers
to be:
            like a gardener to whom a small portion of a larger piece of ground has been allotted for
            cultivation;... It devolves on this gardener to collect and form that which is in reach of his eyes, his arms - his power of differentiation.
In same way a mighty one, an anointed one, a Bach, a Mozart, can only survey, manipulate and reveal a portion of the whole flora of the earth;... Even the greatest giant, the circle in which his activity unfolds must remain a limited one. However much he may grasp, in relation to the infinity out of which he creates it, is bound to be a tiny particle.. Inside this radius, ruled by one person and restricted for him in time and place by the chances of his birth, the individual mind feels especially drawn through a natural sympathy to particular points and cultures. Implicit in Busoni's gardener analogy is a belief in reincarnation. I think that he perceives the composer, the performer, and the transcriber as gardeners. Although one who transcribes Bach may be, by Busoni's standards, less enlightened than Bach, the original transcriber of the musical idea, he/she still has the right to harvest the soil from which the musical idea was reaped. And, so as performers/transcribers, rather than to concern ourselves with Bach, rather than to be true to his intentions, we must more deeply concern ourselves with being true to the Essence of Music from which Bach's composition emerged. In doing so, we may use Bach's work as a vehicle for contacting the "oneness". However, we should not intend to improve upon his notation of this "oneness". Instead, we can only hope to fine, within ourselves, our own personal expression of the Essence embodied in Bach's work.

When considering a composition as an incarnation of Musical Essence, we must explore the notational means used to package this essence. "Notation" in music can be paralleled with the Eastern conception of the "body". Both are ephemeral, both outfit the very same Oneness of the Universe. Busoni claims that "every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea." Therefore, the actual notes, as written down by the composer, are not, in and of themselves, any kind of end. A composition is in no way finite. We must recognize the infinity within it. As semanticist Alfred Korzybski said, "The map is not the territory." The notes are not the music, a given interpretation of those notes is not the music. These are all just transcriptions of a musical idea which belongs to an infinitely vast territory existing beyond the physical world. Emerson acknowledges that "one cannot know except by way of some symbolic system." In order to even comprehend the notation of a particular incarnation of a musical idea, we must enter into that experience with prior knowledge of the notational system involved. This system consists of symbols which we have constructed so that we can navigate this musical territory. Busoni recognizes the circular reality inherent in the interpretation of musical notation. He does not see anything finite in the notes, they are only means to an end. Since the notation of a musical idea necessitates the existence of a contrived system of symbols, the symbols, themselves, can in no way express Reality. What is real, then, is, again, the intuitive Essence embodied by these symbols.

An analogy to literature is useful here. Like musical notation, language is also dependent upon a symbolic system. However, Emerson does not find that to be restrictive, but expansive. He realizes that "the resources of literature can practically recombine the existentially alienated faculties of the whole Soul in a context of words that makes their coincidence available to the imagination - and thereby credible as a possibility for experience outside words.'" He again alludes to this OverSoul inherent in all creative works, literary, musical, or otherwise. And although he knows the limits of his creative vehicle, words, he honors the fact that these can assist him in accessing the oneness of the Universe. He feels that every person accesses this oneness in a unique way which manifests itself as tone. Of this he says, "One hears in a man's tone the amount of truth that is in him, his capacity for experience, the life he is ready to bring to bear on the human predicament within which you encounter him, the size and the range of the Soul in him. Inevitably, a composer's tone will be reflected in the language employed throughout his/her work. However, considering this language as a representation of the composer's size and range of Soul brings into question, for me, the notion of "genius". Can one's "genius" be quantified in terms of his "capacity for experience" or by "the size and range of the Soul in him"? Is it, then possible, for instance, to aesthetically judge a composer and his/her music by measuring the Soulfulness expressed in his/her work?  Busoni, with his aforementioned opinions about Bach, seems to think so. These ideas of his might might have been influenced by Kern's The History of Buddhism in India (1922). It reads, "Not everyone reaches Nirvana but he who gifted from the beginning, learns everything that one ought to learn, experiences all that one should experience, renounces what one should renounce, develops what one should develop, realizes what one should realizes -he shall reach Nirvana." Wrongly interpreted, this seems to be an exclusive idea implying that not everyone has access to the oneness of the Universe. But it must be understood in Buddhist terms. As discussed previously, one's karma can appreciate or depreciate with each incarnation depending on one's behavior. Those who are "gifted from the beginning" are just people who have accumulated high levels of karma in previous lives, rendering them more, perhaps, evolved or enlightened - at least closer to enlightenment. So, it is these people who can reach Nirvana, just as it is those composers endowed with good karma who have greater access to the Essence of Music. Do we, then, as performers, have a moral imperative to contact this Essence only when performing the music of highly enlightened composers? This is where I leave my argument open. However, I will say that if as performers, we assume that a particular piece is an expression of Universal Oneness, then we must also assume that the notation of that expression quite closely represents that oneness. Therefore, the timbres, rhythms, melodies, articulations, and expressive markings in a piece of music are not to be seen as arbitrary but, rather, spiritually inspired. Using this line of reasoning, how can we justify transcription? Simply. I have stated that the notation can only "closely" represent the oneness. Therefore, it is still merely a transcription, itself; hence, allowing for subsequent transcriptions. For instance, let us consider Cesar Franck's Sonata in A major for violin and piano If we assume that Franck was in touch with musical "oneness", than we can suppose that the Essence of Music inspired the work and that this essence suggested to Franck a particular timbre. He, then could only employ the tools which were accessible to him in his earthly circumstances to represent this timbre. Therefore, his choice to use violin and piano was only one which he felt brought him as close as possible to the essence. Hence, as a performer or a transcriber using a different tool, such as the flute, to represent this essential timbre, we, too, can only attempt to render the closest possible representation of musical "oneness". What is crucial, however, during this process of interpretation or transcription is a maintenance of good taste. Busoni urges that all physical manifestation of musical essence must develop from a great sense of artistry. He states passionately that "I only desire that (the manifestation of essence) be applied aesthetically and intelligently.”  Busoni clearly recognizes that a right to interpret or transcribe a composer's work in no way implies free reign for the interpreter. Conversely, a performer/transcriber, in considering a work presumed to embody universal "oneness", must respect the composer’s notation of that :oneness” as being closely representative of the Essence of Music. Furthermore, he/she, like the composer, is also obligated to search for the Essence within him/herself.

The early twentieth-century Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, said, "you can never come to the reality of creation by contemplating it from the point of view of destruction." To perceive a composition as finite is to destroy its connection to the Universal Oneness from which its Essence derives. As musicians, we must perceive music in a broader context. Not only does the notation of a piece reflect the set of experiences which the composer has brought to the work, but it represents this composer's capacity to translate Musical Essence. Therefore, performers and transcribers need stay mindful of these two points when interpreting notation. They must detemine for themselves how a composer's work communicates "oneness" and create their own personal expression of this "oneness". Busoni favors this expansive perception of music. While he still acknowledges the existence of moral imperatives for performers and transcribers, he suggests that we turn our vision inwards. Throughout our journey towards Musical Truth we cannot find answers in the outward search for composers' intentions. Rather than this externally motivated approach, we must look within ourselves and contact our oneness with the Unified Spirit. Only then can we understand the Essence of Music.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Bishop, Jonathan. Emerson on the Soul Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964.

Buddhist Scriptures Trans. Edward Conze. London: Penguin Books, 1987.

Busoni, Ferruccio. "Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music." Three

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Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1986.

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