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Classical Conductor

Does Tom Wright Get Improvisation Wrong?

Part Two

To continue our discussion from Part One, we need to consider the distinction between performance and improvisation.

Let's start with Stephen Barton’s observation:

In recent study of the nature of NT interpretation, considerable attention in certain circles has been given to the possibility that there is one metaphor that is particularly appropriate for articulating what NT interpretation involves. It is the metaphor of performance.[1]

There are a couple of crucial implications to construing NT interpretation (and biblical interpretation in general) in terms of performance. First, to say that interpretation takes the form of 'performance' is to claim that scriptural texts are 'brought to life' by way of performance in the sense that do not fully exist except in the moments either of being authored or those of being read and understood. Without doubt, texts certainly exist apart form being read and understood. For our purposes here, I will take a text to be 'the putting into writing of an author’s intended meaning'. But 'un-interpreted' texts—while they exist—have only 'potential' meanings. It takes an interpreter to 'revive' their meaning (literally, 'bring it to life'). This ontological claim concerning the being of a text inevitably leads us to a second ontological claim, viz., that interpreters or readers are necessary not only for a text to have meaning but also for it simply to be in its fullest sense. If written texts are dependent upon both authors and interpreters for their existence as texts, then texts do not have an independent but rather a dependent existence—yet still an existence in which text and interpretation do not merely collapse into one another.

Second, in the same way that performance of musical or theatrical works can be characterized as having varying levels of fidelity, so biblical 'performances' have varying levels of fidelity. Some performances are simply more faithful to the text than others. However, establishing 'fidelity' is not quite as simple as it initially sounds. Given what we know about the different ways of defining 'fidelity' to texts that can be found in the history of performance practice of, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or plays of Shakespeare, it is hardly surprising that the definition of 'fidelity' to biblical texts has been construed in various ways over the past two millennia. So the question is not just one of levels of fidelity but also one of kinds of fidelity. I think Frances Young is right in comparing disagreements in biblical interpretation to those in the 'authenticity movement' in music.[2] But, in making that comparison, we have not necessarily solved any interpretational difficulties. For, as I have argued elsewhere, disagreements between those in the 'authenticity movement' and 'mainstream performers tend to be about the true meaning of fidelity.[3] As we will see, questions of fidelity can only be answered from within the interpretive community.

While the metaphor of performance is undoubtedly helpful in thinking about the act of interpretation, it seems to me that it almost gets interpretation right—but not quite. In one sense, the idea of 'performance' seems appropriate for thinking about interpretation because 'to perform' is defined as “to finish making, to complete the construction of.”[4] Even though performance requires 'execution' of what is notated (whether in words or musical notes), performers clearly add something to whatever they interpret. In terms of musical pieces, performers may need to make decisions regarding tempi, attack, vibrato, instrumentation, and many other aspects.

Roman Ingarden describes this aspect of musical texts in terms of “Unbestimmtheitsstellen”—places of indeterminacy.[5] But it is not just musical texts that have such points of indeterminacy. Even E.D. Hirsch, Jr.—a strong advocate of construing textual meaning by way of the intent of the author—recognizes this point. Although Hirsch points out that any communication requires a certain degree of 'determinacy', he is all too well aware that such determinacy only goes so far. To quote him:

Determinacy does not mean definiteness or precision. Undoubtedly, most verbal meanings are imprecise and ambiguous, and to call them such is to acknowledge their determinacy: they are what they are—namely ambiguous and imprecise—and they are not univocal and precise.[6]

In regard to musical scores, musicologists often refer to this lack of precision as 'underdetermination'. That is, scores do not provide enough information to actually perform the work. One must know what to do with the notes on the page, and that knowledge comes only by being steeped in a performance practice or tradition. But the imprecision of texts—musical and otherwise—could likewise be construed by what I term 'overdetermination'. In other words, scores and texts generally provide more possibilities than could be realized in simply one interpretation. So a symphony can be performed with deep feeling or machine-like precision and a novel like Middlemarch can be read as a character study or a discourse on morals. The degree of 'over' and 'under'-determination, of course, is dependent upon the genre. Whereas writers of technical manuals attempt—as much as possible—to avoid both aspects, poets often exploit them. Yet interpretation always requires determination. Hans-Georg Gadamer points out that this need for 'determination' is particularly evident in translations. No matter how much the translator wishes to remain faithful to the original text, “every translation that takes its task seriously is at once clearer and flatter than the original.”[9] Similarly, we can say that every interpretation says both more and less than the original text.

So is interpretation inherently improvisational in nature? More to come...

[1] Stephen C. Barton, “New Testament Interpretation as Performance,” in Scottish Journal of Theology 52 (1999): 179.

[2] Francis Young, Virtuoso Theology: The Bible and Interpretation (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1993),24. 

[3] See my discussion of differing notions of “fidelity” in the authenticity movement in The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 96-124.

[4] For the various definitions of “perform” or “performance” used in this and the following paragraph, see the OED s.v. “perform.”

[5] Roman Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art: The Musical Work—The Picture—The Architectural Work—The Film, trans. Raymond Meyer with John T. Goldthwait (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989), p. 90.

[6] E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 44.

[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), p. 386.

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