The Patchwork Screams of Don Giovanni

How does the Don’s scream in the picture above sound when you imagine it?

We often think in pairs. In opposition to the given expressive voices and sonorities of musical performances and recordings, we think of the mere indications of sound in literature or in paintings. Because we have to imagine sounds or voices when we read or look at a picture, we know they are not able to transmit music like recordings do. But the mediums are not as different as they seem at first. Surely novels transmit some idea of the music of which they speak, and surely recordings share mere indications of sounds as well.

Take for example this amusing compilation of Don Giovanni’s last words from his last supper in Mozart’s opera. At 0:33 into the excerpt, Clément Lebrun at France Musique’s program Le Cri du Patchwork  has compiled many different versions of the libertine’s scream as he falls into the fiery pit.

Don Giovanni’s implacable fight against morality for his sensuous freedom reminds me of a book I read recently by Michael Legaspi, called The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. Legaspi recalls how early modern philology armed Reformist and Catholic theologians for centuries of disputations which finally transformed the status of the Bible; from the divine revelation it had been for centuries, it had become, by the end of the 18th century, a text open to individual interpretation. It was precisely the lack of scholarly consensus that led to an aesthetic appreciation of what once was the source of (political, social, intellectual, artistic) authority. More about that some other time.

How does this have anything to do with Don Giovanni?

You will probably have preferred a few of the screams to others in the Don’s patchwork, but you will not go so far as to say they come closest to the true or right version of “the” scream. In fact, not many people write today about the real or true interpretation of a music piece, let alone of a scream. In the multiplicity of recordings now on offer, listeners who spend time with a piece will find so many different interpretations that these voices and sonorities can only be understood as what they are: portions of texts referring to other texts.

A few months ago, I was meeting with my adviser in a café and she pointed out to me how the song playing over the radio (it had won the Voice of Hollland competition, I think) was almost the same as a Barenaked Ladies’ song, “Californication.” We do something similar when we listen to the cover of a piece and find interesting differences, rather than bemoan inconsistencies with the original recording: we engage with music the way musicologists engage with opera, for example, and the way readers engage with novels that write about writing.

Writing this, I remember how my singing teacher once told me, years ago, when I was much more stubborn than I am today: “I pity the singer who vows by only one interpretation or recording of a piece.” In the fifteen years or so since I learnt that lesson, online streaming and social media have changed the way we relate to authoritative interpretations or reference versions. The recordings we admire today are not so much those which are closest to the truth of the musical work, but rather those which are more interesting for a variety of reasons, including the relations they display with other recordings.

But what about the live performances we have heard? What of the music we cannot replay at the push of a button, except for the metaphorical one in our mind? What happens when we try to remember those sounds that only keep resounding in our mind’s ear? These interpretations, if we have made an effort to remember portions of them, will most certainly become more authoritative to us as time goes by. Each time we make an effort to remember them, we are not simply accessing data for playback, but going through the many associations we put together when consigning something to memory. Perhaps recordings compete with these versions we carry within us and that we are always in the process of idealizing. Perhaps some recordings, because we have listened to them often enough, have also become this idealized, memorized version.

And what about the sounds musicians imagine and labor to create for their audiences? What about the ideal notes that they strive to sing or play, the ever elusive notes which make the wise musicians smile and the perfectionists among them frown? Are they elusive originals or a patchwork of sounds they have previously heard, most probably on recording? More about that some other time.

[c][y] Jason R. D’Aoust. All rights reserved.