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The “Perfect” Problem: A Sketch

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Sketch from Carter Symphony #1
Elliott Carter: Sketches for Symphony #1. Held at the Library of Congress.

Occasionally it is a worthwhile exercise to pose the “perfect” problem—that is, how do perceptions of perfection influence our encounters with art? The scope of this question is vast, so I will raise just a few considerations one might have on a visit to the Music Division of the Library of Congress or a concert in the Coolidge Auditorium.

Let’s look at the case of live versus recorded music. How often do we seek the “definitive” recording of a work or group, and listen to it again and again? Sometimes a recording is the only access point we have to music, but not always. As consumers we often reify our favorite recording as the “perfect” exemplar of the work, and a sense of contentment may dissuade us from seeking out alternatives. Yet the things we admire about the recorded performance ultimately stem from an artist striving toward the ineffable, and it is almost a surety that the performances of an honest artist before and after the one that landed on the recording were or will be the result of that same impulse to bring life to the work. Most music lovers agree that there is nothing like witnessing great musicians performing live. There may be no “perfect” performance—but there is infinite variety in the pursuit of unattainable perfection. Perhaps the best recommendation is to listen to both options, but make the effort to hear more in person. If you live in the DC area, Concerts from the Library of Congress are always an excellent choice, and are free to the public.

Moving away from the difficult-to-quantify world of performance, consider the case of original documents. The Library has in its possession thousands of handwritten manuscripts by revered composers. One almost expects these items to be musico-luminescent, enlightening the lucky patron with the glow of their pristine display of authorial weight. While something like this does seem to happen when we encounter historical artifacts, there is an analog here to the live/recorded performance idea above—a clean copy tells us something, but we learn so much more when able to observe the creation of a piece of music through the composer’s scribbles, cross-outs, abandoned ideas, and variants. Sketches and alternate thoughts provide a treasure trove of information, and betray the fact that composition, like performance, is a living, fluid activity. When it is stated that a piece by Mozart or Brahms, for instance, is “perfect,” it begs the question: do we really think that Mozart or Brahms could not have come up with a dozen other compositional solutions that would likewise be deemed perfect or compelling? Poverty of imagination is not a general condition of composers then or now, and it can be invigorating to see how a composer may have approached things differently, or to witness the crystallization of an idea. Looking at it this way, the manifestation of a work on paper may be seen as an intermediary on a spectrum of what the composer imagined it might be and what it could have been. Such a conception may leave no space for the perfect form of a piece, but it revels in the process that ultimately leads to our engagement with the work.

While there is no perfect solution to the perfection question, I do have a request for those composers who do not produce handwritten scores: consider clicking “Save as…” a bit more often, and hang on to those archives. Posterity may enjoy rummaging through your recycle bin, and besides, the illusion of perfection is sketchy at best.

Beethoven Sketches for op 106
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sketches for the piano sonata, op.106 (p.5). Held at the Library of Congress.

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