THOUGHTS ON MUSIC & IINTERPRETATION … good performances, bad performances PART I
Long Exchange in NewMusicBox provoked by a post from composer Alexandra Gardner … you can read it all here:
The original post provoked a sizeable outpouring of comments and thoughts, most –but not all— from composers. It surprised me a bit that there were so few commentaries from performers.
And also on Gardner’s subsequent posting, a few days later, on "Good Performances" … this was definitely in the Department of “Hmmm … you gotta wonder” because it drew many fewer commentaries. Dear me, can so few composers think of a good performance or two? Are we as a community so querulous and complaining? It cannot be.
Also in the Department of "you gotta wonder" ... the comment –on the “Good Performances” posting no less- from a composer who says, “ …the orchestra where one member stopped playing and started laughing “… agghh. Words fail me. Maybe that commentary should have gone in the “Bad performances” blog?
No matter. I want to weigh on this, as an interpreter who’s played and commissioned a good bit of new music, as one who is not based in the US, and as one who increasingly programs that new music with pieces from the repertoire (Part 2 will deal with that). As I read these comments I found coalescing in my mind a whole bunch of things that I’ve wanted to write about more extensively for some time now. All of them have to do with that essential composer-interpreter-listener tripod. Some of them are random: this is not a super-organized essay with stuff like footnotes ;=))
In her original post, Gardner quotes Daniel Felsenfeld, who says about a poor performance, “by this I do not mean a player who is not exactly flawless but rather an unprepared and uncaring performance”.
Both of those words –unprepared and uncaring— are in a way loaded. An unprepared performance is almost by definition an uncaring one: the performer didn’t care enough about the piece to prepare it adequately.
In a way the situation Kyle Gann describes in his comment several days later is also uncaring, although superficially it seems like the opposite. “The performers are fantastic. The first rehearsal is the day before the performance. Expert sight-readers, they play virtually all the notes, more or less at the right times, but the piece never gels. No time is given to understanding what this particular piece is all about. … I had a piano concerto played by a top-notch new-music ensemble on the above pattern. The next year, a group of non-music-major students played it after rehearsing it weekly from January to May. The student performance sounded much more purposeful, intelligent, and together.” [Emphases mine.]
Does this really come as a surprise to anyone? A great chamber-music colleague in a previous life of mine said, “Time does something to music that nothing else can do.” Time, plus, of course, intention and desire. Ralph Kirkpatrick writes about “preparing an interpretation”. Such a turn of phrase sounds almost 19th-century in the context of some of these composers’ comments, doesn’t it? Pretty sad.
I try in general to avoid pejoratives, and adjectives in general: to be tolerant and open and Buddhist and such. But here I take a stand: when the way the system works is that the first rehearsal is the day before the performance, in which the players have to be expert sight-readers in order to survive … Well, I say that Entire System is twisted and bad. Bad for the music, and by that I mean bad for the composer, bad for the performer, bad for the listener, which is everyone involved. Twisted because it basically says, “Time Is Money, boys and girls, so warm up fast, get those high kicks lined up, and on to the Next Gig. How you might feel that gesture or that phrase –assuming you might have the glimmer of a nanosecond to even FEEL, in this context—has nothing to do with anything that matters.”
Every molecule of my being rejects this as a way of making music: short-term, long-term, any-term, period.
Nothing wrong with being ace sight-readers: that’s been part of our toolkit for various centuries now, for professional reasons and for our own pleasure. The problem enters when that gets confused with interpretation, and the preparation and time necessary for the latter. And that comes about, in large measure as a consequence of that nefarious “Time Is Money” construct.
So I say: YES, Kyle Gann, you go right ahead, maestro, and demand a minimum of three rehearsals. And performer colleagues, YOU demand that minimum of three rehearsals and X preparation time. And for heaven’s sake, ask questions and listen – talk to one another.
Someone will doubtless say, This is all well and good, Cervantes, but the REALITIES of our world are that this is the way it is right now. Well, I say: so CHANGE THAT. Start right now to do what you can to change it. Demand that time. If composers start to demand it and performers do too, pretty soon things will change. Reality is what we make it, we just need the imagination and the intestinal fortitude, las agallas as we say in Spanish, to make the reality that the art deserves.
Chris Cerrone comments that “Mozart is ritualistically slaughtered every day by aspiring students” and (further up) Pam tells an anecdote from a teacher of hers, quoting Virgil Thomson as saying, “ … Your music should be able to stand up to the most incompetent performances”. I agree. Mozart, and various Bachs, and how many others, have survived thousands of performances from the ridiculous to the sublime. Why should any composer creating right now set her sights any lower?
Who knows how much of the music that’s being created right now, with dedication and sincerity, talent and skill, will stand the test of time, stay for posterity, blah blah? Well, we don’t know, so we interpreters have to give the very best service we can to the music we believe in. That’s the only answer I can think of.
Yes, I said that: “The music we believe in”. The music I believe in may not be the same music that my colleague in Paris or Madrid or New York or Mexico City believes in, and that is all to the good. That way lots of different music gets played, by interpreters who believe in it.
I will go further and say: If you don’t believe in it, don’t play it. It’s not fair to the composer, to the listener, or to you as an interpreter. Assuming an interpreter is what you are and aspire to be, as opposed to some kind of living, breathing MIDI reproduction machine.
Of course when we are studying we work on all kinds of music: that is how we form judgement, context, and taste. I’m talking about later on, when you’re out there in the Big Bad World, as a Professional.
This only goes for soloist and chamber colleagues: If after giving it some time you don’t have convictions about the piece, or aren’t excited about it, you shouldn’t be playing it. Just that simple. Maybe you keep it on your music shelf for later examination, but you have no business playing it right now: chances are good it will result in one of those lacklustre realizations to which we have all snoozed off at one time or another. It’s not fair to you, to the composer, to the listener. If you feel your group pressured you into playing it then you need to all sit down and work out a better consensus process for selecting rep. Maybe it wasn’t written for you, or even for your instrument (this has been known to happen).
What is written is the score, whether it looks like George Crumb or Johannes Brahms. It is that basic document from which we depart and to which we must always return.
This is assuming that the piece interests you, that it engages you, that you feel you will have something to say with it: If the score is ambiguous after you’ve studied it thoroughly, ASK. If there is idiotic accidental-enharmonic notation because of Finale or Sibelius, propose a change. If you sense what the composer is trying to do but the writing for your instrument is badly conceived –or even if it doesn’t work for your hands, jiminy-- propose a change or an Ossia. Liszt proposed some of his own, in consideration of pianists who hadn’t his genius at the instrument. Musicologist colleagues, please correct me …
I was glad to read Andrew H’s comment, “If you’ve written something so weird that nobody notices when you get a bad performance, the joke’s on you, so to speak. Certainly you’re not doing yourself any favors by blaming it on the performers; and if you can accept some responsibility, you’re a step closer to fixing the problem. … Honest question: If you’re not writing for real performers and a real audience, with understanding of the shortcomings of each, then what business do you have seeking a performance of your work?” He goes on to remark, “There’s no shame in writing for yourself, but you can’t expect someone else to understand foreign concepts unless you take the time to teach them. And yes, that means audience education for anything which isn’t closely related to standard rep for that audience.”
And by the way, why can’t performers share that audience education with composers? When we are really inside the skin of a piece, when we have really prepared an interpretation, in Kirkpatrick’s beautiful phrase, we are uniquely capable of doing that.
Andrew H starts by observing, “isn’t it in some sense the composer’s fault for writing a piece that’s not followable, such that even the performers can’t get it right? Should we ever allow ourselves to be absolved of that responsibility?” I have to say, dear Andrew H, that I think it’s not anyone’s FAULT in particular. I like better your word responsibility.
This put me in mind of a favourite quote from (yes, again) Kirkpatrick’s Preface to his edition of the Scarlatti Sonatas:
“As every composer and writer knows, there is no better way of finding out what one really feels than having to set it down on paper, or having to communicate it through an artificial and restricted medium. A composer cannot write down an orchestral score without having eliminated every element of the haphazard and non-organic: he has to do much more than merely float on the seas of his own emotions. He must adopt definite concrete means of conveying those emotions through a medium over which he no longer has any direct control, nor any control at all other than the manner in which he has set his notes down on paper.”
Kirkpatrick goes on to describe a parallel process for the interpreter …
“The performer’s problem is less formidable, but similar. He must be able to marshal the spontaneity of his sensations into a coherent, ordered performance which he can produce at any time and under any circumstances. To this end, he must sense what elements of a piece are fixed and unchangeable in their relationship to each other, what is basic syntax and structure, and what is mere rhetorical inflection, what can be improvised and altered from performance to performance. Only by this security in relation to basic musical elements can he achieve true freedom and spontaneity in performance. The ability to make departures depends on a thorough knowledge of what one is departing from.”
The last sentence in that memorable paragraph, I feel, applies equally to the composer.
In the “Good performances” post, Gardner writes:
“While the ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy between composers and performers is apparently alive and well, it seems highly unproductive. The last time I checked, we are all musicians. Maybe we are approaching the language of music from different standpoints, but we are all in the same field. I may not be a performer, but when I’m working with a musician or ensemble, I enter into that relationship with the expectation that we are all striving to reach the same goal. It doesn’t always work out, but even if it doesn’t, the world keeps turning. Both good performances and bad performances are a two-way street—it’s up to both composer and performer to work together to determine how things are going to shake out.”
I can’t believe there is still some sort of “us-vs.-them” dichotomy between composers and performers. Didn't that die a a well-deserved death a decade or so ago? How can this be? It’s not only “highly unproductive”, as Gardner says: it’s absurd. To begin with, it makes hard labour out of something that should, in the end, be FUN. A major factor must surely be the above-mentioned “Time is Money” fake world which we must all set to work and change.
So how do we make it better –at least in the short term? I say: Think, listen, talk.
David Wolfson comments, “ … I’ve found that musicians rarely want to tell you if you’ve written something unidiomatic for their instrument; they seem to feel it’s their responsibility to somehow make it work.” Yes. In my experience this is too often true. For reasons with which I won’t bore the assembled e-multitudes, it took me a long, long time to learn how to do this. I think musicians have a kind of basic reverence for composers, for the act of creation. This is really wonderful, we should indeed have that reverence; but it shouldn’t make us deaf and dumb. If anything, it should heighten our curiosity and daring.
Looking back, I think it was working with student composers here in México during and after my Fulbright-García Robles year which did that for me. In reality, all I learned was to ask the same question I ask the score of a composer whom I can’t call up on the telephone: “What’s going on here? What are you trying to say?”
You simply can’t dive in saying stuff like, “This doesn’t work”: to begin with it’s just not kind. (Plus, would you do that with Brahms?) You have to ask; and then be prepared to reciprocate by speaking honestly about things that you just don’t get, that don’t work for you (and be sure you yourself know why that is) or that –in your opinion— don’t meet the goals the composer has stated; and then propose solutions based on your own convictions about the piece as an interpreter.
If there is a composer out there who says that I as an interpreter have no business having convictions about the piece, I say, Go home and play with your inflatable MIDI doll, honey, I fear we have nothing to talk about.
To the composer who says that he shouldn’t have to explain things verbally to the interpreter, I say, Wake up and smell the coffee my dear! You will have to talk with audiences in an approachable and non-condescending way; figure out how to do it with performers as well. Not only will it help your musical life, it will help your personal one as well.
To the performer who finds it difficult to talk with the composer about instrumental or other issues, I say, Find a way, dear. Ask questions of the composer and also of yourself: What’s going on here (in this passage, in this section, in this piece)? What is my story about this piece? What would I say to a non-specialized audience to introduce it? The very best question to ask the composer, always --for me at least-- is What are you trying to do here?
Sometimes the instrumental difficulties can be resolved SO easily it’s almost laughable. But to find that out you have to ask, and, as I mention above, sometimes based on your own hands and your own convictions about the piece –and with the score always present— you propose an Ossia. That same thing about musical life and personal life goes for interpreters as well, some more people skills never hurt anyone!
I agree with Kirkpatrick when he says that the score must be as clear as the composer can possibly make it. Once you write down what’s in your inner ear, it’s not exclusively yours any more. Involving a good, thoughtful interpreter in the process, once you have a close-to-final version of the score, can help you get the distance you need in order to understand what you might have omitted. But once you finish that process, you have no control: you’ve given the piece to the universe.
I remember when I was working on John Corigliano’s Fantasy on an Ostinato. At a certain point in the piece he puts the indication “unhurried”. It’s in a place where I suppose one might be tempted to move briskly along. That one word Unhurried, as I thought about it, completely changed my perspective. It also made me think twice about every meno mosso I ever saw afterwards. Or Debussy’s tempo indication at the beginning of his 2nd Étude Pour les tierces (for Thirds): Moderato ma non troppo. Now that is one to think about! This is all part of the work that each of us, composer and interpreter, must undertake.
You have to be mindful of your words and have your brain in gear before you move your mouth. This sounds like more basic “people skills” but I have to say that a good percentage of the reasons behind the composer-performer dichotomy to which Alexandra refers would be helped along mightily by a good dose of those. A recent example: I asked a Symphony colleague here about a commissioned piece which the orchestra was preparing. He made a regretful face and said, It’s just not a good piece. Knowing and respecting the composer and her music I asked, Good heavens, why? Oh Jeez, he said, the harmonics for the ‘cellos aren’t properly written. Such a pain! OK sweetie, It’s a pain; but that’s a deficiency in how the score was prepared, not poor architecture or conception or inadequate through-composing or fundamental stuff like that.