Sunday, February 08, 2009

CIPP: Creatively Inspired Performance Practice

From Daniel Barenboim's Music Quickens Time
. . . My problem is more with someone who tries to imitate the sound of that time. Knowing that in Bach's day this appoggiatura was played slowly and that ornamentation fast, and copying it is not enough. I must understand why it was like that. This is why I consider a purely academic approach to the past very dangerous because it is linked to ideology and fundamentalism, even in music. Today we are witnesses to the suffering the violence that are the product of fundamentalism.
(I Was Reared on Bach)

. . . I have two problems with the so-called authentic performance practice movement. First of all, the fact that it's a movement at all, an ideology, a worldview, that asks fewer questions, but rather knows the right answers from the get go. That puts a limit on human creativity. That doesn't mean there aren't many unbelievably talented, fabulous musicians among my early performance practice colleagues. but the movement has in a sense broken out individual elements from the music--sound, tempo--as if they were independent of one another. I think that's a huge nonsense. Second, and I say this without any irony, this ideology has been able to see itself as progressive. That's why it's so successful, that was its greatest triumph. I ask you: what can be progressive about saying let's look back and the way things were?!
(On Mozart)
Daniel Barenboim really hits the nail squarely on the head when he equates rules with fundamentalism. It is a particular problem in music, because music performance is a creative act that is very different from the creative act of composition. Composition, for which every bit of musical material in the universe is fair game, depends a great deal on rules (that can be adhered to or broken), and those rules are used mainly for organizational purposes (to avoid chaos).

Each piece of music has its own life, its own morality, and its own continuity. Perhaps this is where the divide comes between composing and performing. Composing is an act of containment and organization. There is a given amount of material to be organized in a finite amount of time (which can grow or shrink during the process of composing). That material needs to be organized in such a way that the piece of music is meaningful (and interesting) from its inception until its ending point. Compositions are not improvisations, because improvisations are unedited musical utterances: they are performances. Compositions may begin with the sense of improvisation, but the composer, who is constantly evaluating the necessity of this passage or that passage in the work as a whole, is constantly questioning the way that the material is being organized. There is time for a composer to turn an improvisation into a piece of music, but it is time that is only on the composer's watch. (Some people who do not read music do all this work without writing anything down.)

The difference between improvisation and composition is kind of like the difference between talking and writing. The ideas that you develop when you talk, unless you are being recorded, evaporate into the air. It is the same thing with those thoughts that pop into your head when you are walking or sleeping. Whoosh! They are gone, unless you write them down. Then once you write them down you have to figure out what you were thinking in the first place. Perhaps your response to those thoughts become the springboard for new things you never thought about before. You want to articulate those thoughts in the most concise way possible, so you try to explain them to yourself in writing. Then you read them over, trying to have them make the kind of sense that they made while they were floating freely around in your head, unencumbered by words, commas, clauses, and paragraphs.

In order for your ideas to be understood by anyone except you, they have have to be organized into an acceptable framework, which you create for yourself. Sometimes it is a framework that is


and sometimes it is a commonly-used form. Sometimes the language you use is invented, and sometimes the language you use has been used before. You have the freedom to choose your material and your form as a writer of either music or words.

An interpretive musician (i.e. a performing one, even if the performance is only for yourself) gives the music what the composer cannot give it. And an interpretive musician gives a piece what a composer feels is not his or her responsibility to give it: life. As a composer I don't want performances of pieces I write to be like paintings made from traced photographs. I want them to be like watercolor paintings or sketches that use the framework that I have set up as a springboard for a musician's own personal (or a group of musicians' collective) agenda of the moment.

One thing I have discovered from the various hats I wear in the world of music is that musicians want music that they can enjoy playing, and that everyone has their own personal reasons for playing certain pieces. Some people like to play music that demands a lot of them expressively, some like to play music that demands a lot of them technically, and some like to play music that demands a lot of them intellectually.

I remember a phone conversation I had many years ago with a flutist friend who was asked to play a concerto with an orchestra. She called me to ask what concerto she should play. I recommended a piece (I can remember what it was) that she didn't know. Her only response was to ask, "Is it showy?" I realized that her agenda was to show off her (fantastic) technique. And there's really nothing inherently wrong about that, though it struck me as an odd way to choose a concerto. She had her agenda, and I'm sure no composer, dead or alive, would object to someone playing his or her piece for the purpose of showing off a tremendous technique.

1 comment:

T. said...

This post is SO great. I always learn so much from you.