Monday, February 07, 2005

Reconsidering Perfection

Arnold Schoenberg in 1936:
…although the premier of this quartet was exceptionally well presented by Master Rosé and his wonderful string quartet, one knows that perfection cannot be expected at the very first performance. So it was this second string quartet about which a gentleman once asked me whether I had got it already in a perfect manner.
I had to answer, “Yes, during the composing.” Now, since the Kolish Quartet exists, and thanks to my friend Alfred Newman, who gave me the opportunity to record these compositions, everybody, and even myself are in the position to hear it in a perfect manner, in a perfect performance.
Arnold Schoenberg recorded this comment as part of a 1937 recording of his complete string quartets. This set of recordings, along with several other pieces, has recently been reissued on the Music & Arts label in a set called “In Honor of Rudolf Kolish.”

This comment bothered me a great deal when I first heard, and it continues to bother me. It bothers me because I believe that the word “perfection” is terribly restrictive, and that striving for it can get in the way of having satisfying musical experiences.

I would like to believe that Schoenberg would agree with me and react to his recorded statement as something that he simply said at the time, under the pressure of having to sound authoritative. Schoenberg, like the rest of us, was not perfect.

I have heard thousands of performances played by people who memorized every single note, dynamic marking, and articulation marking of a piece. Some of these people replicated the score exactly, but lacked the “room” to make a personal statement or allow a sense of joy to come into the music making.

Performing musicians so often imagine that the composer of the piece they are playing is an authoritarian Schoenberg-like figure that requires those who play his or her music to act only as the composer's “voice.” It is a shame that people think of music in that way, because most of the composers I know get very excited about hearing their music interpreted by other people who can illuminate it with humanity, experience, and perspective.

The relationship between the interpreter and the composer, whether the composer is alive or dead, should be a highly creative one, but any kind of creative relationship allows for lapses in what might be an objective sense of “perfection.”

In order to allow for more fulfilling musical experiences I have decided to limit my use of the word “perfection” to non artistic matters. I would also like to eradicate the terms perfect intonation, perfect rhythm, perfect technique, and perfect performance from my vocabulary.

Perfect intonation simply doesn’t exist. Even though people like Schoenberg tried to do away with the importance of tonality during the first part of the 20th century, most of the music we play, whether old or new, is grounded in some kind of tonality. Working within the tonal system, by its very nature, requires constant adjustment. When playing chamber music or solo music with a pianist, the temperament of the piano becomes the force by which we measure where to place our notes so that they sound in tune. When playing chamber music without a piano we must also adjust our intonation constantly, especially when the music we play modulates or where the distances between notes played by one or more of the players exceed the span of an octave. Because of the limitations created by its frets, playing with a guitar requires an even greater set of adjustments.

When playing chamber music with wind players, each musician must adjust to the natural places where notes fall on particular instruments and in particular registers. When playing wind music with non tertian harmonies, all the rules of “just intonation” regarding the relative position of thirds are useless.

One of the technological advances used in working on intonation is the electronic tuning device. Relying on this “authority” for where a pitch should “be” as determined by mathematical calculations is useful in only the most rudimentary musical situations (like establishing an initial “A” at the beginning of a rehearsal). During a chromatic modulation, a sensitive ear (or two) is far more useful as a guide than an electronic pitch that does not understand what is happening to the notes around it. Intonation is best worked out on a note-by-note and interval-by-interval basis, and it should be discussed among players in a friendly and “relative” manner. When we become angry or insecure about what we hear, we become tense, and it becomes difficult to listen properly. Intervals that are in tune resonate, and it is this resonance that makes music sound beautiful. Perhaps a more attainable goal for intonation would be to work for uniformity, beauty, balance, and resonance rather than “perfection.”

Perfect rhythm is also a term that bothers me. Accurate rhythm is what happens when music swings along at a natural and even pace, with subdivisions that happen to enhance the flow of the music. In all the music we play notes are either going somewhere, coming from somewhere, or staying somewhere for a while. In most of the music we play the notes are doing all three things at the same time. Although it is useful to practice with a metronome in order for our bodies to feel the even flow of the music, we need to internalize this rhythmic sense by feeling the rhythm rather than “beating” it. Perhaps a goal for a more satisfying sense of rhythmic motion in music would be to strive for a natural, internal, and organic rhythmic swing rather than for “perfection.”

The struggle for “perfect technique” very often cancels itself out by creating a technique that contains a great deal of tension. There is really no such thing as a single “perfect technique” for any instrument. We all have different body types and play instruments that require various fine adjustments in order to get them to produce the sounds we want them to produce. Perhaps we should strive to build our technique with the goals of strength, flexibility, comfort, and structure.

Once we remove the struggle for perfection from the various pre-requisites of performing (intonation, rhythm, technique) it seems out of context to imagine a “perfect performance.” In our search for resonance and beautiful intonation, natural rhythmic flow, with notes moving naturally, and a relaxed and flexible technique, all sorts of unexpected expressive surprises might happen in a performance that no musician could plan, explain, or even fully understand. That is the mystery and the beauty of music.

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