Sunday, December 17, 2006

Improv on NPR

The list of streaming NPR clips related to improvisation is growing (click here then scroll down a bit). Someone over there is obviously quite taken with Gabriela Montero; at least five pieces on her in the last year. Great interviews and performance recordings of others, including Robert Abramson, Paul Horn, Keith Jarrett, Robert Levin, and Rolf Lislevand. I'm keeping the list pretty much confined to people related in one way or another to classical music; Horn and Jarrett defy categorization enough that they are included.

I have nothing against jazz and other forms of improvisational music. The point of my work, though, is to point out what classical musicians can and are doing with improvisation.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Eric Barnhill and David Dolan

I've recently met Eric Barnhill (in person, at the ISIM conference) and David Dolan (via email), each a wonderful classically-trained pianist using improvisation in different ways. What is similar about them both is that they improvise in a common-practice musical language.

Eric, who has a blog of improvisations (such a great idea and one I may appropriate for myself), described his style to me as a mix of Brahms and Schubert; he's also a teacher of Dalcroze Eurythmics and has developed his own form of music therapy.

David heads the Centere for Classical Improvisation and Creative Performance at the Guildhall School in London, and teaches from time to time at Juilliard as well. His site has clips of him performing in the styles of Mozart and Chopin. What I find especially exciting about David's work is his emphasis on the relationship between improvisation (of notes) and interpretation of composed music.

It's that relationship that I found myself writing about more and more as I worked on the preliminary ideas for my book last spring. Good, alive classical music performance has many improvised aspects to it. Improvising music (including adding embellishments and ornamentation) and interpreting music in a flexible, improvisatory way, are both expressions of a performers musical creativity. To me, they are aspects of the same human drive.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Saying Yes

All I can say is that teaching improvisation classes to DePauw School of Music freshmen is the absolutely best job in the world. I've been having such an amazing time this semester that the amount of experiences to recount is so overwhelming that I haven't known where to begin.

Today's class ended up centering on "saying yes" to one's own ideas and the ideas of those one is improvising with. I say "ended up" because I'm finding my young friends so open and flexible (and I suppose I have enough experience to draw on) that the best plan for teaching has been to have no plan and follow my instincts of the moment.

Commenting on the improvisation one group did early in this morning's session, I found myself talking about the concept of "saying yes" which I've heard features prominently in the Second City approach to comedy improvisation. We've explored many techniques and structures for improvising. Today we moved (back) into small-group improvisations with no talking first, and a commitment only to saying "yes" to one's own ideas and the ideas introduced by the other players. The kids took themselves places I didn't think they could go.

When people go from playing carefully to really connecting with their creativity and doing amazing things, truly connecting with each other, and genuinely expressing themselves, it is magic. It's a privilege to witness. And how I got to be the one who helps them open these doors for themselves I'll never understand. At the moment, I just feel overwhelmingly grateful.

Friday, October 06, 2006

And in cello class this week

Everyone has learned to play a one-octave dominant seenth arpeggio through the circle of fifths. well, some more than others, but each of my students is on his or her way to getting this down. In Tuesday's cello class, I taught them a one-octave blues scale, and to play a pizzicato "Bo Diddily" blues bass line, as David Darling taught it to me.

We all had a good time with it. It did sound like a bunch of white, middle-class, classical cellists trying to play the blues for the first time: we may be using the notes of the blues, but we weren't playing the blues.

Maybe I should be meaner to them. Then they could really play the cello blues.

In improv class this week

It's so hard to remember everything!

In today (Friday)'s improv class, the fourth session with this new seminar rotation (13 students), we did the following:
  • free drumming
  • individual students took turns leading the drum circle, making eye contact with each member of the circle, showing the beat in their bodies, shouting, "look at ME!,"and practicing cutting off the group (by shouting, "one, two, three, four, STOP!" and making a cutoff gesture) and restarting the group with a call of, "one, two, everybody play!"--all this modeled on Arthur Hull)
  • had groups of people take turns dancing--this was especially for those who seemd shy in the first exercise
  • while the group softly drummed, we all inhaled and sighed, than sang one-quality tones (a Music for People term)
  • then I got up in the centered and modeled the next activity: while moving my body to the beat, I sang a one-quality tone, let another follow, and sang a melody
  • then each student did the same
It's all about connecting with others and expressing yourself. I keep stressing to the group that much of what we do is designed to trigger the sorts of fear reactions that come up when we perfrom for people playing or singing classical music. And in our class, we have this wonderful sense of not just a safe place, but active support.

One of the students shared that when he sang, he didn't actually hear the drums but he felt them in his body. How perfect. For that's what we are working to acheive: feeling the support. Being physically and spiritually connected with one another.

I wish I had the time to write after each class what we did; it fades from my memory all too quickly. Yesterday we sang one quality tones and melodies, from our seats in the circle, again with drumming as a background support. And we had another discussion of why these students are musicians. For some, making music is their "bliss," as Joseph Campbell would have put it. The thing they love most and feel most alive and themselves doing. Others have had profound experiences of music making a difference in the lives of others and see it as a way of making a difference in the world. One spoke of the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people as a music teacher (he's planning to be a music education major, and what a great motivation to have as a music ed major).

Monday and Tuesday (we didn't have class Wednesday) we did improvised and also some African-inspired drumming, learning parts of a piece named "Jansa."

What's turning out differently this year, contrasted with years before, is that I'm feeling myself guided and able to lead us to very deep conversations, conversations about what music means to us, why we are musicians, and the difference we can make in the world with music.

The time off I had for my sabbatical was important. I wrestled with, and wrote about in my blog, about my inner conflicts about encouraging or even allowing many kids to be music majors, when "classical music" seems to be in so much trouble. I arrived at the conclusion, eventually, that we need a new definition of success, and new sense of mission. And that for me, success is making a difference in the world making music.

And I've realized more clearly than ever that being a musician is a calling. A gift from which one might try to run away, but one that is there regardless. You don't decide to be a musician, you discover or realize you are a musician. The classical music profession has always been a rough one. But that doens't mean there aren't a lot of young people who, like it or not themselves, are musicians, and who need and deserve training and education.

It is a great opportunity and privilege to not only introduce them to approaches inspired by Music for People, but to facilitate them discussing and remembering why they are musicians and why they are undergoing the rigors of their training. One needs a strong sense of purpose to survive music school. One needs a strong sense of purpose to remain a musician, and even to survive teaching in a music school.

It's a true vocation. Musicians and other artists are always needed, perhaps now more than ever. And it is through our creativity that we will not just survive but thrive, and find ways to make a living while making a difference creating music.

I'm so glad that by teaching this course I'm getting to take it.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Final session with this rotation

Today we had our final session with this rotation. Great students; I wish I could be with them longer.

We started by sharing the societal/world issue that most concerns each of us. The students were very open; one was, I think, crying at one point. Then we made music. I don't have time to describe the pieces now; I'll just mention we ended with a blues that took a while for everyone to get the hang of. But it seemed especially appropriate that, focused on what causes us emotional pain, we ended up doing the blues together--it's the great authentic American form for expressing pain.

The main purpose of the post is to provide a place for members of the class to post their observations and reflections.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reading from Matthew Fox

This class I'm teaching is DePauw's School of Music seminar for first-year students (I described part of yesterday's session in my previous post). Our 52 first-years (formerly known as freshmen) are divided into four sections, and they rotate among five different faculty for units on creativity, music software, writing about music, the effect of recording technology on classical music, and Dalcroze Eurythmics.

The section I'm teaching has been game for all the improvised and African-inspired drumming and improvising with their voices and other instruments. But they've been more held back than the last group. Rather than go deep, they've been going a bit silly.

Now I have a lot of room for silliness; fun and play are important. But getting giggly can be a way of avoiding dealing with something else. So I've been a bit frustrated and looking within myself to see if it's something to do with where I've been coming from. It's true that classes have their own personalities. And it's also true that leaders and facilitators and conductors set a tone and can change it.

Today's Thursday. Sunday evening I learned that my brother-in-law had a serious stroke and was in critical condition. He's just 44, and I've literally been worried sick. Feeling nauseous at times, having anxiety attacks, and great difficulty sleeping. I made a decision at the start of the week not to tell the students about this. Why should they be worried or distracted by my problem? The professional thing to do is to keep this private, I decided.

And one of the students had a seriously ill aunt and would be going home in a few days. Again, I didn't mention it in class or ask her if she wanted to share it. Let's focus on the improv techniques. Be professional. Get her mind and mind off of our worries.

Is it any wonder then that in this workshop experience, which is so much about being emotionally authentic and spontaneous, found itself veering away from deeply expressed emotion? That it has felt like the group was avoiding something?

That's what we were doing.

This is just becoming clear to me now, as I write. But last night I was wrestling with what to do. Often in Music for People we emphasize not talking. Because we want to keep people in their experience, in that creative place, and not going into their "left brain" to analyze what they are doing or try to deduce what they should be doing.

So talking didn't seem like the answer. Talking, I knew, was not the answer. I found myself drawn to one of the most important books on creativity I've read, Matthew Fox's Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet. In all his work, Fox talks and writes about the central role of creating.
We are creators at our very core. Only creating can make us happy, for in creating we tap into the deepest powers of self and universe and the Divine Self. We become co-creators, that is, we create with the other forces of society, universe, and the Godself when we commit to creativity. (28)
As I reread passages of this book, I realized that what was missing in my work with the class was a sense of this central role and deep power of creativity. That we are not just playing games, but exploring this extraordinary force and learning how to access and use it. Fox also writes:
Prometheus stole the fire of the gods and gave it as a gift to the humans who so needed fire to create civilization. When he did this, Zeus was outraged and condemned Prometheus to be lashed to a rock where a vulture would feed each morning on his liver. But his liver grew back again each night. Psychologist Rollo May interprets the Prometheus story to mean that the artist becomes utterly "beat" after a day's work and is exhausted at night. But during the day, his energy (the liver) grows back again for his work the next day.

I would go further in examining the archetype of the liver. The liver cleanses and recycles. The artist, too, cleanses and recycles the toxins in a culture. Artists turn pain into insight and struggle into triumph and darkness into remembering and grief into rejoicing. Artists add awe to awe and beauty to beauty and wonder to wonder. When the liver is healthy, the person is healthy. The artist is to the community or body politic what the liver is to the human body: a cleanser and recycler of waste and toxins. (88-89)
I got up this morning still asking myself what new musical activity I wanted or should do with the class. The answer was nothing. I didn't want to make music. Oh crap, I said to myself. What am I going to do? Am I just so overtired and worried that I'm out of touch with my creativity? Is it that this class just isn't going deep and I'm getting bored with them

In the shower, it came to me. Talk with them. Talk about where we want to go. And I had the good sense to know not talk at them but to facilitate a discussion. To get us talking together about the importance of music and creativity and why improvisation is such an extraordinary opportunity for each of us.

I thought we'd just drum for a while first, but it was clear that like me, no one was in the mood to play. The sick aunt of my student had died, and the student had left for the funeral. That came up. And I shared the news about my brother-in-law and a bit about the difficult time I've been having.

This created, finally, some emotional honesty and reality. Maybe if one's teaching physics or music theory it works to be coolly professional. But to lead people in discovering their innate ability to express themselves honestly and openly, I've got to be fully open and human and present myself.

I asked them to speak about why they are in music school. It was a remarkable time of sharing. For each of them, being was a musician was something about themselves that they came to realize that they innately are. You don't decide to become a musician so much as to choose to accept the fact that you are a musician. That you love it more than anything. That it's what you go to when your are sad. That it's what you do best. Each of the students had different understandings, but they was this common element of discernment rather than of calculation. (It was so much like a group of LGBT people telling coming out stories that my head was spinning.)

I talked a bit about music as an activity as opposed to music as a product. How we are all music makers. I was struck suddenly by the artificiality of recordings, of how they are a substitute for real human interaction.

Then I asked the students to talk about the importance of music and art in the larger culture. At your high school commencements, I said, someone probably told you that you are leaders of tomorrow, that your generation can change the world. How do you see yourself using music to do that? Again, fascinating comments. This was harder for them to articulate. They are just 18 or so and naturally more focused on themselves than transforming the world. But throughout this there were times in which I was struck by how wonderful each of them is and what strong gifts and insights and dreams they have.

In the course of our conversation, I read them two passages from Matthew Fox, first what follows below and later the Prometheus story and Fox's reflections on it.
No one can consider twentieth-century history and not see the demonic in human creativity that was birthed in that era: the first and second world wars with their wiping out of civilian populations on an unprecedented scale; the making of the first atomic weapon ("now we know evil," spoke Oppenheimer, that father of the project); the amassing of nuclear weapons and delivery systems; the invention of gas ovens to more efficiently exterminate an entire race of humans; the genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot; in Rwanda; in Stalin's Russia; the gradual warming of the planet as we dump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, oblivious of its consequences for other species and other generations; the fouling of our rivers, oceans, fisheries, ozone protection, forests, and soil; and terrorism in the name of fundamentalist religion. All these took creativity. They all took imagination. They were misuses of our imaginations. Can we learn the lesson of that? Can we come to grips with our Divine/demonic power in this century?

We must. We have no other choice. Whether our species is sustainable or not depends on our wrestling creativity back from the brink of its demonic potential. To move our Divine powers of creativity from serving the demonic to serving the Divine is to move from art for art's sake ad art for advertising's sake and art for power's sake to art for compassion's sake. Art for the sake of planetary health and well-being. Art for building bridges' sake. This constitutes an aesthetic revolution, which is a nonviolent revolution. (10-11)
It was, for me, a powerful conversation. I was inspired by the students. And at the end, when made music together. Sensing and feeling and touching each other. And it was in the place we had all been wanting to go.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Dancing with the metronome

One of the activities consistently taught in the Music for People musicianship and leadership programs is doing rhythmic improvisations to a metronome. The metronome, which we so often relate to as an instrument of torture, can become a friendly accompanist and partner.

In this morning's first-year seminar class, we started out with a relaxed group jam session. Then I placed a metronome on the floor, in the center of the circle, and did a vocal percussion improv to it while dancing a bit. Then each of the students did a vocal percussion improv to the metronome. They were a bit restrained and few of them really got into it. So I went back to the middle of the circle, picked up the metromome, held it to my ear, cradled it, etc., while doing a sort of rap about loving and dancing with the metronome. Then each student took a turn holding and dancing with the metronome and the difference was amazing. Getting the body involved is so powerful!

I'm emphasizing more and more with the students the three main focuses of improvisation I've observed: part of a performance idiom, as a mode of exploring the languages of music and the techniques of one's instrument, and as a mode for self-expression and emotional release. How can you take these approaches I'm passing on and use them in the rest of your musical life?

You can actually have fun with a metronome. A lot of them got that today. I got it all over again.

OK, time to go dance again!

Improv in Cello Class 9/26/06

In our cello studio class at DePauw yesterday, we started out working on shifting. In particular, using the ear to control the left hand by playing scales and arpeggios with just one finger. The game, so to speak, is to slide/siren/glissando between the notes, stopping the movement of the hand when the desired pitch is reached.

Then it was improv time; our first group cello improv session of the semester. Using pizzicato open strings, the six of us created our own individual ostinato patterns, listening to compliment each other. Then we took turns playing an arco (bowed) solo over this background. First, just jamming on one note. Then sirening, bending pitches. The idea was to have fun, to be creative, with the newly-introduced skill of playing with one finger. These solos were more creative, more free, than those on just one note.

Then came the improv work. After this pretty free, loosely structured activity, I taught the students how to do a one-octave dominant seventh arpeggio, and to use a standard fingering for it. Then we went through the circle of fifths, doing this arpeggio with the same, consistent fingering. Some got a bit confused or lost at times; but this is part of learning a new vocabulary.

And then, poor things, I made them work on orchestra music!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Seeds of Decline and Resurgence

Greg Sandow closes Episode 9 "Improvised Delights" (the most recent one as I write) of his online book-in-progress, The Future of Classical Music, with the following:

So am I urging us to return to some 18th century (or early 19th century) paradise? Hardly. There were many problems then. Performances, by our standards, were very likely bad. Again by our standards, they were barely rehearsed. Writers of the time complain about singers and instrumentalists who introduced too many ornaments, making the music unrecognizable. (Note Brahms's caution: Singers should only change the music if their changes didn't hurt it.) Singers carried around "baggage arias," as they were called (because their music was, as Stendhal says, "carried around permanently, as it were, like a change of underwear"), which they'd introduce into every opera they sang. 18th century orchestras seem to have improvised, with, sometimes, all the violinists individually--and, you'd think, cacaphonically--adding their own embellishments of the written violin line.

But let me say it again. The spirit of those long-lost days is something we ought to recapture. At the very least, we ought to know that we've lost it. And by losing it--by evolving the concept of classical music, in which improvisation was all but illegal--we may have sown the seeds for classical music's current decline.
One of the things I've been thinking about lately is that part of the lack of creativity in much current classical music performance results from the fact that our current cultural understanding of classical music doesn't allow for the sorts of embellishments and improvisations that were culturally accepted two hundred years ago. And this isn't true just in the performance of music by dead white guys from Vienna. Almost all contemporary classical, or art, music is written with a cultural understanding of "play the score exactly as written."

In other words, few classical composers write their music in a way that allows for embellishment or other forms of improvisation and co-creation when it comes to the notes themselves. Back in the 1970s (which seems to have been the heyday of this genre) aleatoric music did allow for considerable latitude and creativity on the part of the performers. And that's the main reason I always enjoyed playing it.

But aleatoric music was also relentlessly atonal, often lacked any sense of definite, sustained pulse, and so didn't "catch on," so to speak, with audiences or performers in any widespread sense.

As started to explore in my posts last spring, there is much more to this phenomenon than evolving practice. Underlying it are fundamental notions of the roles of performers and composer, of the nature of a musical "work," of intellectual ownership of a piece of music, and the point of concerts and recordings (are they more about the performer or "the music"?).

The "seeds of classical music's decline," as Greg puts it, include not only the loss of a culture in which performers were allowed to embellish/alter the written text of a musical work, but just as importantly the loss of the performer/composer.

I'll explore this more in another post. But to put it briefly, my hypothesis is this: as art-music composition moved into atonal realms, successful performers stopped composing. As universities and colleges expanded in the 20th century, they became the new patrons of composers, who no longer needed to write music that appealed to audiences. It became impossible to survive in academia as a composer if one wrote in a tonal style, or even to receive respect from the musical intelligentsia. And pretty soon there was no one to teach performers to compose in an accessible style, performers would be embarrassed to compose in an accessible style, and the art of writing genuinely accessible music, and having it written by performers who regularly connect with audiences, was essentially lost.

That's all quite over-simplified, of course, and there are certainly exceptions, but I think in the broad outline it's a pretty accurate observation.

All the concerns about being "faithful to the composer" and feeling guilty if one departs from the exact details of a written score can vanish when the performer is the composer. And when the composer leaves room for the performer's creativity, rather than viewing performers as Straviskian "executants."

And so at least some of the seeds of classical music's resurgence will be encouraging new music that is accessible, that purposely invites and encourages the creativity of performers, and in encouraging performers to compose and composers to perform.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Using improv in teaching

Now the new school year has started, and I'm using improvisation in my teaching. I'm teaching cello, of course, and also one section of the DePauw School of Music's first-year seminar for music majors. It's an unusual class, in that the students rotate among five faculty members over the course of the semester. We have four sections of the class, with 12-13 students in each. Each class has a "main" teacher, with whom they spend the first two and last four weeks of the semester. In between, they have two-week sessions with other faculty. The topics include writing about music, the impact of recording technology on music, Dalcroze Eurythmics, music technology training, and (with me) improvisation and a bit of African drumming/singing.

My main section, the one in which the students and I have six weeks together, is subtitled "Creativity, Non-Western Music, and the Furutre of Classical Music." It's been greatly influenced by Greg Sandow's course at Julliard, "Breaking Barriers: Performing Classical Music in an Age of Pop," as well as my prior work with improvisation and my much more limited experience with some forms of African music.

Today was the third session of the class. The first two were spent on organizational issues, discussing readings, and problem-solving as the students learned to use the interface for our class blog.

Finally today we got to making music together: no computers allowed (all the students at my university are required to have a laptop, and we had been deep into them the first two sessions). We used Remo djembe-style drums today. Twelve students and me, sitting in a circle. We started with improvisational drumming and did some call-and response drum exercises and rhythm games.

What came to be the lesson of the day was to notice how when some of the students would have a solo, their awareness would shrink into themselves and they'd no longer be feeling or playing with the pulse of the group. So it became a great window for discussing the importance of feeling a collective pulse when making music with other people.

My gosh. Imagine being a college freshman, third day of school, first time playing a djembe, and all of a sudden you have to lead a four-best call and response, or play a four-beat solo. No matter how fun and safe an atmosphere I create, it's a wonder more of the kids didn't freak out.

So we created a game in which we made sure to feel the pulse in our bodies, and went around the circle, each person playing just the four beats (thump, thump, thump, thump). The object simply to feel the pulse together and keep it going. And then we started to vary the rhythm just a touch, the focus still on feeling the pulse.

It's an example of using improvisation, in this case with hand drums, to work on a fundamental musical skill--feeling a musical pulse in your own body, and feeling a collective musical pulse while making music with others.


Later this morning, a cello lesson. I decided to start this student on a piece that has in it a passage based on an e minor/minor arpeggio (i.e., a minor triad with a minor seventh above the root). I taught her just the arpeggio (e, g, b, and d) through several octaves. Then I played an accompaniment pattern on my cello while she improvised using the arpeggio. We switched roles, and I then asked her to improvise using the same notes but with repeated notes (which are used in the piece). We had a good time with it. And it was a good way, I think, to get ready to play that passage and to incorporate some fun and creativity into it.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Gearing up to teach and write again

If anyone is still checking this blog, since it's been so inactive, I'm back and I anticipate I'll be writing more frequently. It has been very helpful to take some (unplanned) time from writing about improvisation. It's given me time to think about the book itself, and how it wants to be structured. While in my original writing each entry was meant as a draft of a chapter or part of a chapter, or even more vaguely as what I've been taught to understand as "prewriting," the freer, blogging-about-thing-to-do-with-improvisation- aspect is taking over as well.

And, meanwhile, I've had some improvisation experiences. Two recitals on which different pianists and I played an assortment of classical pieces and ended with pretty much free improvisations, and I've given two improvisation workshops: one at a camp for teenage string students, and another for grown-up string teachers. Over the next week or two, I will get descriptions of these experiences posted.

Starting two weeks from Wednesday (i.e., August 23) I'll be teaching in DePauw's first-year seminar for incoming School of Music students. It's a team-taught course in which the students spend not quite half the semester with one teacher, their academic advisor, and the other half rotating amongst four other teachers, having short units on a variety of topics.

My short units will combine improvisation, especially improvised hand drumming, with some work on African music, including learning a couple of African songs and transcribed drum rhythms.

For this, especially the improvised drumming, I'll draw heavily on the work of Arthur Hull. Arthur's website is; it's well worth exploring, especially for those interested in improvisation inspired less by Western music and culture than by African, and those who are drawn, as I am, to improvisation as a mode for personal and interpersonal development. I'll write about my experiences teaching these units, and my longer, creativity-focused work with my own class later in the semester, here, as much as is appropriate.

Friday, July 14, 2006

More on Apap

The Giles Apap videos have triggered a good bit of controversey, including this thread in the ICS Cello Chat forum. (The thread will probably disappear in a month or two.)

Greg Sandow likes it:

The cadenza must be about eight minutes long, and involves gypsy music, whistling, tapping on the violin, music for the orchestra as well as the soloist, and a lot of joy.

The joy is one reason the whole thing works. It's excessive; that's easy to say. It goes on too long. It's self-indulgent. All of these will be common reactions. It has nothing to do with Mozart. This last thought kept going through my head, even though, moment by moment, I loved everything Apap does. (It's all a kind of silly shtick, too. I forgot that objection.)

But this thought--that the video has nothing to do with Mozart--turned out to be completely, utterly, shockingly wrong. Because when the cadenza finally ends, and Mozart's music comes back, Mozart's ending sounds astonishingly right, as if Mozart wrote it expressly to follow everything Apap has just played. I've elsewhere written (in a recent Wall Street Journal review--or maybe it hasn't appeared yet) that these concerti are essentially entertainment, and that they just about require the soloist to improvise embellishments. I didn't quite imagine the embellishments in the style(s) of Apap's cadenza, but that turns out not to be a problem. The spirit matters more than the letter, and Apap's spirit is exactly right.

"The spirit matters more than the letter, and Apap's spirit is exactly right." Of course, there's a question of degree. Some people just hate having cadenzas in another style stuck in the middle of a "Classical" piece. It's interesting that the "should he or shouldn't he" debate can never end. But the "I like or don't like" exchange can be just as interesting. And is something that evolves more than is ever settled.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Gilles Apap, and the Creative Process

Ah! Gilles Apap.

An email from a friend just introduced me to this classically-trained violinist who improvises in virtually every musical style. My friend is a classical concert pianist who loves jazz and Piazzolla, and is generally adventerous. He loves this cadenza to the third movement of the Mozart 3rd violin concerto.

It brings up an interesting issue. Apap throws in everything but the kitchen sink, reminding me of the story of the first performance of the Beethoven violin concerto. If memory serves me correctly, the violinist played his own pieces beteen movements, including one in which he played holding his violin upside down. (No wonder Beethoven started connecting movements.)

Apap would be the polar opposite of Robert Levin, the pianist and musiciologist who improvises his own cadenzas, but in the style of Mozart or Beethoven.

You could get into an argument over whether one "should" or "shouldn't" take either approach. But that would be to misunderstand the creative process. Our creative imaginations don't come up with what they are supposed to.

As a listener, one is attracted, or not, to one style or the other, or both. That preference reflects tastes and values. Long and well-reasoned arguments can be made to explain and/or justify one's choice.

For the creative musician, though, it's more a matter of what one loves, what music is being formed in some non-conscious part of the brain and demanding to be heard.

Party on, Gilles! As in this clip:

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Music for People, Part I

Ah--it's the last day of classes of the semester. I have only a couple of hours of teaching today, and a little more time to think and write.

Sunday night I returned from a Music for People weekend. Music for People was started about 21 years ago by Bonnie Insull and David Darling. Bonnie (if I understand correctly) was a classical flutist who had attended some workshops with David at the Omega Institute. She was so profoundly affected by David's teaching of a humanistic, personally-affirming, self-expressive approach to making music, especially improvising, that she organized Music for People . The organization has served ever since both to introduce people to this approach and to train others to lead workshops incorporating both the MfP spirit as well as the specific activities that have been developed over the years. Also of fundamental importance has been Jim Oshinsky, a clinical psychologist who has invested a tremendous amount of energy in documenting David's teaching and analyzing the interpersonal dynamics and responsibilities involved in leading workshops, especially workshops conducted in a humanistic approach. Bonnie moved on to other projects about ten years ago, coming back for occcasional visits. The organization she began continues to thrive, with Eric Miller serving as executive director, Mary Knysh as the other primary teacher along with David, and Julie Metcalf running the ongoing programs in which participants work on developing skills through various "homeplay" assignments, support from more experienced mentors, and three or four weekend workshops during the year.

David often uses the term "humanistic" to describe the environment he's worked to create in Music for People. There are many ways in which the MfP approach exemplifies the ideals of humanistic education.

There are, of course, any number of definitions of humanistic education. One common element among those I've read is the fundamental importance of a non-threatening environment in which to learn, with an emphasis on the teacher serving more as a facilitator of a process of self-discovery than as an authority figure who makes pronouncements and judges work.

When teaching, David constantly reminds participants to let go of "negativity." His workshops are structured to make participants feel comfortable, to encourage self-trust, to foster mutual acceptance and support. In his workshops, David is masterful at creating an atmosphere of empowerement, and at avoiding throwing people into what Arthur Hull (another masterful, humanistic facilitator, who is the father of the American facilitated drum circle movement) calls "student crisis mode."

All of which is vital to creating an atmosphere in which adults can engage in a process of creative recovery. The Music for People handbook, originally written by Bonnie Insull and since heavily revised and updated by Jim Oshinsky, is called Return to Child. I was just reading a 1932 article by Émile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865-1950), the founder of the Dalcroze movement, which puts very well the need to “return” to a child’s freedom in making music.

Now, experience has proved to me that that children love improvising on the piano, thus proving that they are able to do it. We are surprised to note that their melodic and rhythmic inventiveness is far more original than that of adolescents. Their entirely fresh mentality has not yet been chained by arbitrary rules. The child is capable of creating, simply because his brain is untrammeled. And this is also why the adult creator reveals the whole of his individuality only when he has succeeded in forgetting rules and his brain has once more become free. [italics original][1]

What all the leaders of Music for People do so well is to create an environment in which one’s brain can “once more become free.” The body is involved—there’s a tai chi-inspired movement to “release!” fear and negativity. “There are no ‘wrong’ notes,” is a constant mantra. What happens when something goes other than the way you wanted? Smile and laugh. When a leader demonstrates something for participants to imitate, there’s a frequent reminder that, “I’m doing what I‘m doing, you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Well, time to go make some music. I’ll write more about Music for People soon.

[1] E. Jacques-Dalcroze, “Rhythmics and Pianoforte Improvisation,” trans. F. Rothwell, Music and Letters, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct. 1932) 371-80, accessed March 29, 2006 through JSTOR,

Friday, May 05, 2006

Back soon.

It's the end-of-semester crush. The status report on my Faculty Fellowship project was due this past Wednesday, so I was in overdrive working on the draft of my book, writing a number of sections I have yet to post.

I'm off now to a Music for People weekend. Some time for creative insanity. Improvisation is the absolute best thing to do field research on! I get to go be with "my people," as my exwife calls them. (Well, she calls them, affectionately, "your people.") I also hope to catch Sunday afternoon's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert on the way back for the last week of classes.

I'll be back, but it may be a week or two!

I must say that the process of writing this book-by-blogging has been stimulating and empowering. Thanks to everyone who's given feedback and suggestions so far.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Tension Between the Ideal of Exact Realization and the Need for Reinterpretation and Revision

Stephen Blum, in his New Grove article on “Composition”, points out that,

Many societies place great value on songs, instrumental pieces, dances or ceremonies that have been received as gifts or acquired by inheritance, study, theft or purchase. Notions of the proper uses of existing compositions range from insistence on accurate reproduction to demands for continual reinterpretation and revision.[1]

This points out the dilemma and tensions facing performers of classical music. Within the classical tradition, we have conflicting imperatives to both accurately reproduce (i.e., “realize”) a score, and to “continually reinterpret” musical works. The demands for the former can cause classical music students and musicians to feel guilty if they find themselves engaging in the latter. One can feel shame at even thinking about playing a different dynamic than written. The sort of self-censorship which this strict textualist approach creates, and the widespread lack of encouragement for classical music students and performers to actively create their own music and in so doing nurture their creativity, leads both to dull performances and many times to musical burn out. (Around Music for People, it’s not uncommon to hear people to say, “I’m in recovery from my classical training.”)

Composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schuller have articulated the demand that performers faithfully follow the letter of a score, including all details of tempo, articulation, and dynamic marking. Metronome markings are to be followed strictly. Articulations must be performed exactly. If there’s a slur, slur; if there’s not, don’t. If there’s a ritard, ritard. If there’s not a ritard or an accelerando or a crescendo or a diminuendo, you must not.

While it’s true that many composers have a much less strict approach than, say, Schuller, the ethic of exact reproduction as taken hold, especially in the performance of post-Romantic music.

And yet many performers and, especially, audiences feel a need for and “demand” reinterpretation and, when it comes to tempos, rubato, etc., what might appropriately be termed “revision,” especially from strict textualist viewpoint. The most exciting and moving performances of classical music “fixed works” are often ones which do not follow the letter of the score, especially when it comes to details of tempo, rubato, dynamics, and articulation.

No one was a more celebrated cellist in the pre-Yo-Yo Ma era than Mstislav Rostropovich. And if there is any one piece he is most closely identified with, it is the Dvorak Cello Concerto. He must have performed it thousands of times, and made at least six recordings of it.

In the summer of 1979, I was studying at Tanglewood and heard an extraordinary performance of the Dvorak with “Slava” and the Boston Symphony. The sponsors of my fellowship had invited me to dinner and took me to the concert where I sat with them in choice box seats (which were quite a step up from the benches at the side of the Shed where Tanglewood fellows can sit for free).

It was mesmerizing. It was transporting. It was moving. It was exciting. It was dazzling. It was inspiring.

During the performance, I was enraptured.

After the performance, I was appalled.

Both at what Rostropovich “had done to” the music and at myself for enjoying it. For if there is anything that can be said to be consistent about Rostropovich’s performances of the Dvorak, other than his amazing technical skill and tremendous performing energy, it is the fact that he did not come anywhere close to following the letter of the score when it came to tempo indications (such as Dvorak’s metronome markings) and dynamics. His tempos were much Passages marked piano he played with a full-blooded forte (such as the opening of the second theme of the first movement). slower than Dvorak’s markings, and he added tempo changes, ritards, and accelerandos.

It was a spellbinding, electric performance. And yet, when I analyzed it later on, I decided it was also a musical travesty, since it diverged so much from the score.

But we all loved it, even me, especially me, while it was happening. And one of the exciting things about Rostropovich’s performances and recordings of the Dvorak was that when they were first heard, they were so different than what had been heard before. They were in many ways not just a new standard and approach to cello playing, but also a radical “reinterpretation” and even “revision” of the piece itself.

That’s what I objected to, even as I enjoyed it.

Turning back to this issue of phenomenology (the study of how things actually work), I’m now coming to understand that while many composing and performing classical musicians were embracing an ideal of exact reproduction of a score, the larger musical culture, especially audiences, both embraced and demanded reinterpretation and revision (and still does, and surely always will).

Reinterpretation and revision in music that does not have as strong and exact “fixed-work” concept as that of nineteenth and twentieth-century classic often takes the form of spontaneous improvisation of new notes and harmonies, in addition to tempos, dynamics, rubatos, articulations, etc. In fixed-work music, these reinterpretations are limited to sometimes spontaneous, sometimes planned (and often a mixture of both) revisions of the latter aspects.

Schuller’s ideal of a “transcendent rendition which also involves the utmost respect for the composer and his score,”[2] by which he means exact realization of all notated elements, is going to remain an ideal. Not because it is necessarily impossible to achieve. But because as individuals and as a culture we do indeed prize reinterpretation and revision.

Bruno Nettl writes, “In societies such as those of the Middle East and North India the improvised portions of a performance carry the most prestige.”[3] A good argument can be made that even in classical music, it is the often-improvised reinterpretation and revision of every aspect of the music other than the notes and rhythms that is most prized aspect of a performance.

And it is those artists who present genuine and personally authentic reinterpretations and revisions who are most embraced by audiences, even though this causes them to, in some cases, be rejected by musicians embracing the ideal of exact realization.

[1] Stephen Blum, “Composition,” Grove Music Online, ed. L Gray (accessed April 24, 2006),

[2] Gunther Schuller, The Compleat Conductor, paperback ed. Oxford: 1998, 15.

[3] Bruno Nettl, “Concepts,” in “Improvisation I. Concepts and practices,” Grove Music Online, ed. L Gray (accessed January 29, 2005),

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Speculation on How Music Actually Works

Here I’m thinking out loud, inspired by my current reading of Bruce Ellis Benson’s The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music and by Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act. When I started this project, I had no idea that I would find myself morphing into an armchair musicologist, philosopher, and phenomenologist. (Wow! Phenomenologist turns out to be a preexisting word, according to my spell checker—and I thought I was coining it. Phenomenology is the fancy way of naming the study of things as they actually are.)

This blog is, as it says, sketches for a book. This essay, like the previous entry, is definitely a sketch.

In addition to writing about the benefits of improvisation for classical musicians, and providing some starting points and encouragement for classically-trained musicians to begin improvising, I’ve been wrestling with this question: why don’t classical musicians improvise? What we now think of as “classical” musicians, especially well-trained professional musicians, used to improvise, well into the 20th century.

Reading Benson’s book has presented a dimension of the issue that I wasn’t aware of before. It turns out that the role of improvisation in “classical” music has diminished as the concept of fixed musical art works, embodied in written scores (texts), has grown.

So, inspired and fueled by ideas I’m reading in Benson and Taruskin, here’s my initial stab at articulating my own “phenomenology” of music.

How about this: the myth of the totally-complete, fully-and-exactly notated, musical artwork is just that, a myth. Both in the sense of being a fiction and also an important expression of a general principle.

In the performing arts, the performance is the artwork. The artists are not only the composer but also the performers. There is indeed creative input from performers.

And the artwork, the performance, is not just about its materials but the way the materials are used to create an effect or express an emotion.

It’s easier to understand in opera than in instrumental classical music. People don’t argue that there is an ideal, perfect version of a Verdi aria that every soprano playing Violetta must try to reproduce. Instead, we understand that every Violetta is going to be different, because the performance is a combination of the creativity of both Verdi and the soprano (as well as the director, conductor, dramaturge, etc.).

The emotional or expressive content of a work is not specific until performed, and because the emotional content is expressed through or by particular human beings changes each time. That’s the miracle of classical music: each piece is reborn with each performance.

It’s like a story being retold.

A composer, in a sense, gives birth to a piece. And while for a brief period, perhaps, the composer may hover over and control as much as possible the way the piece is treated, how it performs, and with whom it interacts, eventually the piece grows up, establishes its own identity, separate from that of its parent and its parents intentions, forms relationships with others, and, in each relationship, reinvents itself or discovers hitherto unknown possibilities within itself. And the relationship analogy is a good one, I think, because in our relationships, especially loving relationships, we receive and give gifts, and are altered.

There’s also the need to hear familiar music freshly, so performing artists create new approaches to performance.

And the cultural context. A tempo that had a certain effect in Dvorak’s day, for example, will not necessarily have the same effect today. Similarly, hearing Dvorak after hearing all the music that came after Dvorak changes the way we hear and relate to it.

And culturally, the similar individual and collective emotional consciousness is different now than it was when Dvorak composed. After WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, post-Holocaust genocides, mass starvations, AIDS, and terrorism, there is no way that Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, or any other piece, can have the same sort of emotional impact on us as it did when first performed.

The nineteenth century and the Romantic movement produced streams of individual artistry that often conflicted with each other: the Great Composer, the Great Conductor, and the Great Performer. Each thought of themselves as the primary artist in a performance.

And the sense of being true to a “work” was so much about being true to the intuited emotional content of the work, or to the emotions evoked in the artist by the piece, which the artist would express. Being true to these emotions led performing artists to take some liberties with the written text. And also to have a sense that the written text was something that could be at least slightly modified as part of the performers role in a performance. (Something like an actor or director suggesting or requesting a line change to stay more true to a character.)

There was a strong reaction against this in the twentieth century, and a trend to “objective” and true-to-the text performances which made it possible to hear the works as if for the first time. And, I’ve suspected, also, in a larger cultural sense, as a form of emotional escapism, of escape from emotion. The emotional horrors of the mid-twentieth century were such that, in addition to a probably-inevitable reaction against the individual-emotion based Romantic performance traditions, many needed to find order and purity and clarity. Spend too much time in your emotions, and you’d be overwhelmed.

We often think of the emotional content of the work being the composer’s emotions. The myth is:

composer’s emotions → expressed in/result in composition → exactly realized score → evocation of intended effect/emotion in audience

But perhaps it is more like this:

composers emotions → expressed in composition → studying score/playing music emotions triggered in performer (which may be different to some extent than those of composer) → performer’s understanding of the work’s meaning and creative ideas for expressing those ideas through the performance → details of the performance, which may include some alterations to the score in order to create an emotionally authentic performance

And this changes slightly or dramatically from performance to performance by the same artists, and quite dramatically from performer(s) to performer(s).

But the process tries to eliminate the personality, the soul, the being of the performer. And the fundamental mistake is that there is a full, complete, finished, artwork that exists in the composer’s imagination and is 100% accurately reflected in the score.

There is no music without performance.

Or as Howard Hanson said (in a talk with this title that I attended at the University of Tampa about 33 or 24 years ago), the essence of music is in performance.

In the performing arts, there is simply no 100% fixed, finalized artwork. Each performance is its own artwork. The music comes into being anew with each performance.

Why Classical Musicians Don't Improvise, Part III: Textualism

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro’s Baroque Music: A Practical Guide for the Performer is one of my favorite books on making music. (And so, of course, it is out of print). Rangel-Ribeiro is a novelist and short-story writer as well as a musicologist and impresario (former director of New York’s Beethoven Society).

He opens the first chapter of his book with an anecdote that sums up the “dark side,” so to speak, of the textualist approach to classical music making that so dominated the second half of the 20th century.

In a recording studio in Europe not too long ago, the big-maned, big-named conductor sat in his high rehearsal chair, clothed in authority. The virtuoso recorder soloist, renowned in his own field, sat alert and waiting. The musicians leaned forward in their chairs, instruments at the ready, eyes on the conductor. The music began to flow, smooth and professional; the solo line soared—and within seconds the conductor stopped the orchestra, incredulous.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

“Why, I’m ornamenting the melodic line,” said the soloist, rather taken aback.

“And you’d better stop! shouted the conductor, suddenly enraged. “If Handel had wanted the solo line ornamented, he would have written in the ornamentation himself! We’ll play the music as written!”

“I’m sorry,” said the soloist, bristling, “but to play this music as written would be barbaric. I must play it with the ornaments that the style calls for.”

“I’ll be damned if you do!” cried the conductor.

“God rest your soul!” retorted the soloist.

And the conductor stomped off in a rage, expecting that the recording company would have the soloist replaced. Instead, a new conductor took the chair half an hour later, and the recording proceeded without further incident.

Fiction? The dialogue has been fictionalized, but the incident did occur. (1)

And this was very much the state of affairs in the early 1980s. Older, established musicians unaware of and offended by the very idea of adding ornamentation, teaching (with the best of intentions) this attitude to their students, and finding themselves greatly upset by performers who, informed by scholarship, had been seized by the ornamentation demon.

I had been fortunate enough to have one cello teacher, Denis Brott, who was aware of ornamentation and made use of it, so by the time I began studying at Juilliard and then Peabody (Denis was my final high-school teacher at the North Carolina School of the Arts), I was aware that ornamentation was an important part of the performer’s art during the Baroque period. I don’t remember any discussion of ornamentation and improvisation in my music history classes at Peabody. There may have been some, but it didn’t make a strong enough impression on me that I remember it. And certainly none of my post-Denis cello teachers discussed it.

After graduating from Peabody, I began occasionally working with the extraordinary organist Philip Manwell, then the music director at Christ Church in Baltimore. Philip was one of those extraordinary organists who could improvise a fugue, and was well-versed in Baroque ornamentation. He encouraged and helped me to develop ornamentation when I played Vivalid and other Baroque sonatas. My work with Philip motivated me to buy Rangel-Ribeiro’s book, which I see was $30.00, nothing to sneeze at even today, and certainly a major expense for a free-lance cellist in the early 1980s.

In the fall of 1986, I had my first full-time college teaching job, replacing the cello teacher at a major graduate university while he was on leave. One of the doctoral students was playing the Francoeur Sonata, a five-movement work, from which early 20th-century cellists often excerpted two movements (a slow movement and a very showy fast movement). I worked with the student to develop ornamentation for the slow movements, just as Denis and Philip had modeled, and I had read about in Rangel-Riberio and elsewhere. By the end of the term, we were quite pleased with what she’d worked out.

Then her cello teacher returned from his leave. When he heard her ornamentation, he demanded she remove all of it. Unlike the recorder soloist in Rangel-Ribeiro’s story, she could not demand a new teacher and had to comply. She told me later she explained why she had added ornamentation and why it was historically appropriate to do so. He was unconvinced. He had just returned from the Tchaikovsky competition, where the Francoeur had been a required piece (or on a list of pieces from which contestants could select). He’d heard many cellists play the Francoeur, and no one added ornamentation!

As with the recorder soloist story, this was an example of historical ignorance and late 20th-century textualism run amok. “We will play what the composer wrote exactly.” Never mind, or never learning, that this is a concept articulated much later in music history.

It is also an example of the horrible influence of music competitions. No one at the Tchaikovsky competition ornaments, so you’d better not either, because it won’t be accepted. My colleague, you see, was being protective of his student. (I heard the story from his point of view as well.) He didn’t want trouble to befall her should she enter a competition. (He was in his late twenties and, as most of us tend to do that age, was projecting his ambitions on to her; she was the least likely person to enter an international competition I ever met.)

The competition mentality engenders all sorts of fears and self-imposed rules. Don’t be different. Don’t be original. Don’t be creative. Don’t offend anyone. How I hated competitions when I was young enough to enter them! I’d go crazy trying to prepare performances that I thought wouldn’t offend anyone. (I probably carried this to a neurotic extreme, but there you go.)

It’s always been interesting to me that many of the most successful concert artists did not come to prominence through competitions. With my own instrument, Janos Starker, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline DuPre, and Lynn Harrell never won a major competition. And Mstislav Rostropovich won some in the Soviet Union, but his rise to fame was not through winning a major international competition.

One thing all these greats have in common is that they have strong performing personalities. They put their own stamp on the music. Some people love their playing. Some people hate their playing. But there’s never any question that it is their playing.

But this is not seen as a virtue by all. Countering what can be a performer-centric view of classical music performance has been its antitheses, which I find myself calling textualism and those who adhere to it to one extent or another textualists.

It turns out that while these terms seems quite obvious to me, they are not in as widespread use as I might have imagined. I picked them up from discussions of Constitutional law; the debates about how to interpret the U.S. Constitution have long struck me as having obvious parallels to musical interpretation.

But a JSTOR search turned up a scant few uses of “textualism” or “textualist” in relation to music. And even Richard Taruskin uses “textualist” as an adjective once, and as a noun twice, in all of Text and Act, and never uses “textualism.” (Or so Questia, bless it, tells me.)

Lawyers and legal scholars use “textualist” and “textualism” most frequently. And Gregory Currie, in “Work and Text” (Mind, New Series, Vol. 100, No. 3 [Jul. 1991), pp. 325-340), uses them exactly as I mean them:

Sometimes we speak indifferently of interpreting texts, and of interpreting literary works. But it is not a matter of indifference how we speak, for text and work are not the same. [Emphasis added] Nor fo interpreting texts and interpreting works differ only with respect to their objects. They are different kinds of activities, and it is a source of error and confusion that we use the same word for both. Interpreting workis is the common practice of literary specialists and lay readers, though it can be approached with different degrees of skill and sensitivity. Interpreting texts is an uncommon enterprise which most of us have neither the occasion nor the skill to engage in.

The view that work and text are one I shall call “textualism”, and those who hold it I call “textualists”. (325)

And it is this view that “work and text are one” that came to dominate so much understanding of the nature of (classical) music in the twentieth century. And along with the confluence of “work” and “text” arose the gradually intensifying ideology that it is the performer’s job to “realize” (as Ravel put it) or “execute” (Stravinsky) the score.

Perhaps ironically, this diminishment of the creative role of the performer is, as Richard Taruskin explains, rooted in the ideals of Romanticism.

So, Bowen argues, authenticity is not "modern' but "romantic." Well of course it is. That is just what I have been implying all along. Modernism, as Leonard B. Meyer memorably puts it, is "the late, late Romantic ideology." 9 Its beliefs and practices, as enunciated and implemented whether by Schoenberg or Stravinsky, whether by John Cage or Roger Norrington, are all maximalizations of a nineteenthcentury inheritance. The specific move Bowen traces is that associated with the emergence of the concept known as "Werktreue" ("fidelity to the musical work," as he translates it), which, as explicitly confirmed in essay 11, is the best possible access to the nebulous cluster of concepts intended by the tainted A-word when contemporary musicians use it. But before there could be a notion of Werktreue there had to be a notion of the reified Werk -- the objectified musical work-thing to which fidelity is owed. The emergence of that concept was the crucial philosophical move, coeval with musical romanticism and virtually defining it. Without it there could be no notion of "classical music." The "museum ideology" which I identify and deplore in essay 4 (and again in essay 6) as the main prop to our modern concept of authenticity could never have arisen until there was something to store in the museum.

The "work-concept," as Lydia Goehr so excellently shows in her recent treatise on the philosophy of musical museum-culture, 10 regulates not only our musical attitudes but also our social practices. It dictates the behavior of all members of the classical music community, whether composers, performers, or listeners. It imposes a strict etiquette, for instance, on audiences. 11 On performers it inflicts a truly stifling regimen by radically hardening and patrolling what had formerly been a fluid, easily crossed boundary between the performing and composing roles.

The Romantic notion of the autonomous transcendent artwork entailed a hierarchized, strictly enforced split between emancipated creators, beholden (in theory) to no one but the muse, and selfless curators, sworn to submission. The producers of timeless works are the gods, exulting in their liberation from the world of social ("extramusical") obligation and issuing peremptory commands. The recipients of the commands are the Nibelungs, bound scrupulously to carry out the masters' intentions for the sake of their glory, their own lives pledged to a sterile humdrum of preservation and handing-on. That is the mythology of our concert life. There is also a class of Alberichs, of course, Nibelungs (chiefly of the podium, the keyboard, and the larynx) who aspire to godlike power, and who are dependably crushed for their hubris by critics and pedagogues, the priests of the Werktreue faith, though their fellow Nibelungs secretly egg them on and they enjoy wide sympathy among the mortals in the outer darkness of the hall. 12 [1]

It’s very difficult for us to accept that the ideal of a “autonomous” musical artwork, solely the creation of its composer, is a comparatively recent one and was not the paradigm in which many composers of the past existed. Bruce Ellis Benson writes, “The very idea that performers [in the Baroque era] were essentially expected to reproduce what was in the score was a foreign notion, for the idea of musical works – as completed and carefully delimited entities – did not exist.”

This concept of the musical “work” brought forth the ideal of being true to the work (i.e., Werktreue) and therefore true to the text. Again, Benson:

While there are various factors that define the practice known as classical music, I think there are two basic concepts or ideals that are particularly prominent in that practice, and thus in our thinking. They are (1) the ideal of Werktreue and (2) the ideal of composer as “true creator.” (3)

. . . .

The idea of being “treue” – which can be translated as “true” or “faithful” – implies faithfulness to someone or something, Werktreue, then, is directly a kind of faithfulness to the Werk (work) and, indirectly, a faithfulness to the composer. Given the centrality of musical notation in the discourse of classical music, a parallel notion is that of Texttrese: fidelity to the written score. Indeed, we can say that Werktreue has normally been thought to entail Texttreue.

So there we have it: there is a work, and it is one with its text and to be true to the text is to be true to the work.

The dominance of Texttrue, which I'm calling textualism, is a twentieth-century movement, one that seems to have gained the most steam in the second half of the twentieth century.

There was an earlier Werktreue which focused more on the spirit of the work and less strictly on the text. Taruskin points out that conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwangler considered themselves, and were considered by others, to be exponents of Werktreue, yet took enormous liberties with tempo, rubato, and other details. These older generation conductors were products of a Romantic Werktreue ideal that stressed intuiting the emotions and spiritual states to be expressed and communicated to an audience. Rubato, inflection, and an improvisational spirit were an integral part of what it meant to perform a musical work. The notes, and the notation, were not seen as unimportant, but as a means to an end.

Yet as the twentieth century unfolded, there was a reaction against this idea of the performer communicating the emotions of a work and, indeed, reaction against the very idea of music having any expressive content.

The difference between [Furtwangler’s] performance of Beethoven's Ninth and Roger Norrington's, set out in great detail in essay 9, illustrates the way in which the notion of the work, and of fidelity to it, has narrowed over the course of the twentieth century, squeezing the spiritual or metaphysical dimension out of the work-concept until work-fidelity did finally become coextensive with text-fidelity. (Taruskin, op. cit., 12)

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no emotional or aspect to Norrington’s recording, with which I am not familiar. Nevertheless, Taruskin makes what I think is a very important distinction. He says that within the “big tent of Werktreue” there are two camps, the “Romantic” and the “Modern.” And he writes that, “It has been the particular contribution -- or fallacy, or sin -- of modernists (including Early Music modernists) to cut the philosophical Gordian knot by finally identifying the Romantic work-concept purely and simply with the text.” (12)

Speaking of Beethoven’s Ninth, I am reminded of rehearsing that work, and the Beethoven Sixth, under Arthur Weisberg in the spring of 1985 when I was a graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook. Weisberg, I now understand more fully, was a prominent conductor and pioneering proponent of contemporary music in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and authored both Performing Twentieth-Century Music : A Handbook for Conductors and Instrumentalists (Yale University Press, 1996) and The Art of Wind Playing (Satco, 1993). Weisberg at that time was surely caught up in an textualist, objective approach to music performance. I realize that it saying this it sounds as if I felt he had some sort of disease. And indeed, at the time he struck me as cold, impersonal, and not so much unmusical as antimusical. I had been trained by a series of cello teachers to think of musicality as expressiveness, and that the art of the performer consisted as much or more in feeling the emotional content of the music, and expressing those emotions through largely intuitive choices of rubato, phrasing, timber, vibrato, etc., as it did accuracy and technical proficiency. Not that my teachers ever urged actual improvisation of notes or changing texts, of course. But the whole point of playing, it was constantly stressed, especially by students of Piatigorsky, was to make music.

Weisberg, though, seemed uninterested in making music. (He may also have been depressed by the poor quality of sections of our orchestra, especially by the lack at that time of graduate violin students. We actually had local high-school students playing violin in the orchestra along with a very few actual violin majors, all of whom would be supplemented at the last minute by “ringers” from New York City.)

I was quite severe in my judgment of him, since to me the highest value in performing music was this impossible-to-describe, deeply personal and interpersonal phenomenon of making music. I now understand that this expressivistic, personal approach, the ne plus ultra to me, was most likely anathema to Weisberg’s philosophy of music. As I recall our rehearsals, he seemed absolutely opposed to any rubato whatsoever, and would object should the orchestra collectively make a rubato.

This is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself, one that I have often marveled at. An orchestra, like any large group of people working together, I suppose, can form a sort of collective consciousness and awareness. And nuances, such as rubato, can spontaneously occur in a way that I experience as a result of a group energy.

Weisberg, however, was not interested in what was then and remains to me now the miracle of group energy and inspiration of the moment. He was an examplar of professional, objective performance, an extraordinary craftsman, who had us keep strict and unyielding tempos. This sort of nonpersonal, nonexpressive musical performance I know realize was, quite clearly, what he valued. And what many other musicians of the time valued as they worked to strip the Romantic, highly personal traditions of performance from the great works of the classical canon just as they dedicated themselves to “realizing” scores as objective “executants.”

Taruskin writes at length about the this approach and its pitfalls, and the point of this book is not to lay out arguments and explanations made in a much more informed and thorough manner elsewhere.

What I’m getting at is the answer to this puzzling question: why don’t classical musicians improvise when so many highly-trained musicians did for much of the common-practice period?

And so, coming back to Rangel-Ribeiro’s fictionalized account of a true incident, I think we see in it so many elements:

  • the paradigm of the fixed, complete, and unchanging art work
  • the paradigm of Werktreue, or being true to the work
  • the resultant impulse of Texttreue, of being true to the text
  • the view that performers are not and cannot be co-creators with composers

Rangel-Ribeiro’s anecdote doesn’t speak as directly to the anti-spiritual, anti-emotional form of Werktreue which Taruskin so aptly describes. But this latter phenomenon, born of course of the best intentions, has been a major factor in causing many classical performers to ignore or even be unaware of their own creativity.

The rise of the fixed-work, Werktreue/Textreue paradigm brought with it the death, in classical music, of the paradigm of composer and performer(s) as co-creators of a work that exists in a single instance, not as a text, but as a performance. Performing and creating (composing) were now understood as two entirely separate activities. Some people did both, of course, but seemed to exist as distinct composer and performer selves.

Take Leonard Bernstein as a prime example. Bernstein the composer and Bernstein the conductor/pianist were, it often seemed, at odds with each other. Fans of Bernstein the composer were, it sometimes seemed, more than a little irritated with Bernstein the conductor taking up so much of the composer’s time that he didn’t compose more great musicals.

In an earlier era, a musician of Bernstein’s gifts would have not just composed and performed, but have mixed the two by giving performances that were all or partly improvised. That earlier era, however, began coming to an end with the post-Beethoven consciousness of fixed, unchanging works, composed by composers and performed by performers.

I am not arguing against being true to “the work” or being true to the text, insofar as it can be established as an historical document and that the composer’s intention was that it be regarded as fixed and unchanging. Gunther Schuller, puts it very well, I think:

Mere ‘correctness,’ in fact, accomplishes very little. The truth is that I have in my lifetime heard many performances with which, in terms of a certain kind of correctness and factual evidence, I had intellectually to disagree—performances by, say, Furtwängler, Mitropoulos, Walter, to name a few very famous ones—which nonetheless were in various ways transcendent, even sublime aesthetic experiences and in some profound ways revelatory performances.

In the end, my preference is ultimately for a transcendent rendition which also involves the utmost respect for the composer and his score. For let us never doubt that respect for and full explicit knowledge of the score are compatible with a ‘great’ interpretation/realization. It is only lesser minds and talents that would have us believe otherwise.[2]

Schuller goes on in his book to call for such a severe and unyielding textualism, however, that if fully followed would not allow many to achieve the sort of “transcendent” of “revelatory” performances of which he speaks. For these sorts of experiences, these synergies of the spirits of composers and performers, must allow for spontaneity and flexibility and trust in one’s instincts which a zeal to be correct inhibits and blocks. And what Schuller promotes are idealized, hypothetical performances; he has so few examples of strictly-realized yet transcendent performances that his book, is, to me, it’s own worst enemy when it comes to making a case for his ideals carried out to the extreme.

What is so valuable, though, in the work of Schuller and others, is to start with an understanding of the text as the composer wrote it, and not as filtered through generations of performance editions and oral traditions.

In performing classical music “works,” Schuller’s point that “mere correctness” is essentially useless is well taken, and often overlooked. We must remember, however, that an individual performance is it’s own unique artwork, born of the combination of composer and performer(s), and that to experience the miracle of making music one must allow the performance its own identity, its own self and spirit, and that this living creation momentarily transcends the text of even a work regarded by its composer as fixed.

The extent to which one should allow what sorts of “liberties” is, of course, subject to much debate and is often a matter of personal preference and taste.

To develop the creativity and self-trust and openness to interpretive ideas, spontaneous and otherwise, that genuine music making entails, we need to develop our creativity. Understanding that the notion that there are composition and performance are two distinct activities, and that the role of a performer is to serve and realize works, is a fairly recent one can help us to accept that we classical performers are indeed creative beings.

And improvisation, among its many other joys and benefits, is one of the best, perhaps the best, way to develop one’s creativity and self-trust. There is no fear that one is damaging the (intellectual) property of another (the composer) when one is creating one’s own music.

Having developed that creativity in the realm of improvisation and composition, one can then return to the canon of fixed-work classical music, adding imagination, creativity, spontaneity, and self-trust to the ideals of Werktreue and Texttreue, making performance not about “mere correctness” but being lively and sometimes transcendent experiences.

It becomes possible then not to be correct or creative, but correct (to the extent possible) and creative.