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, Furtw√§ngler, 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.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Groovy, Baby . . . (Ostinatos, Part I)

Now back to the subject of improvising music with a creative focus that incorporates a very small amount of musical material, such as one, two, or three notes.

We've also touched on the subject of repetition, something that is an important factor in all music, and that can be very useful in improvisation. In Western music, we are rather obsessed with the changes in music. Contrasts and developments.

But this is not a universal. Much traditional African music, for example, is based on the continual repetition of rhythmic units which, although fairly simple in and of themselves, form a complex, sophisticated musical web when combined with other parts.

Classical musicians call a short pattern repeated over and over an ostinato. Say the word "ostinato" over and over and over, with a very clear rhythmic pronunciation. That's it! You are performing an ostinato. An ostinato ostinato, if you will.

Jazz and rock and pop musicians use the less pretentious and much more inviting term, "groove." You want to play an "ostinato" or a "groove"? Well, I think I'd rather get in the groove. But I'm a classical musician. I think "ostinato." And since my primary audience is other classical musicians, I'll use that word here. God forbid we give up all pretention!

There are two great uses for an ostinato.

One is to simply play it, over and over. It can be a form of meditation. It's especially great to do with a hand drum. Find your rhythm, repeat, repeat, repeat until you enter another state of consiciousness. (I'm not kidding, either. Hand drummers often speak of "drummer's high" or being in a light "drumming trance.")

You can let the pattern evolve, or "morph," as Mikael Elsila would say. Or keep it steady. Either way, it is a powerful practice.

The other great use for an ostinato is as an accompanimnet for a solo, over (or under) it.

The simplest, and one of my favorite, ostinato patterns is a simple, steady beat on one note.

For example, take a drum (whether it's one designed to be a drum, or a "drum substitute" such as a pot or wastebasket turned upside down), and tap a simple, steady beat on it with your hand or a stick, spoon, mallet, or whatever. And then with your voice, improvise rhtyhms over it.

You can sing on different pitches, the same pitch, or no pitch. Just listen inside yourself and give voice to whatever rhythm or melody wants to come out.

Don't try. Just allow. Don't try to make it "good," or complicated, or sophisticated, or anything. Just listen for the ideas - and let them flow.

This works great on the piano (or electric keyboard), too. Pick a note, any note. Play a steady pulse, using that one note as a drum. And let your other hand explore. Perhaps you'll improvise a rhythm on one note. Perhaps a melody will come. Again, don't try. Just listen. Let it happen.

One need not be limited to a steady pulse of one beat, of course. You can use other rhythmic patterns. You can use more than one note.

The pitfall I see happen with my college students sometimes, though, is trying to make it too complex. Just that simple repeated pulse makes a great foundation for improvisation.

It's, well, groovy baby. . .

Quiescence Music: Lessons in Improvising New Age Piano

While I'm on the subject of resources that provide excellent starting points for improvisation, here's another one. If you play the piano, or want to play the piano, and like New Age music, Edward Weiss's Quiescene Music site is a great resource. Edward does an excellent job of providing chord structures, which he describes in a way that does not require previous piano experience or the ability to read music, that provide a framework or starting point for improvisation.

The bulk of Edward's lessons are in a pay site, but the cost of a subscription to the site is fairly low. And he provides a number of free resources, including a blog, a Yahoo discussion group, and a goodly amount of articles.

I'm especially fond of his articles. Sure, they all plug his site, but many also contain pearls of wisdom which apply to improvisation in any idiom. In "Piano Improvisation Tips - Enjoy the Process First" he puts his finger on an absolutely key issue:
The right approach is to let go of your need to control the outcome. Then and only then will your intuition come to your aid.

Listen, you may want to create something beautiful on the piano, but it is exactly your desire that is creating blocks! How? Because the ego is never satisfied and wants a perfect music, a good music, or something that will satisfy it. The ego is insatiable and is never satisfied.

No matter what your preferred styles of music, how can you not just love a guy who puts into words so well what so many of us experience:
When I'm in the moment, letting the music speak, it's like the world is new again.

The notes flow out of the piano into the air and I know that something magical is taking place. It may last a minute or a half-hour. No matter how long it lasts, I know that I've been transported to a special place. Many musicians know of this place - especially musicians who know how to improvise. There is no planning - only spontaneous invention.

That's from his article, "Zen and the Art of New Age Piano." Edward's writings often deal with the Zen-like aspects of improvisation.

There are many people, I know, who don't care for "New Age" piano music. That's fine--none of us can be in love with every style of music. But Edward's writings are well worth exploring regardless, because he captures so succinctly many of the attitudinal keys to improvisation.

And New Age music, at least some of it, especially (in my experience) that done on acoustic instruments, is often a good example of how much music can be made with simple material, and the use of repetition and subtle variation.

So, dear readers, even if you don't care for New Age music, check out Edward's writings. And if you want to learn to improvise in a chord-based, New-Age style, Edward's lessons are a great resource, and well worth the small subscription fee.

Morphs: Etudes for Improvisation

Sometimes things just happen when they need to happen. I start writing about improvising with "creative focus" (or "creative limits") and Mikael Elsila emails me that he has written an entire book of short musical "cells," as he calls them, meant to be used as staring points for improvisation. You can order the book of 206 of these short units, and an optional CD at Mikael was kind enough to send me a few sample cells--they are really great.

Mikael's book is an example of a very valuable improvisational technique. Take a short musical idea, repeat it, and then see where it leads you. There are many possibilities: slight variations, changes of tempo, changes of rhythm, changes of notes, alternating the original idea with contrating ones, etc. You allow the music to "morph" into whatever it wants.

This is also a good example of an important principle I discussed in an earlier entry. An improvisation does not have to be 100% original. As a matter of fact, few improvisations are. Most idiomatic improvisation (i.e., music in a particular musical tradition or idiom) entails improvisation on some sort of pre-exisiting music material. In jazz, it's the melody and chord structure. In Indian music, it's a raga.

Mikael's "Morphs" are a great collection of ideas to use as a starting point.

Thanks, Mikael!

Two Notes, Three Notes, Four: Creative Focus

I've had a couple of email messages from folks who like the one-note piece idea. I love email, of course, and I would also encourage readers to post comments, so that there's the opportunity to respond to one another, not only to me. Whatever you are comfortable with is fine, but know you are most welcome to post comments.

Once you've tried out one-note pieces--and let my emphasize again that if you genuinely put yourself into it, if you do them with genuine commitment and musicality, they can be powerful musical experiences--then you can add a second note.


You can use notes close together, such as a minor second (for example, a D and an E-flat). Or notes far apart. And again, you can do single pitches only, or multiple octaves.

In Mathieu's The Listening Book, he frames these sorts of practices as "creative limits." There's a wonderful paradox that when one limits the material to work with, creativity can explode. It's similar to a rocket, I suppose: all that energy is tightly focused in a cylinder and so it propels the rocket. (Once again, if you can get a hold of the audio version of The Listening Book, do. Hearing him read his texts and demonstrate at the piano is magical.)

In my own improvisation teaching, I've sometimes found students put off by the word "limits." College students in particular are still reacting to, resenting, and freeing themselves from the limits placed on them in childhood by parents and other adults. "Limits" didn't go over so well.

So I substitute the word "focus." We are going to select a note or two to give an improvisation focus. With my college students, anyway, focus doesn't seem to push the kind of emotional buttons that limits does.

After two-note pieces, of course, can come three-note and four-note ones. Tony Wigram suggests purposing making the notes part of a standard tonal structure or purposely not making them part of one.

For example, three notes could be those of a major or minor triad. Or they could be three notes as unrelated as possible. One way makes for an explicitly tonal improvisation, the other for an atonal, or at least ambiguously tonal piece.

Have fun!

Monday, April 17, 2006

One-Note Pieces

I read somewhere that when people are tested for "creativity" a typical exercise is to be asked to think of as many possible uses for a brick as you can within a certain time limit.

Ugh. Can't think of anything more boring.

Similar, but genuinely fun, at least to me, is to take just one note and improvise a piece using it.

"Just one note?" my students will groan when I ask them to do this. And sure, it probably sounds very much like being asked to think of a zillion ways to use a brick. (Break a window, door stop, paperweight, center piece on a really wierd table, percussion object, Dadaist art object [on a pedestal ina museum], prop a window open, etc.)

It really is a good exercise in creativity, though. Allaudin Mathieu recommends it in The Listening Book, as does Tony Wigram in Improvisation: Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators, and Students. (I sure hope the audio version of Mathieu's book gets rereleased, this time on CD rather than audio tape--there's nothing better than listening to him not only read the text but play musical examples. Wigram's book has a CD of examples.) And by the way, these two books are two of my three favorite "how to" books on improvisation, the other being Music for People's Return to Child. Buy them!

With just one note, you don't have to worry about playing the "right" one. Using that note, you improvise using every other aspect of music: dynamics, rhythms, tempo, rests, etc.

Create a sense of beginning and ending.

Go for extremes. See how many moods you can express. Play with syncopations. Play with all the elements of music and feeling you can.

Now, there can be disagreement among the "authorities" as to whether "one note" refers to just the particular note, middle C for example, or that note in all octaves, such as all the Cs on the piano.

Well, I don't know that there really is a disagreement among authorities. People writing about improvisation techniques are not the sort to depate each other in academic journals. Mathieu presents it as just the one key on the piano, at least initially. Wigram goes for all the octaves. Either way can make for a good musical game.

You'd be amazed at how satisfying, challeneging, and enjoyable one-note pieces can be. "Try it, you'll like it!"

Post script: my DePauw improvisation students one year were quite resistant to the one-note pieces. I kept extolling their virtues and enthusiastically demonstrating them, but still the students wanted to play more notes. Sure, play all the notes you want, I told them, but please try this. It was like trying to get my kids to eat broccoli.

Then a miracle occurred.

The jazz folks brought in some big-name jazz trombonist to perform and give a workshop. And the very first thing he did in his workshop was to demonstrate jamming on one note, and he said it was about the most important thing one could practice.

I wanted to shout out, "Yes! I am vindicated!" I maintained my usual semi-professional decorum, caught the eye of a few students, and shot them a see-I-told-you-so look, which was most satisfying. And they entered into the practice with something closer to enthusiasm. Not exactly enthusiasm, but something closer to it. At least they knew it was not some dumb thing I had thought up on my own.

So even if it doesn't sound all that appealing to you, go ahead and give it a try. Just like broccoli, you may develop a taste for it.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Express Yourself Through (Weird) Sounds

When I'm asked to do an improvisation seminar somewhere, I call it "Expressing Yourself Through Sound: Improvisation for Everyone."

Because that is what improvisation is to me: expressing one's self using sounds. Any sounds. It's quite convenient that we life in a post-musique concrete world in which composers embraced what had formerly been considered noises as musical sounds. When I teach a section of our introductory seminar for first-year music students at DePauw, we work on a definition of "music." I won't thrash out all the possibilities here, but suffice it to say we have to work out something that includes sounds from "found objects." Perhaps a good, all-encompassing definition is "sounds made on purpose with the intent of having them listened to."

The Music for People motto for many years was "self-expression through music and improvisation." And that's what I focus on: facilitating and encouraging self-expression.

Since I work mostly with classical musicians, the first challenge is to get people over the usual fears, including (but certainly not limited to):
  • I won't be good enough.
  • I can't play by ear.
  • I'll make mistakes.
So that's why I frame the work in the way I do. It's not about identifying chords by ear, it's not about making sure you play a 16-bar melody, it's not about staying in a key, it's not about playing your instrument well, and it sure as hell is not about not making mistakes.

Feel a feeling. Make a sound that expresses that feeling.

Simple as that. You can't do it wrong. You can't lose.

Many classical players have their self-esteem tied up in how well they play their instrument. Especially professional players. For me, I know, playing the cello was, for many years, the way I justified my existence. My sense of well-being rose and fell with how "well" I thought I was playing.

So improvising on one's main instrument can be especially frightening. You're a professional flutist? For heaven's sakes, the last thing in the world you may want to do is to take a risk and sound bad.

Ah, but here comes the good news. Make a sound that expresses how you feel. And feel free to make it some other way than on your main instrument.

Groan. Moan. Shout. Slap. Thump a drum. Play just one note on a piano. Play an entire, horrible-sounding tone cluster on the piano, one that would have made Charles Ives himself proud.

OK--that's not so hard, is it?

Now pick up your instrument. Make unconventional sounds.

Scratch if you're a string player. Don't stop the strings all the way to the fingerboard. Do snap pizzicatos. Bow the on the other side of the bridge. Use your instrument as a drum.

Make all those squawking sounds on a clarinet or flute you've spent your life learning to not to make! Crack a note on a trumpet or horn. Just blow through the thing.

Sound effects. They are liberating. They can be cathartic.

They are a great place to start.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Robert Levin on the Benefits of Improvising

Robert Levin is one of my heroes. A Harvard professor, he's a concert pianist, musicologists, and extraordinary improviser in the "classical" (i.e., Mozart/Beethoven) style. He is famous for improvising his own cadenzas. A couple years ago, when he played the Beethoven C Minor concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony, my friends in the orchestra were just blown away by the fact that it was a completely different cadenza at each rehearsal and performance.

There's a great NPR interview with him that can be listened to online. And I just came across this other interview with him (from Harvard Magazine online). Great quotes:
Asked why the tradition fell away in classical music, Levin says, "It's not taught; it's not valued. Our performing system has been geared toward perfection of execution and polish. Everything is worked out to an extraordinary luster. That produces consistency, but not necessarily creativity." In his Mozart concertos, Levin says, he wanted creativity and risktaking at the forefront of the performance. It was his conducting teacher, Hans Swarowsky, who first directed Levin to a Mozart recording by pianist and improviser Friedrich Gulda. "It's a famous, even notorious, recording," says Levin. "It was attacked by a lot of musicologists as completely irresponsible and so on and so forth." (Indeed, Levin says, Gulda now seems to have stopped improvising publicly.)
Yes, yes, yes. He's talking about the creativity of the performer. (You may recall, if you've somehow and the time and interest to follow these writings, that I'm on a mission to get us to recognize that performers--even classical performers--are co-creators of musical performances, and that I recently discovered the philosopher Bruce Ellis Benson's work on this subject, especially his book The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music.)

If you're a classical performer who improvises (notes and rhythms), you may choose to do it only in private. That's fine. But developing your creativity has so many benefits to the rest of your music making. From the Levin article again:
"My feeling," he says, "is that the greatest benefit to me in [learning to improvise] is not what happens in the two or three minutes of the cadenzas, but what happens in the rest of the piece." This is borne out not only in Levin's most recent disc, but throughout his Mozart series, which shows all the positive effects of having set himself the task of understanding Mozart fully. His interpretations' most attractive qualities are the momentum each generates, the full pleasure Levin takes in Mozart's jokes, note patterns, and effects, and the confidence he has in Mozart's compositional choices.
When you spend time creating music, thinking up music, as Harold Best puts it, that creative spirit is brought to your music making of classical pieces. The music making is more alive, more free, more connected to the spirit of the music and to your own soul and humanity, and less about being right and correct and avoiding mistakes and playing as you should and all that other intimidating and inhibiting and self-absorbed stuff.

Embracing Dissonance

Classical musician starting to improvise? (And we are back here to “improvise” in the common-sense view of improvising notes and rhythms.)

Go ahead and, if you feel like it, make music as ugly as all hell. As David Darling and other Music for People folks like to say, embrace dissonance. Make all the ugly, even brutally ugly sounds you want. Play a minor second and play it for a long time. Revel in those tritones. Blast out those major sevenths. And unless you really feel like it, don’t resolve anything.

As I’ve written about in an earlier entry, my first improvisations were inspired not by jazz idiom, not by the French organ improvisation tradition, but by the 20th-century post-tonal tradition. What I was most conscious of in my improvisational impulses was the kind of aleatoric music that became popular (well, at least in academic circles) in the 1970s.

How to describe this music? Several terms come to mind: freely atonal is one. Another is more amorphous, but nevertheless a frequently used catch-all: 20th-century atonal music. A flutist I met at a Music for People workshop described much of what she did as 20th-century gestural music. I liked that one. It brought to mind comments Robert Suderberg, the composer who was Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts when I was a student there, made in a talk I attended. As a matter of fact, I believe Suderberg’s compositions had titles like “Gestures Going Up.” Or at least that’s how he described his some of his music. Gestures. Up, down, sideways.

Don't get me wrong. I like tonal, triadic harmony as much as the next guy. I love the common-practice tonal language with its emphasis on harmonic tension and release. I love, well, beautiful music. But I don't want to be its prisoner.

What’s strange in some ways is that classical music students are trained first not in the music of their own time, but in the music of the common-practice period, especially Bach through Brahms. Virtually every music theory sequence starts with “part-writing” rules based on practices exemplified in the four-part chorales of J.S. Bach. You get marked down if you write (horror of horrors) a parallel octave.

Sure, there is much to be gained from learning to do this. But the way we teach classical music theory is so totally rooted in common-practice tonality that post-common practice music is studied as a kind of afterthought, just as it is often performed as a sort of unpleasant duty.

And it all reinforces the idea that there is a way music is supposed to be and that the are rules that must not be broken.

And so we poor would-be improvisers often find ourselves intimidated in an almost overwhelming way. For heaven’s sake, it is hard enough to follow most of these rules when one is sitting with manuscript paper, a pencil with a good eraser (I remember one that one of the most important things to my first theory teacher at Julliard was that we have a proper eraser), and a piano. (Well, now it’s a good music software program and a midi keyboard).

The breakthrough for me was to go ahead and make ugly sounds. Sounds that didn’t have to make sense. Sounds that were freely atonal. Gestures—up, down, sideways, backwards, forewords, just as Suderberg spoke to my class so many years ago.

The experience had two profound qualities. First, it was emotionally cathartic. (I even came to think of this as my music of emotional catharsis). Second, it was liberating and even healing: fuck the rules. A liberation from the intimidation of all those theory exercises.

And just seven or eight months of starting this, I went to my first Music for People workshop. Embrace dissonance they said. I think there was even a sign up on the wall saying this.

I knew I was in the right place. I knew that in some important way, I was home.

So go ahead. Play freely atonal, gestural music. Don’t worry, be, well, if not happy, be what ever you are. Fell what you’re feeling, and express it with the sounds you can make.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Counteracting the Forces of Dull Music Making

There's some good discussion going on over at Greg Sandow's The Future of Classical Music site regarding the issue of dull performances. Which, the consensus seems to be, are not helping the situation.

I read recently that Richard Strauss said that conducting had to be a balance between "faithfulness to the score and inspired improvisation." Of course, Strauss was talking about improvisation of rubato, dynamics, emotional spirit, etc., not the actual notes.

Improvising actual notes, though, is a wonderful way to free up the spirit and one's creativity, even for those who are going to improvise only in private and stick to classical music in their public performing.

Free improvisation in particular can counteract the sort of forces I discuss in the following, which I also submitted as a comment on Greg's site:
Dull music-making is indeed a big issue. And the ironic thing is that conservatory training, the orchestral audition process, and most music competitions emphasize technical perfection, discourage genuinely individualistic performance, and are much of the problem.

The more charismatic an established performer, the more likely (s)he is to be ridiculed by teachers and by other players of that instrument. The more impassioned and original a young artist, the more likely a member of a competition jury is to be offended by the interpretation or stage presence and give a low score. (That's why I'm in favor of having competition juries made up of fine musicians who play a different instrument than that which is the focus of the competition.)

And the same sort of thing happens with the orchestral audition process, in which a committee has, usually, total say over who gets into the final round heard by the music director. The usual advice for people taking orchestra auditions is to be able to play everything with technical perfection, good musicianship, but little "personality." And again, the less bland the playing the higher the liklihood of offending a committee member.

When I was a teenager at the North Carolina School of the Arts in the 1970s, I had a cello teacher who encouraged me to play with emotional and physical abandon. I was overtly emotional and moved around a lot. Audiences and singer friends loved it. Other instrumentalists? Once I got into playing like this, some wouldn't even speak to me. I was (sniff) "acting." And sometimes in the heat of the moment I played out of tune. How very, very distasteful!

I recently attended a master class by a very famous cellist, now retired from performing, who was known for his rather reserved stage presence. As he does quite often, he devoted part of the class to making fun of players who show the spirit of the music in their faces and bodies. He did this by, rather comically, mocking this behavior while playing. I thought he actually sounded better. Whether he did or not, his students, and their students, are being taught that to be physically demonstrative is to be deserving of scorn and ridicule.

There are even lots of cellists still denouncing Jackie DuPre, who's been dead for nearly 20 years! And I never heard so many second-rate conducting teachers put down anyone more than Leonard Bernstein, not realizing that his "showmanship" sprang from genuine passion and knowing his scores inside and out, as well as a natural theatricality. Think of all Bernstein did for classical music! And to hear some people talk, back when I was a student, you'd think he was some sort of evil force.

So the bad news is in much of classical-music land, we are teaching our students to have a boring stage presence and exert social pressure on each other to do the same.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Just checking in . . .

Well, almost a week since I've posted and not much to add. I'm doing more research on the role of creativity in the performance of tradtional classical music, especially the way many aspects of a performance can and should be improvised.

More thinking, too, about the fact that any successful improvisation is dependent on rigorous preparation and then "letting go" to the moment.

And reading and thinking about the sociological issues in the decline of improvisation in classical music. The rise of a middle class, the rise of public music, the increasing separation between composers and amateur performers, the role of institutional, standardized musical education, which is by its very nature not nurtuting of individualistic creativity.

Just remember. You are a creative person. You have both the need and the right to express yourself creatively.

Quick thought, since it is springing to mind. Yo Yo Ma (it's so much fun to name drop) once told me that he measured the "success" of a performance by how "creative" it was.

Which reinforces my develoiping thesis: composers and performers are creative partners in the creation of as performance. And performances, even of "classical" music, are, no matter what we wish they might be, or think they ought to be, as much about the performer(s) as they are about the composer(s).

20th-century attempts to get around this, to make performing art music into some sort of scientific, objective activity rather than genuine creative collaboration in which the performer has a creative role, are one of the things that have nearly killed off classical music.

And now, off to Kronos at Carnegie. They are one of the groups reinventing classical music, and I love them for it.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Rigor and Surrender

[A quick note: I know I am posting way too much, way too fast, for anyone other than me to keep up with. Greg Sandow’s procedure of posting new material every two weeks is much better if one wants to give readers a chance to reflect and comment. But after being blocked for a long time, things are flowing fast. And I’m under an external deadline pressure to have a rough draft done.]

Rigor and surrender. Or “freedom and order,” as Casals used to say.

In the last post, I was wrote about how (good, accomplished) classical performers do, in fact, improvise. Usually not notes and rhythms, of course, but nuances of tempo, rubato, vibrato, timbre, inflection, etc.

These are not, under the best of circumstances, anyway, arbitrary decisions. As I pointed out, there is a long process of study, of reflection, of the development and trial of alternatives. There is rigor, and then surrender to the moment.

When I’m improvising a piece of music, while I can play “any note,” my goal and commitment is to play the notes that want to be played. I am surrendering myself to the music.

So too, these spontaneous, improvised aspects of performing a classical piece involve surrendering myself to the music, to playing the interpretive ideas that "want to be played." When it all works well, whether I’m improvising “my” own pieces, or performing classical music, my experience is much more that the music is playing me, than that “I” am playing the music.

Last October, I participated in a wonderful small weekend workshop given by the extraordinary improvisational cellist Eugene Friesen, who is the cellist of Trio Globo, the Paul Winter Consort, and the cello teacher at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Eugene has a very thorough and organized syllabus of musical/cellistic skills to cover: scales, chord and rhythm patterns, bow techniques, pizzicato techniques, accompaniment techniques, etc. And that’s why I attended the workshop. I do a lot of free, non-idiomatic (or as has been suggested in the comments, omni-idiomatic) improvisation., much of it in a private and worship-service contexts. I wanted to develop some more jazz-influenced, cello specific, idiomatic techniques—to expand my musical vocabulary.

Throughout the weekend, Eugene and the six of us participating in the workshop would alternate intense work of these specific techniques with sessions of totally free improvisation. The free improvisation made for the most satisfying, fulfilling musical experiences. But these sessions were strengthened, informed, and their emotional intensity perhaps made possible by all the focused work we had done. And one of us observed that it was this alternation of rigor and surrender that was making the workshop so successful. “Rigor and surrender” became a kind of slogan for the weekend.

In improvising music, or in playing classical music in a way that embraces the improvisational potential of a performance, both are important. Surrender without rigor can be meaningless. And rigor without surrender can be cold and pointless.

It’s the marriage and the balance of the two that make possible those miraculous, incredible moments that happen only in live performance.