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.

1 comment:

Che, Pepe Ma said...

Why can't classical performers improvise? Naturally, it's a vast PAPER-wing conspiracy. The truth is obvious to to any student of the oppression of the performing proletariat masses by the bourgeois composer-publisher aristocaracy. This conpiracy dates back to the G.P. Telemann-ic Empire, when the music-making worker-student masses were first duped into believing they had to go out and buy the latest and hippest hit, or be square.
Composers and publishers made music a paper-chase of the all-powerful, fully copyrighted, authoritative Urtext edition. For the publishers, it was truly a rag-content-to-riches story.

Students, unite! Throw off the tyranny of the imperialist capitalist running cur paper tiger publishers! Be not paper-trained puppies, but rather find your own mark in the great dog park of musical artistry. Sing out the revolutionary slogan: "We don't need no stinkin' music stands!"

"Vivo la revolución de uno de abril"

And a Happy April's Fool Day