Down with the Dots?

August 31, 2017 at 11:41 am

Which is more valuable: being able to read music or being able to play by ear?

Maybe you’ve had some good armchair arguments on this subject. Team Aural (ear) will point at the multitude of musicians who couldn’t read a note (and no, not all of the musically illiterate were popular or jazz musicians), and were unhindered by this supposed deficiency. Team Literacy*** usually concedes to this, but points out how foolish it is to purposefully not learn something that would be hugely beneficial. The negative stereotypes would be the ear-only rock musician who can only play three chords and a handful of tunes, or the stuffy, classical music reader who merely translates dots on a page into notes, playing without any feeling, and not connecting with the audience.

The truth, naturally, is that both literacy and ear are hugely important. A child can learn stories and life lessons aurally, but it would be ridiculous to use that as an excuse to not teach reading and writing; it is equally ridiculous to reject musical literacy. And just as we teach reading comprehension, musicians must learn to do more than reproduce the printed dots into sound. I need not go into any more detail here – you get the idea.

So when you think about it, the legend of Beethoven‘s Third Piano Concerto isn’t as amazing as it may seem. When it was first performed, the composer himself performed the solo piano part – which had yet to be written down! We have this tidbit from his page turner:

I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper. (Steinberg, Michael; The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide)

So be like Beethoven. Master music reading – but don’t forget that the page is just paper covered with funny markings. Neither the musician nor the music should be bound to dots on a page.

*** I say “Literacy” as opposed to “Eye” because there are many blind musicians who are musically literate – just as braille text books exist, so do braille scores!

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If at first you don’t succeed …

July 31, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Gazillions of hours of human effort are spent trying to keep us motivated as we slog through life. We like the idea that if we work hard enough, eventually we’ll achieve our goals. We are told that “90%*** of life is just showing up,” that we should not give up, learn from our failures, and press on,

Sergei Rachmaninoff had a successful career as a pianist, conductor, and composer. Because his writing was relatively conservative during a time of great experimentation and fragmentation of styles, he was getting a lot of play time with major orchestras while other composers were causing scandals. His Fourth Piano Concerto was one of his later compositions – and as he was a highly-regarded composer, everyone expected another smash-hit (like his previous three piano concertos, his tone poems, and his symphonies.)

Well … the Fourth Piano Concerto was no hit. In fact, just about everybody hated it. Rachmaninoff was deeply hurt, but didn’t give up. He immediately cut nearly 10% of the work, hoping a shorter piece would be a little easier to swallow.

Nope. Another 10% was cut. The work was revised over and over again, until at last, 15 years after it was premiered, Rachmaninoff gave up, despite being unsatisfied with the final version. 90% of life might be just showing up – but that means there’s another 10% lurking around – and what should we do with that?

*** according to some experts, only 80% of life is just showing up.

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Musical Morality

June 12, 2017 at 2:08 pm

When I was a wee lad, my father gave me a CD of Bach’s harpsichord concertos as a birthday present. Yes, I was a nerd.

Fast-forward 25+ years to my middle-aged self, over-educated, and packed with esoteric tidbits of musical knowledge. I pull out the aforementioned CD for a birthday listen. Only there is something quite wrong about what I hear.

… this harpsichord is playing with sensitive dynamics!

You might have heard that the piano used to be called the pianoforte – literally, “soft-loud.” This is because before the piano’s keyboard predecessors (the organ and harpsichord) didn’t have velocity-sensitive keys (to oversimplify the matter). No matter how hard you hit the key, the resulting note will always be the same volume.

Now, those of us who play the harpsichord are used to creating the illusion of dynamics by altering our articulation and shortening/elongating notes, among other things. But this recording is not an illusion … there is some witchcraft here! If you listen carefully at 6:40-6:55, you can hear the harpsichord get gradually softer – it sounds as if someone is silently closing the lid of the instrument, muffling the sound. Or, perhaps the recording engineer just turned down a volume know to make the upcoming crescendo more effective.

 

The big question is, is this morally right? Ok, so this is not exactly a life-and-death situation here, but it does make you think. Possible arguments (in no particular order):

  1. Historic Authenticity: Bach certainly didn’t have a volume knob to turn down, and it’s unlikely he had someone standing next to the harpsichord to slowly close the lid in order to create a decrescendo. So this performance is “wrong”?
  2. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity: If Bach could have turned a volume knob, he would have. This performance sounds better with the added dynamics. So this performance is “right”?
  3. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity, part 2: If Bach had access to a 13-foot Steinway, this would be a piano concerto instead. So it is equally “right” and arguably better to play this on the piano?
  4. There are hundreds of factors that go into every performance according to the resources available and needs of the performers/audience, blurring the lines of “right” and “wrong” into a big smeary gray area.
  5. Who gives a care anyway?

As for me, I’m with #4. I’m not sure a pure historically authentic performance (#1) can be achieved because we cannot help but look at the past through our present selves. Assuming a dead composer would agree with our ideals (#2 & #3) is dangerous, pretentious, and stupid. And as for #5 – I do in fact give a care!

 

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