A group of people were having a normal conversation yesterday when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the foreign guy told a story about how things are different in his home country.
John Man happened to be in the conversation and described the feigned interest and death-like boredom the story generated. “We were talking about Katy Perry, and out of nowhere he launched into some story about kangaroos or whatever,” said Man. “I tried to nod or smile as his lips noisily flapped about, but I think that only encouraged him.”
Sally Galley was the only one to find the story interesting, as it revealed a fascinating cultural difference between the two countries that would be difficult to notice if you had not lived in both places. “It was quite interesting,” she said, “because it revealed a fascinating cultural difference between our two countries that would be difficult to notice if you had not lived in both places. And every time he tells that story it gets better and better. I could almost tell it myself now.”
The story eventually came to an end and the group was able to return to their charmingly off-beat pop-culture ruminations and semi-professional gossip. Unfortunately, it was not long before the foreign guy found some way to relate this gossip to some scandal or metaphorical crisis in the spiritual life of his own country.
Bob Guy was barely able to contain his seething rage. “I get it,” he said. “Different places are different. It’s amazing and all that. I just wish I could bitch about my colleagues in peace without having to contemplate the vicissitudes of the human condition every five seconds.”
We spoke to the foreign guy about his stories and asked him why he couldn’t just adopt the unquestioned cultural assumptions of his host country. “I’m like a fish,” he said, “swimming in the ocean. Where I’m from, we have a saying that…” and so on.
Man says he is happy to listen to the stories, provided he doesn’t have to care about whatever the message is supposed to be. “Sometimes they don’t even seem to have a point,” he said, “because he just trails off until it’s clear that no one can bond with him over his experiences. But at least then it’s over.”
John Man, social media activist and part time thinker, does not work in an office. He could have worked in an office had he failed at life, but thankfully he does not work in an office because he has succeeded at life.
“Just yesterday I had a job that required me to be outside,” he said. “I immediately tweeted a photo of myself and mentioned how I was not in an office.”
Man made this reference in an astonishing way. “At first,” he said, “I was going to write something like ‘what a beautiful place’ or ‘I enjoy this job I have that allows me to work outdoors’ or ‘it’s sunny and I’m smiling so I’m literally the best guy ever,’ but I decided against it. I wanted to be or appear more intelligent, so instead of those simple inane things, I wrote “another day at the office!”
Man says the response was immediate, with at least some of his friends liking the photo and others probably looking at it. He attributes this outrageous success to his extraordinary use of language in the phrase “another day at the office!”
“Let me explain,” said Man. “I was not really in an office; a quick look at the surrounding greenery and awe-inspiringly famous land-marks is enough to make that clear. What, then, to make of my apparently ‘incorrect’ claim that I am having another day at the office?” At this moment, Man held his hands together and tapped his goatee. “Well, it is all a devious linguistic ruse, you see; subtle, yet effective. I am pointing out that I am not in an office by way of highlighting the non-office appearance of my work location as if it were an office, which it is not. Classic misdirection, really.”
Man is confident that by picking up on his quirky use of language all his friends will appreciate the uniqueness of his life. “I always compare what my photos look like to what I imagine other people’s lives to be like. That’s the sort of originality you can’t get in an office.”
John Man is a dazzling young professional musician with an inspirational career. He regularly performs lunch-time recitals in churches and retirement homes, and he is on a first name basis with many of the most important movers and shakers in the industry.
We spoke to Ethel, retired handmaiden and crochet artist, who runs the monthly recital series for the South West Neo-Liberal Post-Anglican Brick Church District. It’s one of the most popular recital series in the area, and she leaves as many as three voicemails a day. “In exchange for the young musician’s time and skills,” she said, “we give them exposure. Lots of exposure.”
John Man could hardly stop salivating when we discussed this with him. “Exposure! Where? My life is meaningful after all!”
We spoke to a more famous musician who was better able to understand the challenges facing young musicians today. “The main problem with a career in music is not getting enough exposure,” said Dorothy Schnump, world-famous jazz timpanist. “At one point during my studies, my exposure level was so low I couldn’t even pay the rent! Luckily I had a friend who conducted his own orchestra for free, so with just a couple dozen rehearsals and a few hundred minutes of daily travel, I was able to get some exposure just in time.”
Man says he is dissatisfied with the way his music education has been going, saying there is too much focus on subjects that have very little relevance to him as a musician. “Every week,” he said, “we have to attend these detailed classes on professional development and the best way to pay our taxes and how to calibrate our investment portfolios, but we never get any classes on exposure. Thank god for hospital concerts and thoroughfare recitals, or all would be lost.”
Ethel is happy to be contributing something to the musical community. “I love being surrounded by young musicians exposing themselves. That’s what I live for.”
John Man, book-owner and bread-squeezer, attended another incredible concert of classical music this week. He found the performance to be exciting, brilliant, and extremely musical, as he usually does. As a result, he is going to continue believing some drivel about how classical music is dying and people don’t perform it the right way anymore.
“Most of the concerts I saw last year were incredible,” he said. “But my very real enjoyment was marred by my idealistic dismay about how music making is not as free and exciting as it once was. That’s why I’m not a soloist: the music industry just doesn’t cater to real talent.”
Man believes that concerts can be divided into two categories: ones that happened in the distant past, which are good, and ones that happen now, which aren’t as good. “No matter how well or freely or stylishly people play today, I won’t let anything encroach on my idealised vision of what music making used to be like. Except for all the concerts I actually see, which I tend to enjoy.”
Man listens to lots of recordings from the early 20th century in order to give his generalisations some substance. “When you listen to an early recording of the world’s best musicians,” he said, “you have to infer that all musicians of the time were just as good. But if you listen to recordings of the best musicians alive today, it’s obvious that they are just an exception to the rule. I should know, because I only believe rules that I make up myself. I’m very consistent.”
Though Man does play an instrument himself, he refuses to do so if anybody tries to listen. “Of course I would be delighted to perform in public,” he said, “but people don’t appreciate my art. When people listen I can’t help but be distracted by their negative vibes; it’s as if they are judging me by today’s standards! Mother told me I could achieve anything I set my mind to, so I prefer to think pure thoughts free from negative real-world influences.”
Man hopes that by trying to understand the perfect way people played in the Golden Age, and by honing his own secret performances until they embody the Golden Age, he will become an expert in a way that real experts can’t appreciate. “That’s how I know classical music is dying,” he said. “The more I imagine it to be dying, the more it seems like it is dying, and that’s all I care about.”
Dorothy Schnuppleberry regularly attends concerts of classical music and enjoys them immensely.
She likes to be prepared for the rigours of sitting down and listening to other people perform for her entertainment, and she won’t leave the house without all the necessary equipment.
“I always make sure to pack some tightly wrapped cough drops with me,” she said, “along with my recyclable plastic water bottle and my least noticeable foghorn. I wouldn’t want to disturb the music by making a rude noise, would I?”
Schnuppleberry says she has perfected a way to free the cough drop from it’s crinkly plastic wrapping in the slowest way possible. “At first I did it extremely quickly, but then I realised nobody could tell how unobtrusive I was being. Now I take about five minutes to open each one so that if anyone hears me they know I am taking great care not to make any unnecessary noise. I am a great person.”
John Man, another avid concert-goer, has developed an excellent way of enjoying the music more profoundly and deeply than the slow-witted muggles around him. “When the music gets quiet and intense,” he said, “I make sure to rifle through every single page of my program notes so I can understand how dramatic and powerful the music is. When I finish, I clumsily shove it back into my suitcase or duffel bag, whichever is closest. I am a great person.”
Edward Crumplebumple runs a famous concert hall in the UK and says he is fine with any audience no matter how they behave. “I am not elitist!” he said. “I like young people and Twitter and Snapchat! I’m still relevant!”
Schnuppleberry says that she just wants to help out, as if she is somehow involved. “We are all performers in spirit. Those on stage are doing their best to make great music, and I am contributing in my own special way. I am a great person.”
Jack Man, known for his love of jazz and rabbits, is bracing himself for another outbreak of Eurovision fever.
“I’m so excited,” he said. “The only other time I feel like this is when I contemplate my impending, inevitable death.”
Man woke up to find himself hosting a Eurovision party, and knew at once that he had been contaminated. His house was full of hundreds of people so determined to blur the line between ironic detachment and secretive, shameful indulgence that soon everyone was finger painting with their own excrement.
“If anyone starts asking questions, I just say it’s a harmless bit of fun,” said one reveller. “That way I don’t have to be responsible for any of my thoughts as we all do this thing together.”
We spoke to one partygoer who was clearly having the type of fun that stems from charming diffidence rather than weak-willed enthusiasm. “You can think whatever you like about Eurovision, except if you genuinely do not like it,” he explained. “That just isn’t cool. Next you’ll be saying that it’s possible to genuinely like Eurovision! Absurd! No, much better that we all enjoy appearing to like it only so much that appearing not to like it would not be as fun as liking it as much as everyone else appears to like it.”
Man was so busy dancing and sweating that he could hardly follow the scintillatingly wry tweets being posted about the wacky performances. “Which ethnic group is it now?” he screamed. “I think it’s great that Europe has a way of airing their differences in a way that is harmless and fun, rather than going to war, which is harmful and sad. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s still obviously a silly meaningless competition that’s all just totally a bit of fun. But, if it did have meaning somehow, I’m just saying that if it were to be seen to have any meaning, then that is probably some meaning it could possibly have. And I just love ethnic stuff.”
Man is not used to hearing criticism about Eurovision. “I don’t get it,” he said. “When people express their own independent thoughts about Eurovision I just think “why bother!?”
John Man, student and Che Guevara enthusiast, recently complained to his friends about how his university degree is not challenging or demanding enough.
“I just don’t have that much contact time,” he said with a profound, rueful fatalism. “I only have one lesson a week, and I’m only required to go to one class. Apart from that, I have nothing to do. It’s just not very challenging.”
When he is not attending his classes, Man reportedly spends the rest of his time at home eating cheese and reading humorous synopses of TV shows. “I don’t ever watch television, because I like being challenged. It’s the rigorous pursuit of excellence which I thrive on.”
Bob Guy, Man’s nearest friend, suggested he do more to get involved in university life. Guy cited the many projects and activities available to students, and told several anecdotes about some of the challenging jobs and opportunities he has created for himself over the course of his degree, using his university contacts and connections to advance his career.
Man agreed in principle but voiced his obvious concerns over such a plan. “But you are on campus everyday,” he pointed out. “I’m only in one day a week.”
We spoke to Man’s teacher, Dorothy Shmorothy, about Man’s approach to his studies. “Who?” she said, incredulous.
Man is determined to find a solution to his educational problems. He has already written several Facebook posts about what the government should do to revolutionise the entire system of higher education, and he is now ready to wait for them to do that.
“I have paid all this money for a degree,” he said, “so my expectations should be met.”
John Man, tummy-crunching philosopher, reportedly had a great epiphany while watching the film Life of Pi and has been shivering with vague existential delight ever since. His transcendental experience of profound enlightenment has turned his whole world view upside down, and he is now able to see things with a piercing clarity he has never known before.
“I was in the cinema enjoying the adventures of Pi and lifeboat and the tiger,” he said, “but when it came to the twist at the end I realised it was all just made up! I looked it up online later; they just hired actors and gave them a script and simply filmed them saying the lines from that script. Incredible!”
John Man was struck by this profound revelation about the nature of story-telling during one of the last scenes of the film in which the main character turns straight to the camera and helpfully explains a bland, preachy moral in the most absurdly patronising manner possible. “It certainly explained a lot,” said Man. “Last week I watched an opera and I was so frustrated by the way they all kept singing. I mean, how am I supposed to relate to something so unrealistic? It turns they are not really singing, because it’s not real.”
Man tells everyone he meets that they “simply must” see Life of Pi or even read the ebook, because it will “totally change your life. Who would have know that an author could use symbolic figures and literary conventions to convey an idea, rather than describe a completely factual sequence of events as if told by an implausibly reliable omniscient narrator? I have never thought of this before.”
Man is using this new revelation to help untangle a lot of the mysteries and complications that have plagued his life until now. “Just yesterday a child pointed his finger at me and said ‘bang! I shot you!’ I raced to the hospital but it turned out to have been a false alarm. The boy later claimed that he didn’t even have a gun! He was apparently just telling a story, whatever that means.”
Man is now going back to reread his favourite books with his new mindset. “It now makes sense to me. When a person in a film or novel says something about their past I just have to remind myself that it isn’t necessarily true. It was a bit confusing at first, but it does explain how Tim from The Office ended up in Middle Earth, and why Skynet built a dwarfish twin brother to accompany the Terminator in a series of comedic escapades that always seemed to me to be an unnecessary distraction from the main mission. Now I know how things work, I will never be uncertain again.”
Two of the most important places on Earth, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, have kowtowed to pressure from a hoard of pesky Goblin scamps and will soon be making changes to their overblown syllabi and antiquated management style.
Due to budget cuts, both relics will have to cancel several of their most popular classes. On the chopping block are such stalwarts as “Evaluating People: The Oxford Way,” and “Propaganda and Social Engineering: From Those Who Really Know How It’s Done,” and of course, the most vital of all, “The Golden Rule: Never, Ever Sound Wrong, No Matter What.”
Students have taken to Facebook to express their disgust, pumping out hundreds of dazzling last-minute essays peppered with tendentious facts and semi-relevant references that apparently convey an aura of knowledge.
“Not since General Custer’s inefficient use of cavalry formation has there been such a patent example of mismanagement,” said Percy Peregrine, an Oxford history student. “Where am I going to get my pride and personality from now?”
“Nelson Mandela was once in prison,” said another. “That’s how I feel.”
We spoke to one of the faceless wraiths from the mysterious society in charge of both institutions, The Darkened Cave, about their recent decisions. “Yes, I do feel for the little ones,” he rasped. “They strive and toil for so long to gain a place here that they’ll do absolutely anything to prove it was all worthwhile, no matter how much reality they need ‘revise’ in order to do it. But reality is there, and it must be suffered.”
Currently, students at an Oxbridge mage-cradle learn vital techniques to help them navigate through life. One very popular class covers all the questions you should ask someone when you first meet them, including which school you went to, which college you went to, and which professors you had when you went to those colleges and schools. It is widely considered to be the backbone of a good Oxbridge education, without which society could not function. “If I didn’t have that introduction to socialism,” said Percy Honeysuckle, reader of music, “I wouldn’t have been indoctrinated with an abstract hierarchy of irrelevant minutiae for me to classify people with. I may as well live in America.”
Percy Clumplestiltskin agreed. “How am I going to know when to tell my anecdotes about the dopey English professor who drank King’s Ginger liqueur out of a suede knapsack and said some vaguely funny things occasionally? I’m going to have to try something else entirely, like relating to people.”
According to the wispy, ominous shadow-fiends who proposed the cuts, it is merely an attempt to accelerate the inevitable. “Eventually,” they hissed, “after a period of twattery typically lasting five years after graduation, our alumni start to realise that merit and value also exist on other parts of the planet, completely independent of Oxbridge magic. This initial shock, totally alien to all they have been brought up to believe, then frees them up to realise it is not really necessary to be right all the time; in fact, it’s quite annoying. We just want to bring this inevitable wisdom forward a few years and teach our students how to be people, rather than dialectically rabid psychotics.”
Percy Snapcrackle, PhD student, was not impressed. “If I can’t win an argument just by saying I went to Oxford then what was the point?”
Further to yesterday’s post, I would like to share a little compilation of videos showing how it is possible to play the same song in very different ways.
One thing I find particularly frustrating about classical music magazines (and the general culture of the recording industry, at least as it has been in the past) is the constant desire to find a “definitive” recording. There is no definitive recording- everybody plays, or should play, things differently, and the more variety is the richer our collective musical experience will be.
This is something Glenn Gould pointed out very well. The advent of recording technology should invite more variety, not less- why record Beethoven’s Emperor concerto the same as everyone else if there are already recordings that out there that do that? Let us enjoy his rather unusual version for what it is, even if we would prefer it to be played more “normally.”
Here is Alfred Brendel playing the Schubert Impromptu, Opus 90 number 3. This is a rather “normal” performance, insofar as the average student is probably aiming to play it something like this.
Here is Vladimir Sofronitsky, a rather more forceful musical personality.
And Erno Dohnanyi, quite bizarre, but fascinating in it’s own right. Schubert’s time signature in this piece is quite unusual, and it’s entirely possible this is what he wanted.
Now, to follow through on my reference to Bob Dylan yesterday, here are three versions of his song, Shelter From The Storm.
Here is the relatively standard version:
Here is a rather different version:
And one that is quite unusual, almost experimental:
I contend that there is as much difference in the three pianists performing Schubert as there is in Dylan’s three versions of his own song. Nobody is seeking a “definitive” version. They might be seeking their definitive version at that particular time, and that is all we can hope for. The better they are at delivering their convictions the richer our musical world will be.
As a classical musician I have often had to grimace through many incarnations of the argument that classical music is elitist or dying or, most irritating of all, is now much worse than it used to be back in some perceived golden age from the past. These “ideas” have always annoyed me, because those who argue such things are often more keen to believe their pre-formed notions than understand facts. They are typically regurgitating some nonsense they have heard from a relative, or some tripe they saw being heavily implied on a cheap documentary, or most commonly, some flimsy propaganda they read on Slipped Disc.
Imagine my consternation then when this incorrect and obviously self-serving ideological piffle appeared on the internet propounding yet another version of the “it was all better in the past” myth. Though the article itself was full of incomprehensibly stupid non-thoughts, I soon saw that my own friends and colleagues were frothing at the mouth to endorse it, and did not seem to share my rage that yet again some publicity seeking oaf was spreading lies and gibberish in order to promote themselves; in this case, some type of symposium.
Some would say that this might be a cue to examine my own position anew; if everybody around me thinks the same thing, perhaps it is me who is wrong? Well, ladies and gentleman, if you want to thoughtlessly copy your opinions from others, you can do that. I, meanwhile, prefer to think.
Let us examine some of Mr Clive Brown’s “ideas” in this article, starting with the title:
We’re playing classical music all wrong – composers wanted us to improvise
Who is this mystical “we”? Does he seriously propose that all musicians today play the same way? Is he qualified to speak on our behalf? Is he included on the list of notable performers who are showing us the noble way forward?
I am not being twee; this is an important point. As a musicologist Mr Brown has no place telling me how to perform. His job is to do research, make connections and insights, and communicate those findings to the world. It is not his job to decide how I or any other musician should or should not play. If he wants to put forward such a claim he must play it that way himself and influence musicians by the force of his example. It is not enough to propose a theory, particularly if you can’t or don’t demonstrate it yourself.
There are other musicologists working today who do this job very well. I have read almost half of Richard Taruskin’s mammoth Oxford History Of Western Music and I cannot recall a single passage in which he offers an edict on how something should be played. He offers many insights regarding the history of music, offers an erudite and brilliant perspective on many subjects, particularly 20th century and Russian music, and is merciless in his attacks on various sacred cows of musical history and historiography. As such, he is doing a vital service to our art, and he does it without ever telling me how to play.*
Robert Donington offers another great example with his book Baroque Music: Style and Performance: A Handbook which consists almost entirely of primary sources (thus letting the period speak for itself, in its own words, with all of its contradictions). Jean-Jacques Eidildinger did it with his book Chopin, Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils which collates all the information we have on Chopin’s teachings, covering everything he said and wrote himself as well as the subsequent testimony of his pupils, and presents it with as little conjecture as possible. These are both fantastic, useful books, and are of indispensable value for a performer.
That does not make them books of edicts, nor can they be used as an ideological weapon against “the way everybody plays”. Knowing something about period performance practice does not entitle you to make that knowledge a rule.
It is, of course, very useful if you can prove that Chopin himself always trilled from the upper note; however, it is not useful to then claim that “everybody plays it wrong” if they do not trill from the upper note. We will decide how we want to play, thanks. If you are the sort person who listens to Martha Argerich and gets upset about which note she is starting her trills, God help you.
Chopin is a particularly good example because all the research indicates that he viewed rubato as something exclusive to the pianist’s right hand, while the left hand stayed perfectly in time. Absolutely no one plays like this. I doubt anybody but Chopin ever did. And I’m reasonably sure that Chopin himself did occasionally bend the rhythm of the left hand in subtle ways, but wanted his students to be much more rigorous than they were in their lessons. Whether our current double-handed rubato is right or wrong doesn’t matter, it’s the way it is. (And anyway, there are as many styles of rubato as there are pianists, so who cares?) If you believe in Chopin’s way, make a recording that shows how you think it is done. Otherwise, get over it. The great pianists of the world are going to play it the way they want, and if they are really good musicians it will probably be great whether they adhere to Chopin’s own style or not.
Back to Clive:
Classical music has always been the music of the educated classes, but today, despite the much more equal distribution of education in first world society, it is seen by many as stuffy, irrelevant and unappealing
This is so offensively stupid I can hardly contain my rage. Saying that other people see it a certain way does not constitute an argument. It does not represent a truth. It is a useless, pointless, meaningless thing to say. If Clive thinks it is stuffy, he should say so, and not hide behind the views of others. If he thinks it is not really stuffy, he should say so, and help dispel a misconception. Quoting what he perceives to be an established view merely reinforces a worthless bit of gossip.
Current performance conditions do little to help this – tickets to opera theatres and concert halls, where the audience listens in unbroken silence, are generally expensive…
Oh, I’m sorry, the tickets are generally expensive. This, I suppose, counts as evidence that classical music is stuffy. Has Clive ever been to see U2? Coldplay? Andre Rieu? Were his tickets cheap? I doubt it. Hell, a ticket to a TED talk costs thousands of dollars and TED is somehow seen as a trendy, popular thing that everybody loves for some reason. Ticket prices, funnily enough, reflect a business model based on supply and demand, not elitism.
“Generally expensive” obviously refers to concerts at the upper end of the spectrum, as well. When the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, featuring possibly the best opera orchestra on earth and some of the best singers on earth, wants to put on a production of Puccini’s La Boheme, one of the most popular operas ever written, I guess it is quite an astonishing mystery to Clive that the tickets are somewhat expensive. How could this be? Could it be that thousands upon thousands of people want to see it? Could it be that the expensive tickets might actually suggest a thriving audience of people desperately eager to see music they love dearly? Could it be that an expensive ticket is proof of demand rather than stuffiness?
Regardless, there are free concerts all over the place. I have lived in Bunbury, Sydney and London, and there have always been free concerts available to those who look for them, even in Bunbury (a small town in Western Australia).
In London you could happily see a concert every day and never pay for any of them. You might never see the highest performance standards as you would at the Royal Opera house, but you can’t complain there’s an elitist price barrier blocking you from attendance if you only want to see the best the world has to offer. Even then, you probably can see some of the best the world has to offer, for free. Pop down to St John’s Waterloo and see some of the best young musicians from across the globe perform in the Southbank Sinfonia, for free, every Thursday night. And as you sip on your free glass of wine they provide for you, you can think about how hard it is to see good music without paying for it.
And on the matter of having to be “silent” in concert halls and how this supposedly represses a love of music…I am so, so, so sick of hearing this stupid argument. So you have to be silent at a classical music concert. Do you know where else you have to be silent? Everywhere. If I go to a cinema, I have to be silent. If I see a play, I have to be silent. If I go to a musical, I have to be silent. Hell, when I saw Memphis at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London last year the lady next to me was checking Facebook on her phone after the interval had finished. It took about five seconds before an usher flashed a light in her face and angrily shouted “phones off, phones off!” That sort of Draconian order has never been imposed at a classical concert (and that’s a shame, in my opinion) and yet nobody claims that the music theatre world is elitist. It is efficient, and it wants audiences to listen without disturbing the people around them. Why? Because that is a decent and polite way to behave in a public space.
Where is it that these mythical audiences exist that are allowed to make noise? Jazz clubs? Right, because everybody wants to be compelled to offer bland, tepid applause after every damn solo. That’s the very definition of a thrilling concert experience, I suppose. This sort of feigned freedom hardly even constitutes not being silent; it is just a slightly more clap-friendly code of enforced audience etiquette. And anyway, opera audiences readily clap after arias, so again the supposed silence of classical music is really not a thing.
Apart from a mosh pit (which is a rather different animal altogether) the only context I can imagine in which audiences are even remotely allowed to express themselves is at a stand up comedy gig, and that is under the implicit assumption that the comedian will mock you mercilessly for it. Why? Because audiences are supposed to be silent. Stop telling me that this is somehow related to classical music. (Also, something tells me it is not the noise-making freedom of a mosh pit which appeals to Clive Brown, professor of applied musicology at the University of Leeds.)
Pre-20th century musicians approached performance much more like popular musicians still do. For them, it was more fluid, more personal – composers expected them to understand the hidden messages behind the notes. Even in the great music of the late 19th century such as that of Brahms, options in performance were hinted at rather than prescribed. The notation was merely a starting point – a great performer was expected to go beyond it.
Where to begin. I’m not sure if these comments are bad generalisations or successful inanities.
Firstly, all performers are expected to understand what’s “behind the notes.” What type of concert is Mr Brown going to where the performers do not do that? Bad ones? Primary school gala concerts? A Midi-keyboard showcase? Even a sentimental shlock film like Mr Holland’s Opus is based entirely around the idea that we musicians need to play what’s behind the notes. Every lesson I have ever had has been about what’s behind the notes. All the musicians I love to listen to are able to play in a deeply personal way, offering their own interpretation of what is behind the notes. If you play everything boringly and correctly you might gave a career but people won’t be that interested in your performances; you are supposed to play “what’s behind the notes.” Just what is Clive Brown referring to? I have no idea where this amorphous mass of bland, pedantic performers that so disappoints him is supposed to exist. (Take Lang Lang, for example. Say what you will about his histrionic style, he is the most popular pianist alive at the moment and you certainly can’t say he doesn’t go “beyond the score.”)
In an attempt to somehow support his bilious notion Clive then tries to invoke popular musicians of today, as if they are emblems of people who go “beyond the score”. Newsflash, Clive: most pop musicians don’t write scores, and they certainly don’t refer to them in performance. I was in a rock band myself in my undergraduate years and we never once wrote any music down. We rehearsed, workshopped, recorded, and changed things whenever we liked, but all the music was in our memories. Most bands working today are the same: whatever they write is little more than a cheat sheet to jog their own memories. Comparing 19th-century performance practice to 21st-century popular music is either fatuous or moronic.
If his comparison is supposed to refer to a freer approach to music that only pop musicians exhibit, that too fails. I have seen the band Muse perform live several times and each time I was blown away by their musical precision, tight ensemble and immaculately perfect performances. They were far more unflinchingly accurate than many classical concerts I have seen (mostly due to the average brass section. Sorry guys, if you don’t want to split notes you probably shouldn’t drink during the interval.) Matt Bellamy, the lead singer, guitarist and pianist of Muse, has quite the reputation for unrelenting perfectionism: if you are his sound technician and something goes wrong in a concert, you are unlikely to have a job at the end of the night. To say that popular music is somehow more free of technical demands than classical music is bizarre.
(For an example of the sort of precision and tightness I’m talking about, take a look at this video in which Brian May looks at the original mix tapes for Bohemian Rhapsody. The entire foundation track was done live (2:00-7:30 in the video) and Freddie Mercury did not have a click track in his ear to guide him. Yet he played with extreme accuracy, perfect rhythm, and with the “score” all in his head.)
Perhaps Clive is thinking more along the lines of Bob Dylan, who expects his band to know every song he ever wrote from memory and be ready to play any of them at an time. Dylan will just announce the song he wants from the stage, along with the key and style he wants it to be performed in, without prior warning. He can do this because he has always played them differently himself (as evidenced in his many bootleg tapes) and also because his level of fame attracts the best musicians it is possible to have, so such a musical feat is possible. This is a truly amazing performance practice but, crucially, it is also extremely rare. It is as rare a talent in the pop world as the improvisational genius of Gabriela Montero is in the classical world. Pining for a trend that has only ever existed in a handful of extremely talented people is a waste of time and brain power. It is almost as stupid as believing there was a golden age where all pianists played like Vladimir de Pachmann simply because recordings of Pachmann are unique.
But classical performance has lost much of the improvisatory element that was an essential part of its original character. This has resulted in a stiffly formal distortion of what the greatest composers and performers of the past expected.
Again, what concerts is he attending? This does not apply to literally any of the concerts I have seen in my life. Sure, sometimes people play unmusically. The problem in that case is not stiffy formal distortion, but unmusicality. There are saints and sinners in every field, and good and bad musicians all over the world. Maybe they are unmusical because they care too much about the score- who cares? If this argument has any truth it only applies to musicians who are mediocre or worse, and if Clive wants to direct his symposium at them then he should use the headline “bad musicians are playing it all wrong.” That, I agree with.
Tempo was often expected to be more flexible. Rhythms could be bent in a manner we still hear in jazz and other types of popular music. Notes weren’t always be taken cleanly, but often approached with various kinds of slides and tonal inflections. Vibrato was an ornamental effect rather than a continuous and regular oscillation of the sound. Parts that are notated vertically together in the score, were frequently expected not to be together in performance. In keyboard playing, chords that appear to be vertically together were mostly performed with various degrees of spreading.
All those things still happen today. Spreading piano chords might be more rare but it still happens, as does dislocating bass notes from the chord, bending rhythms and changing tempos. All the best performers still do these things, just not as much as they used to. Clive’s implication seems to be that the less of these things you do the worse your performance is, which is an embarrassingly false assumption. Putting more mannerisms into your performance does not by definition make it good. Perhaps it is a better performance, perhaps it isn’t- you find out by playing, not theorising.
And, as I said before, this isn’t up to musicologists anyway. Here is a performance by a real musician, Neal Peres da Costa, who did similar research into 19th-century performance practice and put his money where his mouth is:
I happen to quite like that performance. I’m very, very glad it exists. It’s fascinating, beautiful and interesting. And, crucially, I don’t want to play like that. I certainly don’t want to play on that piano, because I don’t like the sound. I don’t care if Brahms played like that- I don’t want to. Shoot me.
I will happily start my classical trills on the upper note, I will happily arpeggiate figured bass chords on the beat rather than before it, and I will happily employ a terraced approach to dynamics in a Poulenc song. I will be grateful that research has been done to tell me about these things, and I will not really mind if others play very convincingly even without doing such things. But I will not arpeggiate every chord in a Brahms sonata. I don’t want to. Telling me it’s “right” is a waste of time and comes with a hierarchy of value judgments that are at worst wrong or at best impractical.
There is no future where this style of performance is going to become standard; even if it did it would immediately engender a reactionary movement, for orthodoxy of any kind breeds challengers. What works beautifully in very skilled hands easily becomes mannered and ugly in the hands of imitators. Do it yourself if you think it’s right, and I will listen with great pleasure. Who knows, maybe I will change my mind in a few years. (In any case, Neal’s accompanying book is a much better example of good research and sensible, well-informed pronouncements than Brown’s absurd article.)
These are just a few of the ways that musicians built on the raw notation in order to turn a merely correct performance into a fine one, making concerts much more exciting and vibrant events.
More atrocious, misdirected value judgements. Does arpeggiating chords immediately make a performance better? What if you do it badly? What if you are unmusical and have no style? Is your clumsy attempt to capture a performance practicefrom another century going to be “exciting” by default? This is an invitiation to rationalise terrible playing and is particularly problematic if it allows you to ignore or generalise about the many amazing musicians performing in the most incredible way today.
Already in the 1930s, voices were raised against this growing prioritisation of the literal meaning of the notation. In 1933 a reviewer in The Musical Times criticised rhythmic rigidity in a performance of Brahms’s Violin Sonata op. 78…
I’m just going to stop right there. Is he seriously trying to make a point about the way we perform in 2015 by quoting a concert review from 1933? Is that even an argument? Who is swayed by this nonsense? I missed the memo that said you can quote a concert review written the year Hitler became chancellor if you want to suggest that Bryn Terfel doesn’t sing Wagner with enough freedom.
Why did I mention Terfel, you ask? Well, who exactly is Clive referring to when he declares that precious “few” performers are truly “responding to the messages” in his approved way? Who is he to decide who these performers are? His article implies that virtually all of us are failing, and I will have to presume that he includes even famous artists like Terfel unless he is happy to point out which musicians he has deemed to be acceptable. Maybe it’s just me, but generalisations as stupid as this make me want to tear my hair out.
So it is hardly surprising that many genuinely musical people are now deterred from engaging with classical music by a perception that it is formal, rigid, and lacking in emotional vitality.
Again, restating a perception is not an argument. It is basically worse than not thinking: “Well, the collective wisdom that I have absorbed without question says this thing, so I shall allow myself to be beholden to these worthless misconceptions and stupidities instead of arguing for it or against it.”
His article is not a worthy contribution to the debate. Telling other musicians how to play does not constitute an argument, either; it represents a cheap attempt to offload responsibility.
If classical music is to regain its cultural significance, musicians must engage with it more courageously, learning once more to read between the lines of the score. Only then will they recapture the full measure of freshness, beauty and excitement that composers expected their notation to convey to skillful performers and, through them, to the listener.
And here is the main problem with Clive’s ideas. In the end, he really just wants to be believe in a golden age where classical music was culturally significant and everybody played with freshness and poetic vitality. Any self respecting person who is about to cross the threshold into this sort of intellectual wish fulfillment should take a moment of pause and ask a few questions. What cultural significance exactly did classical music once have that it no longer has? How do we know it was more culturally significant in the past? Clive is fond of referring to pop musicians today but is happy to ignore the pop musicians of the past who surely represented the majority of musical performances throughout history, certainly throughout the centuries prior to the invention of music notation. Were there really hordes beating down the doors of the concert halls desperate to see the latest Beethoven piano sonata? Was the gaunt appearance of Paganini of any real importance outside of musical circles? Was it ever even important inside musical circles, or was it primarily useful as a way of selling tickets? Is it possible that we remember and recycle the popular narratives of Western music history more at our own peril than in the service of truth?
Not only is his assumption questionable but it also works against his whole point. He states that classical music has always been the domain of the educated classes and then complains it has now lost its cultural sugnificance. At the very least he needs to qualify his definition of cultural significance by limiting it to the educated classes, which is rather less significant than it is, dare I say, stuffy and elitist. He is not hankering after an era where classical music was more significant, he is attempting to recapture a time when its elitist presumptions were dominant and unchallenged by other musical forms. If he is truly upset by the idea that classical music is seen as stuffy, irrelevant and unappealing, perhaps he shouldn’t reverently invoke a time when it’s stuffy unappealingness was exactly what made it the culturally significant focus of an aristocratic elite that he so desperately wants to revitalise.
What we have here is not just an isolated article by a flawed thinker. His article is actually incredible in the way it distils and crystallises many of the bad arguments I have heard against classical music over the years, and I just don’t want to hear them anymore. They represent a glorious type of unthought- things that seem true, as if that’s enough. It really, really isn’t enough.
I certainly don’t want to be told that all performers play things incorrectly by someone who is not a justly renowned performer themselves, and even then, I will take a performer’s views with a grain of salt because every musician is going to play differently and what works for one might not work for another.
I hope that by offering this critique I at least make people pause before they offer another meaningless platitude to the world like “performers these days just don’t play like people used to in the past.”
Please- spare me such “thoughts.”
* If you know of a passage in which Taruskin does exhort players to perform according to certain strictures, please let me know and I will discuss them here. I am happy to be proved wrong on this point.
UPDATE, Jan 20: One of my readers has already pointed out that Taruskin’s book Text and Act has quite a few examples of an injunction to performers on how they should play. I have bought a copy and will happily post/discuss his comments here. (God bless the Kindle.)