Escaping the musical straight-jacket: Dead performer resurrects dead composer.
Thoughts on the Grainger/Grieg-project; an attempt at bringing new life to frozen interpretation.
Notes for a lecture by Rolf Gupta, conductor/composer
Houdini’s Straight jacket Escape (1874- 1926)
Contradiction in terms: I accuse new technologies of being the main culprits in destroying the art of interpretation. Sadly I think humans have become the servants of the machine and not the opposite. However I realize that this is not entirely true: The new technologies can also serve as a wonderful tool in bringing the art of interpretation back to us. Fx in allowing a dead pianist to play together with musicians alive today.
Once upon a time the performing arts created the illusion of perfection. The phonoautograph, Pianola, magnetic tape, HiFi, Midi, digitalization etc. gradually did away with human and technological error and tidied up the mess of imperfection. Previous arsenals of illusionist tools vanished in thin air and the human yardstick was taken over by machines. However desperately we admittedly rather successfully managed to copy the machines in real life, I feel some important ingredients for producing performances with a credible and emotional impact have been lost on the way.
We bump our heads into solid concrete instead of the distant lure of a fata morgana. Mistakes are rendered obsolete.
New technologies HIFI, availability, www and a variety of technological novelties have contributed to the petrification of the art of interpretation: The great art of live-performance has in certain ways given way to the accepted lie of larger-than-life post-editing. The unbelievable has gradually become the norm, creating a new breed of artistic athletes who never make mistakes. Audiences expect the same degree of technical perfection in the concert hall as well as from their audio-systems in the living room. Technical mastery has come to the fore and a certain poetic outlook has taken a polite step back.
Upon the arrival of new technologies only the select few have managed to exploit these tools to create new artistic musical fields of expression.Their abilities to create something “genuinely artificial” is their hallmark.
Composers who were able to utilize the new post WWI technology on its own terms are among others Stravinsky, Hindemith, Nancarrow, Edgar Varése (Desérts), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Gesang der Jünglinge). Pierre Schaeffer/Pierre Henry: Symphonie pour un homme seul (1949) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JosTXg8ErGc
Fewer performers have successfully avoided the temptation of optimizing their live-performances by using the new tools only to apply make-up on the scars of a wrong note out of tune in the wrong place: Glen Gould is their prophet with his imaginary humming pseudo world intended solely for the gramophone player, the pop-group Yellow (and others) who’s members never were in command of a musical instrument. There must be a many others, but I admit that I’m scratching my head searching for good examples. Anyone?
Fidelity (Loyalty, faithfulness, credibility, adherence to fact and detail, accuracy) HIFI – High Fidelity: How faithful is the sound reproduction to the music itself? Could something be lost in translation resulting in a lack of artistic credibility? Might questions of negative musico-psychological side effects arise?
HiFi aims to sound as if you have the real thing in your living room (I guess this could be considered to be an illusion – perhaps rendering my previous statement invalid…) “Let’s put some make-up on the sound. Get rid of human error. Get rid of disturbing sounds resulting from the fixation of sound to disc or tape”. Enter the DOLBY noise reduction system reducing technological and instrumental transients.
I The reduction of noise components has a parallel strand in the historical development of musical instruments: Less noise/more sound (beauty). More volume (some modern brass instruments virtually renders orchestral balance impossible). Various instruments have lost their particularity, sounding more alike to each other
II Another strand: Equal temperament. The division of the octave into 12 equidistant steps is a rather late development arriving in mid-19th century. For a baroque or an arabic ear the modern division must sound bland lacking in spice and melodic and harmonic identity.
As fidelity and availability takes on, one would expect more variety and individuality. Sadly, the opposite is the case. Interpretation gradually looses its meaning: The most commonly performed musical works start to sound the same. Orchestras from different parts of the world sound more similar. Interpretation becomes standardized levelling to an industrialisation of the “music business”. (Production line – modern times)
A living, impulsive and volatile art turns into frozen objects. Like sculptures, open to interpretation by the receiver, but fixed as an object from the performer – and thus also from the composer.
III An other side effect resulting from this fixation is an orthodox standardization of how to read a musical score. Signs for articulation, dynamics, tempi, duration of notes, slurs etc are leveled down to strict observance of specific rules regardless of date of origin, style and musical instrument. A certain totalitarianism in the interpretation of the score arises much to the destruction of musical “speech”. How the performer reads the score becomes more important than how he hears the score.
We start believing in perfection and standardization on many different musical levels as an axiom – premises so evident as to be accepted as true without controversy.
Historic recordings Enter the availability of historic recordings – on wax rolls, player pianos of all kinds, analog recordings going back to the19th and early 20th century. If one takes the previous arguments at face value, the existence and availability of historic recordings destroys the axiomatic musical “truths” we have become accustomed to over the 50-70 years. Our belief in the standardizations taught in many conservatories and universities are torn to shreds. A common reaction to this excavation of historic recordings by many performers are that they are full of flaws and faults.
“Rachmaninov has to play his music faster than he otherwise would have done in order to fit a whole movement on one side of the disque.”
“The mechanisms of the player piano both in production and deliverance of the music is so poor that one cannot seriously take it as the intention of the performer/composer.”
“Grieg was an old man in 1906 and couldn’t really play the piano anymore.”
“Also Grainger was to much of an eccentric sado-masochistic racist and a musical Errol Flynn to be taken seriously anymore. His performances are mere entertainment for music freaks.”
Et cetera in absurdum. These statements are all attempts at historic revisionism. In my book reactions like these only display closed and fearful minds produced by orthodox schooling.
Authenticity From the study and research of historical texts and original instruments we have learned quite a lot about the execution and sound of music of past. Through the substantial and invaluable work by CPE Bach, Couperin and Quantz among others, we have arrived at informed, and above all, a musically appealing guesswork. We are led to believe that scholar-performers like N. Harnoncourt, G. Leonhardt, J Savall, F. Brüggen, J E Gardiner, R Norrington etc are able to conjure the sound of the past and therefore is authentic. Authenticity as a time machine is certainly an objective falsum. I don’t believe that any of these outstanding musicians ever intended their interpretations to be anything other than exactly that: Interpretations based on a certain miniscule degree of fact. Intuition and personal choices are by far the most important aspect also for a scholarly performer.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt: ”That which you could call a reconstruction (of the performance of a work by Bach fx), is in reality simply a somewhat more extended study of music …you are forced to do some research, to make comparisons and study old textbooks, all of which are simply a method toward achieving a goal which is specifically obtaining the best possible performance…We simply present the music using the best means which are available to us…we are thoroughly acquainted with the premises upon which practical performance matters are based, and we know the sounds of the various instruments/instrumental groups of these earlier musical periods. For today’s performers there exists the free choice among all the means that are suitable (for such a performance), if the performer is simply aware that they exist. – “Musik als Klangrede”
Two interpretations of authenticity in a musical context:
A) – The reconstruction of historic performing arts such as imagined by the author (composer) – taking the variable conditions of his time into consideration. Guesswork, however informed, sometimes comes across as sanguine, other times as lifeless and academic.
B) – Delivering the transitory quality inherent in music in a manner a contemporary audience intuitively feel is genuine or true. 24 carat live-art!
Is Nureyev’s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s choreography to Debussy’s Faun based on film clips from 1912 credible or authentic? This attempt to re-create Nijinsky’s choreography based on visually available historic material is at the very least something anyone interested in choreography and dance simply must be aware that exists – to quote Harnoncourt.
Nijinsky clips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vxs8MrPZUIg
The advent of recorded sound Sullivan (1842 –1900) greets Edison Oct 5, 1888:
(…) For myself, I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record for ever. But all the same I think it is the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced, and I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discovery.”
Thomas Edison perfected the phono autograph in 1878. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZXL3I7GPCY
The first true Pianola was completed by Edwin Scott Votey in 1895.It’s surprising that the player piano or the pianola was developed simultaneously or even after the phonograph. Grieg’s teacher, Carl Heinrich Carsten Reinecke (1824-1910), was the earliest-born (1824) pianist to have been recorded, initially on the Welte reproducing piano and here a year or two later for Hupfeld. The Hupfeld recordings did not include dynamics: Although rolls were later issued for the Triphonola reproducing piano, the dynamics on these later rolls were added by Hupfeld’s editors many years after the rolls were recorded. Here, the dynamics come from the pianolist, while the notes and phrasing come from Reinecke. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSGkc0zo1OI&list=PL6AC834D6752F37A5
Sound bites: Joseph Joachim (1903) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-p8YeIQkxs
On the basis of this I can start imagining how he performed how he played the violin-concerto.
Brahms greets Edison: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZXL3I7GPCY
Listening to available audio recordings – and implementing these first hand encounters in interpretation. In the case of our happy act of musical necrophilia, we listened attentively to Percy Graingers pianola “recording” by actually playing together with him. Our aim was to be “with” him not only in the accompaniment, but allowing his interpretation to serve as guideline and inspiration also during the orchestral interludes.
Authenticity of pianola recordings – is this really true? Documentation of Grieg’s feelings toward Grainger’s playing: ”Jeg måtte blive 64 År forat få høre norsk Klavermusik så forstående og genialt tolket. Som han spiller Slåtterne og Folkevisebehandlingene bryder han nyt Land både for sig, for mig og for Norge. Og nu dette henrivende, naturlige, dybe, alvorlige og barnlige Naturel!!” https://rolfgupta.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/a-moll-konserten/
Percy/pianola versus percy live Hollywood Bowl 1945: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAZfDhHFCHc
In consequence we can decide to be victims of the machine’s perfection (like in the “Terminator” movies) or to gain knowledge and positive inspiration from 170 years of documented musical sound and performances. This is indeed a love/hate-relationship.
The recording of Percy Grainger performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra led by Rolf Gupta on the label 2L can be found on Spotify. This lecture was held at the University of Bergen/Grieg Academy by invitation from the Grieg Society in August 2013. http://www.griegsociety.org/?sp=2