Friday, 25 September 2009

Musicality and musical content

Lyle Sanford has been pondering on my musings on musicality. The interesting thing about his response is how it veers between expressing resonance for the ideas I'm trying to express and very perceptively noticing how much I haven't yet found a way to describe.

One thing that fascinates me is that he makes a number of wonderful points about how to play with more expression, and how to avoid breaking the spell the music is casting, without going into the nature of the expression or the spell. ... His post tells how to make pieces of music express their content, but not how to ascertain the nature of that content.

And that is a very good point. As an orchestral musician you aren't really required to think too much about the content - you have the dots on the page and you play them. I commented about this on the Memphis horn list a year or so ago.

"I suspect that a surprisingly large number of orchestral musicians (even at a professional level) regard their work as a craft rather than an art.

By that, I mean that they regard their task as beginning and ending with the mastery of their particular instrument and playing the notes in whatever fashion the conductor requires of them. They aren't much concerned with musicianship and interpretation, they leave that to the conductor."

It triggered a heartfelt response from Wendell Rider

I love the comment in JW's post about leaving the musical part to the conductor! So true and so pathetic. Conductors? They have been bottom-lining for so long they haven't got any music left in them. Fortunately for them, the performances are now judged only by the "perfection index," which simply requires the right notes at acceptable tolerances of dynamics and rhythm. Just read the reviews. Those have been bottom-lined too. We have lost our way.

I don't think things are quite that bad, but having seen friends and family who are professional musicians (I decided against a career in music and have never regretted the decision), I can see how the work and the unsocial hours and the travelling and the sheer repetitiveness of playing the same stuff over and again can get people down after a while, and cause them to take a rather cynical attitude to the work they do and the music they play. I'm lucky, I'm an amateur, there are few orchestral pieces I have ever performed more than half a dozen times, and the performances usually come sufficiently far apart that the piece is fresh each time I return to it.

But there is something else about playing in an orchestra. It is that you are part of a crowd. As anyone who has participated in songs at football matches knows, when crowds are involved, music takes on a whole new dimension, even if the participants are entirely untrained at it. Nobody can possibly be unmoved when the whole of Anfield stadium is encouraging Liverpool to greater efforts by a full-blooded rendition of "You'll never walk alone".

If I recall correctly, Brian May (lead guitarist of Queen) once commented about how he loved playing big stadium concerts, because of how he could affect the emotions of such a huge group of people merely by making movements of a quarter of an inch with a finger of his left hand. of course, he would be able to tell he was doing that unless they responded to him and he could see and hear them.

Most of my most exhilarating moments in music have come when participating in a large-scale performance (though not in a stadium!), usually of a thoroughly romantic work, where all is going well, and everyone is playing just that bit better than they realised they could, and I'm surrounded by this tremendous pulsating energy, this wall of sound, and I know I am making my own small contribution to it. The total seems so much more than the sum of the parts, it is so uplifting.

When playing in a large group doing well, all kinds of instantaneous feedback and adjustment is going on between and among the players, who are responding to each other and not merely to the conductor. And this happens far too fast and unconsciously for anybody to be able to describe in any kind of detail exactly what is going on, even after the event. I know (sort of) what is going on, because I see it and I hear it and hopefully I do it myself, but it's a devil of a job trying to describe it. I have a habit of analytical thought from my scientific training and my work as a computer programmer, so I'm perhaps in a better position to try and describe it than professional musicians who are far better than me at it in almost every way. I can perhaps detach myself a little bit and look on it from a perspective not available to many professional musicians.

It is one of those things you just have to learn by taking part and getting better at it. You hear and you instantly adjust in order to fit in with the overall idea or emotion that is being collectively expressed through the music. And in doing to, it can make your heart sing.

Lyle goes on to say:

High level players are expected to play any piece put before them well and musically and with whatever spin a conductor wants to put on it. I guess the assumption is that when played coherently and correctly, any piece will convey the content the composer intended.

It helps if the players have an idea of what they are about in terms of the composer's overall intention, but surprisingly it isn't always necessary. Earlier this year, a local orchestra I play in included Michael Tippett's Triple Concerto on one of their concert programmes. Tippett writes uncompromisingly modern music. The solo parts (violin, viola and cello) have a great many notes, far more than the orchestra can really hear and relate to. Rehearsing the orchestral accompaniment felt like trying to solve a particularly fiendish cryptic crossword. There were so many changes of time signature, changes of speed, odd intervals and rhythms that in the orchestra we were fully occupied with the technicalities of counting, hitting the right notes and not getting lost. Talking with the other players during the coffee breaks, I found that they all were finding the piece difficult and not all that rewarding to rehearse. I suspect that this feeling came from the fact that they weren't able to perceive the overall structure, and so couldn't properly understand how their own contributions were supposed to fit. I suspect also that very few of them could have expressed that aspect of their dissatisfaction in words.

And yet, come the concert, friends of mine in the audience (including some who had rarely been to a classical concert) found the piece very powerful and stirring and enjoyable. It seems that sometimes the composer makes his intentions sufficiently clear in the score that as an orchestral musician you don't have to do much more than accurately play what is written and keep together.

In chamber music, you have to take much more responsibility for the shape and structure. You need to be able to understand the emotions being conveyed, nor merely in the choice of speed and phrasing and dynamics, but for instance in invoking the sense of "returning home" when the movement comes back into the key and theme that it started out with. You have to have some understanding of the journey you are leading the audience on.

And if you are the conductor of an orchestra, you of course have to have even more idea what you want to achieve. Deciding what shape the performance will take and inducing the orchestra to follow you along the road you lead them on is the your one and only task. You produce no sound at all during the performance (or at least, that is the idea!) but without the conductor, no coherent performance is possible. I may write a bit more on conducting another time.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan - Per usual, lots and lots to think about in these posts of yours on musicality. For right now, though, want to pull out this bit:

    >>When playing in a large group doing well, all kinds of instantaneous feedback and adjustment is going on between and among the players, who are responding to each other and not merely to the conductor. And this happens far too fast and unconsciously for anybody to be able to describe in any kind of detail exactly what is going on, even after the event.<<

    My personal working assumption about this is that it really is a kind of what they used to call ESP, extra sensory perception. Some time ago I did a post linking research showing that when musicians are playing together, it can induce brain wave entrainment amongst them. That, along with all the sensory cues pouring in, seems to be able to create an altered state where things can happen that go beyond our normal individual capacities. That's when egos can fade and the music is more channeled than made. Sort of a brief manifestation of what Jung called the collective unconscious.