We are always interested in creating posts that make you think. Not necessarily agree (or disagree), but think. Much of contemporary culture (e.g. TV, movies, etc.) is intended and largely received passively. Blogs can sometimes serve as nets, harvesting interesting informational flotsam and jetsam from the great sea of the internet, but they can and should also serve to provoke thought and reflection about topics about which there may be no easy answer.

Today’s puzzler is inspired by several of Bruce Brubaker’s posts in his blog PianoMorphosis: what if musical scores are performed differently than the printed notes? One answer is the title of this post, taken from an anecdote related by Brubaker:

Once after I played John Cage’s Dream (from memory), some audience members were talking to Cage. Someone asked, “What would happen if the pianist got lost?” Almost instantly, and seemingly without thinking it over, Cage blurted out: “That would be wonderful.”

Brubaker’s point is that concert pianists memorize buckets of notes, and modifications to the original score may slip in over time in such quantity operations.

Let’s ask the question: if the player gives a skillful performance that in some way strays from the score (unintentionally or not) that is enjoyed by the audience, is this wrong? Or deceptive? Or (fill in blank with negative adjective)? Or is it okay? Or, even, “wonderful?”

A teacher once gave me an interesting answer when I asked him how I should articulate a certain passage in a Haydn concerto. He said, “Convince me.” Is it more important to be convincing than correct?”

Corollary questions: what is it about performing from notation that makes it superior to improvisation? If you (the listener) can’t tell if it written down or improvised, is this a bad thing? Or a good thing?

As you probably know by now, besides my bread-and-butter of teaching horn etudes, solos, and excerpts, I have a side specialty of classical improvisation, meaning that I like to make up music, and that music is most often not in a jazz style. A graduate student pianist did two semesters of independent study in improvisation with me because she was learning a piece by Rzewski that called for improvised sections, and, true to traditional music education, she hadn’t the least idea how to improvise (i.e. compose very quickly on the instrument). At the performance, I thought she did a terrific job on the extremely difficult piece, especially the improv sections. The piano faculty was apparently unfamiliar with any kind of improv or the level (or value) of her achievement; one of their criticisms was that they “couldn’t tell when it was improv and when not.” To me, that would be the highest compliment…

Our training is steadfastly “literate” – i.e. ink is the alpha and omega. Our instruments simply will not operate unless there is ink close by. In the beginning, notation was a way of getting down a skeleton of a piece that would be decorated, embellished, and brought to life by a performer. As the years went on, the ink gradually achieved apotheosis. If it was not on the page, it was simply wrong. The original partnership of the contributions of performer and composer became dramatically skewed to the latter. Post WWII came the trend of (some) composers to put extremely detailed articulations, dynamics, and expressive markings for every note (!), not trusting or allowing the player to contribute, reducing them to robots.

One thing I like about Classical pieces (like the Mozart concertos) is that everything is not specified for the horn player. Leutgeb would have probably kicked Wolfie’s Arsch if he had, but W.A.M. knew that Leutgeb knew the style and would do his part in the creation of the piece. Today, it’s necessary to remind students that composers don’t know everything, that notation can’t detail every nuance, that the performer has the capability and the obligation to sculpt the piece in performance to make it come alive. The composer may give only one dynamic for a whole section; I like to take that as a directive for a kind of atmosphere, not to mean that the whole section should be played at one dynamic. I sometimes recite a bit of Shakespeare or the like, once with phrasing and once robotic, and then ask (rhetorically), which process should we use in our musical phrasing. Make something happen. Make it interesting. More Colorado, less Kansas (topographical analogy). Fear of missing notes in public can make us withdraw a little in performance in an attempt to be careful. But it almost always backfires. First of all, less air –> less volume –> more uncertainty in attacks and pitch –> mistakes. Second of all, “shrinking” in this way evaporates all the lovely nuance and dynamic hills and dales and makes for an unexciting performance. The story loses its charm and excitement; fingers start to drum, watches are checked. As Charles Rochester Young says, “If you don’t make it interesting musically, the audience won’t have anything to do but count mistakes.”

It may seem that I’ve drifted off topic a bit, but I think it gets back to the central point about deviations from the ink vs engaging performance.

What do you think?