Barely a week after feeling unusually compelled to write something on the joys of live music after hearing the choir at St Martin-in-the-Fields, I found myself in a similar position after watching (and listening to) Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier performed by English National Ballet at the Sadler’s Wells (Thursday 30th March performance).
I was interested to see what I would think of it now, 20 years after we did it at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where I was a company pianist. I say we did it, but it’s truer to say they did it, because I was just a tape-op in rehearsals, pausing and playing a reel-to-reel tape of Christoph Eschenbach’s 1970 recording of the adagio of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. Given that I’m not a fan of Beethoven, slow music, pas de deux, or operating a tape machine. It was like watching paint dry, though I did not, to be honest, watch the paint much. I took a book, and listened with half my attention for instructions from the front of the studio.
It’s a commonplace now to talk about the way that we listen through things like surface noise on discs, distortion on tape recordings, hum, interference on telephones and so on, to the voices or music beyond ; , but in this case, however good those Berlin dancers were (and I’m sure they were brilliant) I couldn’t get beyond the noisy facts of that recording to either the music or the dance. It was like listening underwater, or gazing through the side of a grubby fish-tank. All I remember of it in performance was the vast stage of the Deutsche Oper, and that interminable Beethoven. Although the sound booth was behind soundproof glass and several metres away, as soon as the music started, I began to mentally hear the click, hum and whirr of the tape machine.
The reason we did it to tape, despite the availability of several pianists who could have played it live, was apparently historical, aesthetic, choreographic: van Manen had choreographed to that recording precisely because it was so slow: Adagio Hammerklavier was a study in balletic adagio, and Eschenbach’s Beethoven had the right quality. Clive Barnes said that the work was “set to” this specific recording , and as I understood it in Berlin back in the early 1990s, we weren’t allowed to do it anything else; the recording was integral to the piece. I say “apparently,” because re-reading Stephanie Jordan’s Moving Music, I realise this can’t have been entirely true. Antony Twiner explains in an interview that he’d had to copy the Eschenbach performance when he played for the piece:
I took the record home, and I listened to it, and I played along with it, memorized it, and marked my own copy as to how long this or that note was held by this man . . . I said, ‘Well, it’s not impossible. It may not be my personal interpretation but if that’s the way you want it played, it can be done.
When ENB did it last week, they didn’t use the recording, it was played (beautifully) by Olga Khoziainova, perhaps under similar preparatory conditions. I was astonished at what a difference it made. It helped that Tamara Rojo’s pas de deux with Emilio Pavan that night happened to be, in my view, one of the most breathtaking ballet performances I’ve ever seen, but even without that, I could have watched Adagio Hammerklavier for another 30 minutes and not been bored. I had never noticed that gently rippling backcloth before, but I could have watched that alone and been entranced. One of the biggest differences is the feel of the sound in the air. You can sense the upper notes bouncing off the roof of the theatre, whereas the recording makes you feel like you’re listening to a room, not a piano; hearing the atmosphere, rather than living in it.
With the music played live, time seemed to unfold only in the present moment, the movement and music together drawing you into some tiny point of light on the stage, like following the tip of a pen as it writes. This brought together in my mind both Ingold’s thoughts about lines and Stern’s on the present moment . A recording, by comparison, is already dead in the water, a hard-edged lump of music whose outcome is known in advance.
I usually spend a lot of time defending recorded music in ballet: live music for the sake of it is not intrinsically a good thing, recorded music not universally a bad one. If you make extravagant claims for live music based on ideology dressed up as transcendent values, someone will eventually call your bluff. and all live music, however legitimate the claims for it, may suffer as a result. Ironically, considering that Adagio Hammerklavier was inspired by a recording, it is that recording that kills it in my view. Played live, the thing that van Manen was after seems to shine from the stage from moment to glorious moment.
Once again, I find myself taking issue with Liveness. On the surface, this anecdote about the Eschenbach recording illustrates Auslander’s point that live performances are mediated by, predicated on, or constrained by recordings, and thus liveness isn’t a simple condition: it’s all mixed up with mediatizations as well. Perhaps it is the inclusion of ballet, so precarious, so much hostage to the present moment that makes the particular difference here. In an interview with the critic Edmund Lee, van Manen differentiated between slow motion, which he said is based on “total balance,” and adagio, which for him is “like a wheel that you push—and that moment where the wheel is still moving, just before it falls.” . Watching Adagio Hammerklavier with live music retains that sense of danger on another plane, whereas with a recording, the wheel is not only not falling, it isn’t even moving.
A fascinating side issue here dealt with by Auslander in Liveness, is that performances (in the sense of the characteristics of a particular interpretation) aren’t subject to copyright. It would be a breach of copyright to copy the actual recording, but not to mimic the details of Eschenbach’s performance in your own playing (and then record it, if you wanted to). Given that, as in this example, a particular performance can be a person’s trademark in the metaphorical sense, it is strange that it can’t be in a literal one.