Category Archives: Personal

More on the joys of live music

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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. 

References [just because I love generating them automatically with Zotero and  Zotpress] 

Turning up and the joys of live music

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St Martin-in-the-Fields

St Martin-in-the-Fields, taken last week.

It’s not often that I write much about my PhD research on my blog. Part of that is a nervousness of opening the oven door before the cake is cooked, part of it a feeling of responsibility to hone my AHRC-funded research into well-formed work before letting it loose. But last night I experienced something as a punter, so to speak, that changed all that, and caused me to think about my research in a different way. It also made me realise why I have quickly grown to love St Martin-in-the-Fields so much. 

It was the day of the terror attack in Westminster, and I was due to go to St Martin’s for the 6.30 service, and then to a Lent group that I’d joined as something positive to do in addition to my self-imposed 40-day exile from Facebook. I was having a frustrating day working on my thesis: I just looked at the last draft that I’d cut and pasted together months ago, and despaired. The enthusiasm I’d felt for going to the Lent group when it first started was waning, because I was having a bad day—maybe I’d be better off staying at home and working. St Martin’s is only walking distance away from Westminster. Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe there’ll be chaos. Maybe it’ll be dangerous. I’m not so gung-ho about going out when danger is imminent; you won’t find me saying I’m not scared. But I’d committed to the Lent group, that was the whole point. Turning up was important.

So I turned up. And during the distributing of the bread and wine, the pianist started playing, and I recognised within a few beats that it was Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Or rather, I recognised that the music was Fauré before I realised that it was the Cantique, because the introduction does what Fauré does so characteristically—to insert tiny melodic detours into an otherwise normal accompaniment, tiny burrs in the harmonic texture. You don’t notice the detail itself (unless you have to play it; then you notice it because it takes care and expert attention), you only notice its effect, like those pictures made up of thousands of smaller pictures that you cannot see unless you go up close.

The introduction to Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Those little passing minor seconds make Fauré Fauré.

I could hardly believe my ears. Surely they weren’t going to sing that, here, now, for us? But they did. I know every bar of that music, not as a performer, but as an enraptured listener. I first heard it when I was about 17, playing bass in the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra. We were going to accompany a choral society, and Gary Holmes, the conductor, told us a bit about the music: it was a lovely piece that people often chose for weddings. When you’re seventeen, and you’re playing this music in a full orchestra, with a large choir, it envelops and enthrals you in a way that rarely comes again, but the effect is lifelong. I have loved this music ever since then, and last night. I gave thanks inwardly for all the chances that made that happen, including the casual remark of a conductor that shaped the way I greeted the music then and forever after.

The Choral Scholars of St Martin’s in the Fields, barely more than a handful of singers, performed this with such warmth, breadth, commitment and unmannered beauty, I could hardly contain the joy it gave me. At those Bread for the World services on Wednesdays, you gather for the eucharist  in a circle near to the altar. I was standing just a few feet away from them, amazed that people just like you and me, dressed in normal day clothes (no choir robes, no ceremony, no fancy outfits) can stand there and produce this miracle of sound. I’m a musician myself, and maybe for that reason  it’s actually very rare that I perceive it as extraordinary, or can enjoy it.

But last night was different, and I suddenly wondered whether I understood, after all, one of the things that has mystified me about the people I’m writing about in my research. I have interviewed many dancers and teachers, and had many ad hoc conversations about music. There is something a bit strange about the ballet world: she shall have music wherever she goes, I often think to myself. In a world where it would be so easy to use recorded music like everyone else, you still find pianists used for class. It’s expensive. It’s difficult, and yet they still do it. Sometimes teachers nearly bankrupt themselves by paying for pianists when there are only a few people in the class, and as you walk past the studios, you think, why don’t they just use a CD? And when I ask them why, they say things like I don’t know. It’s  nice to have a pianist. I don’t know why. It’s just nice.  One of the things I’ve had to consider is whether to elevate this remark into something meaningful like Dora’s “it depends” in Antoine Hennion’s  article on taste , or to wonder whether pianists are a kind of luxury that doesn’t bear scrutiny easily, like having a butler.

Last night, however, as I looked across at the singers, I found myself thinking the same: This is nice. I thought of all the things that made this experience difficult: they need to rehearse, they need to turn up, they need to be present for other people not just as musicians, distanced from their audience, but participating with them in these rituals. I thought of all the organising, the structures, the planning, that had to be in place for this to happen, right down to getting the scores to sing from, and putting them away afterwards. There are multiple performances going on, and they have to do all of them well. In that sense, there is something about being there and singing that is caring. It’s being there for someone else, doing your thing, and doing it well, and perhaps not even being appreciated properly (though in fact, the vicar did thank them at the end, and you could see that they were delighted to have been acknowledged). I’ve also been quietly in awe from week to week, as another musician, of the improvisations of the pianist as he closely watches the progress of the eucharist, playing appropriate, thoughtful music to ease the transitions and cover the gaps. It’s familiar territory for me, however different the context.

I wondered to myself whether this is something of why live music in ballet classes means so much to people. It’s not even about what the pianist plays, though that can be part of it. It’s about the fact that they’re there, they turned up, and they did something for you. It might in truth be not that difficult for them, but for you it was magic. Or they may have struggled against lethargy or competing demands to get there, but you have no idea of that; it made your evening. You can’t explain these things in terms of music, or Philip Auslander’s  “liveness” , much as I admire and refer to his work. Why you can’t is what I’m grappling with in my thesis, as I discuss the way that dancers and teachers think about these things, and now I find that I am no more able to explain my own joy than anyone else’s, but I don’t want it taken away from me. 

As the service ended, they sang Verily, verily I say unto you by Tallis, like an afterthought, as if it was nothing at all,  though of course, it was everything. There was a brief pause, and then they left, and the congregation began to disperse and talk. I looked over, and noticed one of the singers adjust her brightly coloured trainers, smile, turn and go. Just another Wednesday in London. It was the kind of moment that Daniel Stern describes in Forms of Vitality ,  where a whole world is contained in a moment that we know in all its complexity, instinctively, immediately, but could spend a lifetime trying to put into words. I guess I should know by now, considering how long I have been trying to write about music in everyday life that it might be the everydayness of some musical experiences that makes them special, but it took Fauré and those trainers to make me realise it. And as it happens, that moment also captures just something of what  I love so much about St Martin’s. 

References

 

A year of playing cards #5: An operatic adage by Dvořák

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"Song to the Moon" by Dvorak

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The curse of the operatic adage 

I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the  teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.”  You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).

This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.

Playing tips

You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.

Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.

Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.

Metre issues

I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.

 

Varieties of reading: drawing in and pulling away

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I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Headwhich I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.

My current reading list: not so much a list as a pile

My favourite part of the day. Coffee and something from this pile.

We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our  “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.

Still reading “Still writing”

What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingwhich I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year.  Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).

I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.

[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

 (Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).

I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.

But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.

So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.