Tag Archives: live music

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] 

Anderson, Z. (2015). The Ballet Lover’s Companion. Yale University Press.
Barnes, C. (1975, March 23). DANCE VIEW. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1975/03/23/archives/dance-view-the-new-improved-hans-van-manen.html
Ingold, T. (2015). The Life of Lines. London: Routledge.
Jordan, S. (2000). Moving music: Dialogues with music in twentieth-century ballet. London: Dance Books.
Rabinowitz, P. J., & Reise, J. (1994). The phonograph behind the door: Some thoughts on musical literacy. In S. Lawall (Ed.), Reading world literature: Theory, history, practice (pp. 287–308). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Stern, D. N. (2004). The present moment in psychotherapy and everyday life. New York: W.W. Norton.
Sterne, J. (2003). The audible past: Cultural origins of sound reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ballet pianists and sacred cows: a correction

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What a difference a sub-clause makes

In an article in Dance Gazette (“Don’t shoot the pianist“, Dance Gazette (2) 2016, p. 44) I was quoted as saying that live music for ballet training is a lot about tradition—the pianist is almost like the sacred cow (in answer to the question, do I think live music for ballet training is a dying profession?). When it first came out, I was rather perturbed that because the rest of what I said immediately afterwards wasn’t quoted, it looked as if I was saying that pianist were “just” sacred cows, i.e. that if we were only to be rational, we’d realise that they weren’t necessary. I wrote what I now see is a very muddled corrective, and some time later, I don’t react the same way at all. 

It was muddled, because I’d failed to see the flaw in my thinking, which William James would have called “medical materialism” (of which more below). I was all excited at the time by an idea I’d read in Catherine Bell’s  book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), in which she cites the work of Marvin Harris (1927-2001) in regard to cow worship among Hindus in India:

Harris pointed out that the cow was an indispensable resource for Hindu farming families with small plots of land, not only enabling them to plow and plant but also supplying them with milk for food and dung for fuel. If in times of severe crisis, such as an extended drought, people were to butcher and eat their cows, they would lose the one resource they needed to get back on their feet later. Hindu cow worship, the religious obligation to show the greatest respect to cows, ensures that people do not eat their cows in times of crisis —at least not short of total desperation. Hence, the ritual attitude toward the cow guarantees the maintenance of a basic level of economic resources and does so more effectively than any economic argument would. (Bell, 1997, p. 30)

When I said “sacred cow” in the interview, I meant that there might be a very good reason why the pianist was regarded as sacred, as a form of ritual.

Medical materialism, pianists, and cows

But since then, I’ve read Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, and was delighted on p. 36 (and 40 ffl.) by the term “medical materialism.” Coined by William James. It refers to a kind of “nothing-but-ism,” a tendency to reduce the spiritual dimensions of experience to something rational and material. In other words, medical-materialist thinkers try to explain other people’s ritual actions as being based not on what they say it is (a ritual) but something else. Unwittingly, when I got all excited about the sacred cow text above, it blinded me to the possibility that perhaps teachers and dancers do like having pianists for ritual reasons. Why not? Why does there have to be a reason? Why can’t ritual be the reason? 

Mary Douglas points out that the opposite of medical materialism is also problematic: i.e. one should think twice before assuming that when “we” wash our hands, it’s for only for hygienic reasons, and when “they” do it, it’s only a ritual. Likewise, a ritual may also serve as cleansing, and cleansing may also be a kind of ritual, whoever is doing it. 

Live and recorded music: problems of framing

My thinking at the time was very muddled, because my conclusion came out in favour of regarding pianists as ritual, but I’d cited something that did not support that view at all. Mary Douglas, William James and medical materialism would have given me the frame I needed to make my case. It’s often the case that people in schools and companies have to justify their expenditure on music to accountants who are looking for “efficiencies.”  You can’t. To frame the argument as “live versus recorded music” misses the point: it treats music as nothing more than a sonic object that emanates either from a clattering cabinet of keys and strings, or a box of electronics.

As soon as you start trying to apply “rational” arguments to the question, you risk losing them.  Live music is better than recorded? What about terrible pianists? You hear teachers all the time saying “better a good CD than a bad pianist. What about the thrill of dancing to an orchestra on CD, rather than an out-of-tune upright piano? Does having live music speed up the process of training a ballet dancer? No.

The worst part of the argument about live versus recorded music is that if you view musicians as an alternative way of achieving the same thing that you get from your iPod, then there’s almost no argument (except that it’s harder work for the teacher, of course, but that’s another story). An iPod wins on almost every point, starting with the financial. But music is wrapped up in everyday life in ways that are much more complex and relational than this, and in a ballet class, with good teachers, the music is neither in the pianist or in the teacher, it’s something woven between them (if you’re familiar with the work of Tim Ingold, you might recognise some of his ideas there).  

An enlightened school or company principal would stand their ground and say that we’re going to have piano for class, at least some of the time, for the sake of doing the ritual the right way. If you can be alert to the ritual aspects of having a pianist to class, then you’re less likely to employ pianists just for the sake of it, because you believe in some unspecified good that they must bring to the process of teaching. Oddly enough, that is more of a belief in magic than having a pianist because it makes the ritual of class nicer. 

Hiring pianists because you think they’ll just bring magic to the class just by virtue of being there and playing a piano, reminds me of the story my Russian teacher (an ex-army Major) told me about WW2:   Russian peasants, never having encountered plumbing before, ripped out the water taps from the walls of the houses they raided, thinking that if they took them home they could get running water in their own villages. 

See also

Two posts on the joys of live music: 

Make money from music? Go on tour.

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Interesting article from ArsTechnica Did file-sharing cause recording industry collapse? Economists say no.  Researchers from LSE have looked at some of the claims about the negative effects of file sharing and the digital economy on the music industry, and found some of them just don’t wash.

One of the most interesting conclusions is that many of the figures conventionally given to show the demise of the industry don’t factor in musicians’ income from live work, which recently is for the first time greater than from sales of recordings.

So what is emerging is an increasingly “ephemeral” global music culture based not upon the purchasing of discrete physical packages of music, but on the discovery and subsequent promotion of musicians through file sharing. The big winner in this model is not the digital music file seller, but the touring band, whose music is easily discoverable on the ‘Net. As with so much of the rest of the emerging world economy, the shift is away from buying things and towards purchasing services—in this case tickets to concerts and related activities.