Tag Archives: Swan Lake

Black Swan, the design of everyday things, and the extended mind

Share

I’ve been very nervous of trying out the orchestral reduction I made in January 2015  of the Black Swan female variation for real-life principals in companies  in case I became too distracted by the unfamiliar feel of the arrangement to concentrate on what the dancer was doing (see this  entry about the terrors of playing for this variation). Finally, this summer I had the chance to play it many times for repertoire classes at the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague.

The result? Though I say it myself, I was delighted to find that I actually forgot I was playing this variation at all—I usually hate it—to the extent that I enjoyed the rehearsals without any dark interior monologues.  There is something about the way that you get to spread your hands properly over the keyboard that literally helps you to “get a grip” on the solo; when it’s thin and whiny like the piano version, it has no body, it runs through your fingers, away from them.  

The design of everyday things: including orchestral reductions

As I was playing it and thinking about these things, I was reminded of a section in Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things   about the importance of physical constraints in design, and how these enable us to take the right actions without having to think about it:  

“Why the apparent discrepancy between the precision of behavior and the imprecision of knowledge? Because not all the knowledge required for precise behaviour has to be in the head. It can be distributed—partly in the head, partly in the world, and partly in the constraints of the world.” (pp. 45-55)

There are four reasons, Norman says, that precise behaviour can emerge from imprecise knowledge: information in the world, great precision is not required, natural constraints are present, cultural constraints are present. Of natural constraints he explains: 

The world restricts the allowed behavior. The physical properties of objects constrain possible operations: the order in which parts can go together and the ways in which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manipulated. Each object has physical features—projections, depressions, screwthreads, appendages—that limit its relationship to other objects, operations that can be performed to it, what can be attached to it, and so on. (p. 55) 

An arrangement of Black Swan plots out specific combinations of piano keys that have implications for how hands can move around in time. My arrangement is much more constraining physically than the original piano piece. The presence of Drigo’s countermelodies, for example, introduce a secondary web of semiquavers that keep time, keep the fingers occupied in finding a way to play the melody and countermelody, keep the brain occupied by introducing the difficulty, and keep your spirit challenged and alert. All of this automatically constrains the possibility of rushing individual beats or moving too fast generally. (Conversely, though, my simplified version of the final chords—without those ridiculously unnecessary repeated spread tenths—frees up your mind and eye to concentrate on the much more important task of seeing how the dancer is doing on her diagonal.) 

The extended mind

It’s taken me since August to actually go to my shelves and find the book and page, so I could write this post. The impetus for doing so is probably because I have recently bought and started to read Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension.  Clark’s book is a huge elaboration on this idea that some of our “thinking” is in the world, not entirely in our heads. It’s at once rather mind-blowing, yet persuasively simple. 

In turn, I finally bought Clark’s book because I was re-reading my notes in my computer on Tia DeNora’s work where she introduces the notion of musical affordances, and the musically extended mind (for a recent conference paper on this concept, see Joel Krueger’s “Musical Worlds and the Extended Mind.” (published in 2018, from a conference in 2016). 

And as it happens, the reason I’m writing this post, the reason I have a website at all is increasingly because it’s a useful place to offload things like this into the world, so my brain has more room to remember where my glasses are, and which bit of my bag I put my umbrella in. I also get tired of thinking “It’s like that bit in that book by whatshisname, it’s a concept called I can’t remember, I’m not sure where the book is.” Occasionally, when I go back to look, I find that I have misremembered or misinterpreted, but in this case, I’m delighted to see that it’s not the case. 

 

 

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #6: Playing the Black Swan variation music

Share
The original piano piece, Op. 72 No. 12, orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production of Swan Lake.

The original piano piece, Op. 72 No. 12, orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production of Swan Lake.

The music that is harder to find than a black swan

Let’s start with a few facts. Although this solo, and the Black Swan pas de deux that it comes from, is one of the most famous bits of the most famous ballets in the world, the chances are that if you pick up a score of Swan Lake, you won’t find it – either the solo, or the pas de deux. There was no such thing as “Black Swan Pas de Deux” in Act 3 of the original (1877) score of Swan Lake. Most of it was taken from a pas de deux for “two merry-makers” in Act 1 (No. 5). Not only is Siegfried’s solo not there in the form that we generally know it today (it’s a chirpy, playful, and much longer violin solo, by comparison with the galumphing machismo of Drigo’s re-orchestration that most people know as “Siegfried”), but Odile’s solo isn’t there at all. That’s because it was only added in 1895, after Tchaikovsky’s death. It’s a piano solo (Op. 72 No. 12, L’Espiègle) orchestrated by Drigo, along with other interpolations and changes, documented on this Wikipedia page about the 1895 version of Swan Lake.

The original source of the black swan variation music

L’Espiègle, the subtitle of Tchaikovsky’s piece, means something like “Sprite,” “Demon,” or “Prankster.” It’s apparently related to “Eulenspiegel.” You get the idea. It’s a little novelty piece that should be cheeky, irreverent, playful, elusive, naughty. You can see why they might have chosen such a piece for Odile’s solo. Accordingly, it’s marked Allegro moderato (con grazia, in modo di scherzo. Stokowski’s Richter’s recording will give you an idea of what I mean: [many of the YouTube videos I embed get removed, which is a shame. Stokowski’s recording is orchestral, so it’s more fun to listen to and compare: listen to it here on Deezer, or here on iTunes or just use the relevant terms to search for it elsewhere]:  

But you’ll be in trouble if you play it like that. To accompany this solo, you have to ignore just about everything that’s in the score, and add things that are not there, and still aren’t printed in any version of the score that I’ve seen. Versions of the score that include the solo just reprint Tchaikovsky’s piano version (you can download one here, from IMSLSP, though it doesn’t contain the cut), not a reduction of the Drigo orchestration.  Let me list just a few examples of what I mean.

  • Time signature: No. it’s marked C, but really needs to be re-barred as 2/4 (a classic case of compound duple time – see an earlier post for more on that).
  • Allegro moderato: No. Think Air on the G String instead as your tempo ball-park.
  • Con grazia, in modo di scherzo: No. Oh no, no, no. Put such thoughts right out of your mind
  • Stringendo, ritenuto, a tempo: No. Don’t even think about it. While you’re playing this, there’s so much stuff going on in that solo, if you don’t keep a rock-steady slow tempo, you’ll be in trouble, and so will Odile.
  • Did I mention the cut? You’ll be in trouble if you try to use the original piano solo. In the ballet, there’s a cut before the tune comes back again.

Now let’s talk about this:

Ballet's best kept secret: this is NOT how it goes.

Ballet’s best kept secret: this is NOT how it goes.

  • Don’t play what’s written for the semiquavers: find the chord that each pair creates, and repeat them in pairs (F#F# G#G# A#A# etc.)
  • Don’t play what’s written for the big fortissimo chord: that actually needs to be rhyhmically performed arpeggios. There is stuff going on there that needs a beat.
  • If you were thinking about pausing for dramatic effect on that chord – don’t. Count like crazy.
  • The middle of the piano solo is cut. Sometimes, the cut is wrongly marked, or maybe there was a version that had a different cut in. The cut includes a funny half-bar.
  • When the tune repeats, ignore all tempo markings, except that it’s going to be slightly faster this time. Possibly.
  • At the end, keep it in tempo. Or at least, play it as if you’re keeping in tempo, but make adjustments just in case she’s a little bit late. But be sure not to sound as if you’re slowing up, because otherwise that might make it sound like she’s late and we don’t want that.
  • Get used to the idea that you’ll probably miss the G# in the left hand chord 80% of the time, because you’re trying to watch the end of the solo.

As with the White Swan of yesterday’s post, it doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you’ve played this, for how many ballerinas. If it hadn’t been for my colleague Julia Richter, who initiated me into the secrets of this solo (like the arpeggios) when we were playing at a ballet competition together in 1987, I wouldn’t have known, and would have made a fool of myself for I don’t know how many years before someone told me. 27 years later (and 119 years after the first production), we’re still playing it, and there’s still not a proper piano reduction of it floating around – and Drigo’s orchestration isn’t available online to do the work yourself (if I’m wrong about that, let me know).

Update February 2015:  where to find a piano score of the black swan variation music
I did do it myself in the end – see my Black Swan page if you want some background, or just download it from IMSLP.

And finally – a dodgy comedy version of the black swan variation music

A little bit of unknown, or rather, just forgotten ballet history. Back in about 1992 (I think?) I was so sick of this solo, and so captivated by my new Yamaha SY35 keyboard and MIDI technology, that I did the only thing that would save my sanity: I turned it into a silly kind of ballroom number. Christopher Hampson made a solo to it for that year’s ENB cabaret that he called a TBA, that was danced by Alex Foley. I don’t remember anything about the solo (he probably doesn’t either) except that she had long black gloves on. It was made on an Atari computer over 22 years ago, and I no longer have any of the files, but it was on a cassette tape somewhere. I thought it had been lost forever, but then in 2008, Chris found it in a box he hadn’t unpacked since moving house several years before. Here it is. Dodgy timing, and restored to MP3 after years in a box.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #5: Playing for the White Swan variation

Share

I’ve already written an entire recent post about one problem with accompanying this variation (The perils of musicality when you’re accompanying a ballet solo) but that’s not the end of the story.  Oh no. For only a day or so later that episode, another problem came up with another part of the solo. The whole piece is like a slow-motion assault course, and 28 years of playing it for students in vocational schools, candidates in competitions, and dozens of ballerinas hasn’t made it any easier. In fact, the most recent experience, which was with one of the most musical ballerinas I can think of, and the most musically perceptive coach I’ve ever encountered, made me feel I’d had to go back to school and start again.

The bit in question was the two-note anacrusis at the end of bar six (F# E#) going on to the  two-note slur at the beginning of bar seven (G# F#). Yes, a life hanging on four darned quavers. “Don’t slow down!” said the coach. We tried again. The rehearsal stopped. “Just play it in tempo, don’t go ‘dah dah da dah,’ [exagerrating the anacrusis]  just play it straight. Don’t follow her.” I tried again. The rehearsal stopped again. This time, the ballerina said “Don’t follow me, just play it straight, even if you think it looks like I need more time, because I can catch up, but if you slow down, I can’t do the step.”

Another tricky corner in the "White Swan" variation

Another tricky corner in the “White Swan” variation

This time, I had to speak “I’m really sorry,” I said, “I thought I was playing it straight. I’m trying my best to do it, but I don’t even know I’m not playing it straight any more.” Before I’d even finished, they both said “No, no, it’s fine, don’t worry, it’s natural. With this phrase you want to go “da dah da dah” because that’s what you want to do musically, but you just have to do it straight.”

So once again – how many times is this now? Four? – and this time, finally, I got it right, and do you know what, they were right. It took me that long (28 years, plus four repeats in a single rehearsal) to realise that I’d never played those four quavers straight in my life. I like to think that the explanation is something to do (again) with Justin London’s “many meters hypothesis” that I referred to in the “musicality” post, i.e. that a time signature like 6/8 isn’t a single, arithmetically precise metrical framework for music, but a model that has many variants in a musical culture, each of which can exhibit different types of squeezed and stretched microtiming effects in different parts of the bar: a bit like taking one of those molecular models and bending it in your hands (that’s my analogy, not London’s). In this case, as my colleagues noted, it’s “natural” to want to add a bit of space to the anacrusis, because that’s what this particular model of 6/8 always seems to do.

I hope that is the explanation, and it’s not just that I’m incapable of playing in time any more. This solo is difficult because it’s often so slow that you begin to lose your sense of when the last quaver happened.  Added to that, the older you get, the more ingrained your habits become unless someone points them out, not to mention the fact that types of expressive timing go in and out of fashion too.  That’s not the end of the story, however. The next day, armed with my squeaky clean and fresh timing, I played for a different ballerina, who – yep, you guessed it – wanted the expressive timing put back in. “Can you just watch me there…” she said.

I could write another four posts as long as this on another four awkward bits in this solo, and there are probably more, but that’s enough White Swan for one advent calendar. The trouble with this solo is not just that it’s difficult for the ballerina, and difficult to accompany, but also that it’s so replete with meaning: it’s Swan Lake, the ballet that almost defines the art form, and defines the ballerina. I’m not sure that there’s a single work in the musical repertoire that you can compare that to.

If you’re thinking “You think White Swan’s difficult? Black Swan’s even worse!” hold that thought – that’ll be tomorrow’s post.