Monthly Archives: April 2019

Judith Espinosa, the fishermen’s wives and the waltz

Share

As allegro was about to begin during a ballet class yesterday, I started to smirk thinking about something I’d read in Derek Parker’s fascinating book, The First 75 Years of the Academya brief history of the Royal Academy of Dance published on its 75th anniversary in 1995. It was a reminiscence about the teaching methods of Judith Espinosa, who “spoke Cockney in the old Dickensian manner” (pronouncing the letter v as w, apparently), and was rarely seen without a cigarette. For those used to universal smoking bans, it’s hard to believe that this was probably in a ballet studio, but even I remember having an ashtray on the piano during company class. In addition to chain-smoking and speaking Dickensian cockney, she also shouted so loud that people feared for her vocal health. 

Put all these together, and now imagine the way that she set her choreographic “scenas” in class:

“You’re fishermen’s wives—you’re waiting on the beach for the boats, but there’s news that all the men have been drowned in a storm; you’re wild with grief. [To the pianist] We’ll have a waltz.” The First 75 Years of the Academy, p. 12

The style is hilarious, but what I was smirking at just as much was the familiarity—to anyone who’s played for class—of the abrupt return to musical mundanity with “we’ll have a waltz.” 

 

“Lyrical”—an update on the term “lyrical dance” from Dance Chronicle

Share

Those who remember my post about the “lyrical waltz” and the fuzzy meaning of the term “lyrical” as applied to dance generally, will be delighted to know that there is a wonderful article by Jennifer Fisher on lyrical dance. The title was enough to confirm for me that it must be a gem: “When Good Adjectives Go Bad: The Case of So-called Lyrical Dance.” 

There are a thousand articles like this yet to be written, ones which take the terms we are used to hearing in everyday life in the dance world, and putting some conceptual flesh on them based on research out there among the leotards, sequins and competitions. There is much that is quotable and interesting, but I particularly love her analysis of articles in Dance Spirit magazine, which includes this observation: 

Contradictions sometimes arise in these articles that resound with “how-to” advice. “It’s not how high you can kick,” one competition judge and choreographer advises, “it’s [about] telling the story through your face and emoting with your upper body.” But if you watch much dance labeled “lyrical,” you will see that it is also about how high you can kick, because kicks are rarely anything but high as can be. (Fisher, 2014, p. 328)

It’s funny but also a bit depressing that you could say much about the ballet world: for all the stuff about “ballet is more than acrobatics,” it’s hard, much of the time, to see what the “more than” consists of, and to what degree. 

 

 

 

The attentional commons and Leicester Square tube station

Share
Leicester Square tube station, Northern Line escalator, free of adverts

Leicester Square tube station on 12th April 2019: note the lovely lack of adverts

Nothing to do with music, except that I have to go to Leicester Square several times a week on my way to piano playing jobs, so when something changes about the station, I notice it. Recently though, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt calmer on the way up the escalator from the Northern Line, until I realized it was because for the first time I can remember in all the years I’ve travelled on the tube, I could just stay with my own thoughts instead of being distracted by adverts every few centimetres, and I was reminded of the long rant I wrote about the “attentional commons”  and New Street Station in Birmingham.

For once,  I had a sense of place rather than that feeling that you could be absolutely anywhere, followed by the same adverts wherever you go. Even though it’s nothing but a cavernous white space, you notice the whole space, its shape, volume and colour, and can live in it and enjoy it for a bit, rather than being drawn at face level into the forced intimacy of those advertising panels, that do the opposite—they nobble your sense of who and where you are and what you’re doing. Leicester Square tube station suddenly felt like  a place, rather than an advertising space. Other cities do this much better: just look at this station in Prague,  Staroměstská, for an idea of how different things could be (and see this page for more pictures and descriptions of the Line A stations in Prague which have similar designs, in different colours)

Staroměstská metro station in Prague

Staroměstská metro station in Prague

It’s just a guess, but I think that you could probably reduce stress levels exponentially if you were to turn tube stations into places, rather than billboards. 

See also:

Tchaikovsky’s hairpins

Share
Roberto Poli's book, The Secret LIfe of Musical Notation

The Secret Life of Musical Notation

The secret life of hairpins

In The Secret Life of Musical Notation, Roberto Poli examines a number of notational conventions—hairpins, sforzandi, rinforzandi, pedals, stretti and rhythmic values—that have perplexed him as a performer, and led him to investigate the possibility that they don’t mean what we assume them to mean. 

I found the chapter on hairpins very interesting, and the evidence for there being a problem is persuasive: he shows  a number of examples from Chopin’s work where the hairpins don’t make a lot of sense, either because they’re redundant (they show a hairpin as well as a diminuendo, for example) or because they contradict the musical sense: a “diminuendo” hairpin just at the point where you are getting to the high point of a phrase, and to taper off seems expressively illogical. 

When is a hairpin not a hairpin? 

His conclusion is that hairpins, among some composers and in a certain time period, denoted not [simply] increases or decreases in volume, but agogics,  i.e. expressive timing. What we think of as a “crescendo” hairpin would mean pulling out (i.e. slowing down) towards the open end of the hairpin. A “diminuendo” hairpin would mean essentially a tenuto where the open end was, recovering normal tempo towards the end. Two hairpins together, with the open end in the middle, would mean treating the tempo of the bar with rubato. I’m reducing the arguments a little (the chapter is nearly 70 pages long), but that’s roughly it.  Importantly, what appear to be accents might in fact be mini hairpins, and as such, are an alternative sign for what we would normally expect to be represented by a tenuto. 

As convincing as the arguments are, It all sounds a bit too much like an engaging conspiracy theory to be true, but then he quotes Riemann’s Die Elemente der musikalischen Äesthetik (1900), where

hairpins are described as affecting both dynamic and agogic coordinates. Riemann explained that the symbol might serve different purposes, its agogic function only strengthening the dynamic one and vice versa. He formulated that, should the context in which the hairpin is found convey the necessity, one or the other function can be abandoned, as long as this would not incur a great loss of either parameter. (Poli, 2010, p. 66

The Lilac Fairy Attendants’ Hairpins

As it happened, the day after I read the chapter on hairpins, I was down to play the Lilac Fairy Attendants from Sleeping Beauty on an Easter School, a piece that is really horrible to play on the piano, and doesn’t get any less horrible when you’ve done it at every summer school for the last 30 years. I was still in two minds about Poli’s thesis about hairpins, but I thought, let’s see how his theory fares on this piece. 

Whether or not Tchaikovsky fits in to the league of composers or periods when hairpins or “accents”  could mean agogics or not, I am utterly convinced that this is a better way to read the score than any way I have done in the past. 

Using Poli’s analyses, one could interpret the “accents” over those notes as meaning tenuto marks, rather than accents. Do that once, and tell me you’re not convinced: what sense does it make to have accents on those notes when the marking is grazioso, and later pianissimo? For years, I’ve obeyed the music and put a little accent of sorts on that note, but when you get to the hairpin starting in bar six, why on earth would you get louder and accent those notes in music like this? 

But change those accents to tenuto marks, and pull out the music towards the F#, and give slightly more tenuto on the following B, and then on the bottom line, pull out towards the C#, and it all makes beautiful musical sense. You can play this music without any dynamic accents at all, only agogic ones, and it begins to sound like music again. 

Likewise, the accent on the D in voice 2 in the RH in the penultimate bar. A tenuto there makes perfect sense within the waltz, because there would be a slight hold there in the movement, but an accent is neither musical, nor does it give the right tempo feel to the bar that would be appropriate.  As Poli points out, we are so conditioned by later performance practice not to conflate dynamics with agogics, that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was considered perfectly normal and musical to do so. 

I compared the orchestral score to Siloti’s arrangement. Siloti has a narrowing hairpin in the last few bars, where the orchestra doesn’t, and it makes musical sense to pull out towards the end a bit. A conductor would do this without needing to be told in the score, but perhaps Siloti wrote his hairpin in the score to give an indication of what would be determined in orchestral practice. 

Another rather interesting thing is that the tendency towards metronomic tempi, and the going-out-of-fashion of this kind of agogics, has seeped into ballet as well. It’s a delightful rarity to work with a ballet teacher who lives and breathes expressive timing, but that may be a side-effect of performance practice in music rather than ballet. People my age will remember a time when to slow down at the end of a piece of early music was like wearing brown shoes in the city. We live in less dictatorial times I think, thanks to Taruskin’s diatribes against such things in Text and Act for example, but I hadn’t realised until this Sleeping Beauty experience how much my reading of notation followed such carefully self-policed rules.