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.

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

Auslander, P. (2008). Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (2nd ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.
Hennion, A. (2007). Those Things That Hold Us Together: Taste and Sociology. Cultural Sociology, 1(1), 97–114. https://doi.org/10.1177/1749975507073923
Stern, D. (2010). Forms of vitality: Exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, and development. Oxford: Oxford 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. 

Representing ballet class with piano 

Recently (I’m updating this paragraph now in Sept 2019) I’ve been struggling with a really tricky article about music and representation, and in the process, I have become much more alert to the role that representations of ballet class (in film, television, and novels, for example) have to play in our construction of what ballet class is. In the past, I’d thought there was something rather quaint, bizarre, and regressive about the fact that when ballet classes are represented in this way, they often feature pianos and pianists, even though this is quite rare in real life—or only normal for vocational schools and (some) companies. But now I realize that these representations are what give us our sense of what ballet classes are, just as children’s picture books give us an idea of what apples and trains look like. Is there something fundamentally wrong with believing that a ballet class, essentially, should have a pianist? Should we be more realistic, should we aim to represent ballet classes “as they really are,” and thus change the expectations? It’s a genuine question, I’m really in two minds: on the one hand, it’s wrong to denigrate wholesale the excellent work done by  teachers who use recordings, or to elevate the sometimes very bad work done by teachers who have pianists (and by their pianists, too), simply by virtue of them having live music.  On the other, why not hold up a particular form of the practice as exemplifying not simply “what it is” but what you would like it to be? 

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.