Thursday, December 4, 2014

Compare and Contrast

One of my commentators left a great comment on a post the other day. He asked some very interesting questions, a couple of which I responded to, but others I didn't have time to. So I would like to take up the rest in this post. The part I didn't respond to read:
I think these compare and contrast posts are some of the best posts that you share here at the music salon. Its one thing to talk about differences in phrasing, but it is so much more valuable to be able to hear that difference as well. You make a very clear case by contrasting Ms. Isbin’s performance with Mr. Williams. It seems to me that guitarists must work very hard at becoming a “good technician” on their instrument due to the nature of the guitar. I think showing how the musical intention (or lack thereof) comes through above and beyond the technical performance is a component of music appreciation and education that isn't talked about much outside of professional music circles. Do keep sharing these kinds of posts, I find them so interesting!

In my own musical upbringing, it wasn't until I started working with a vocal teacher that I became aware of how important our intentions are in how we phrase all the “right” notes on the page (i.e. don’t play Bach like you hate him!). Once I gained an awareness of this aspect of music, I felt like I had discovered this whole other world – reading this post really brought me back to that happy place and time.
 It's funny, the compare and contrast method, that I have used all my career in music, mostly for my own development, does not seem to be widely known. I never much noticed that, as it came completely naturally and instinctively to me. Back when I was a performer, if I were going to learn a new piece there were two general paths I took. One is to simply sit down and do a study of the score. If it is a new piece, then this is the only option. Julian Bream has talked about taking a new Peter Maxwell Davies score with him camping and sitting in his tent studying it without a guitar. I can see that. But for most repertoire, there are many recordings available and perhaps even the occasional live performance in your area. The other path is to listen to different performances of the piece and compare them. This is the method I used when I was learning new repertoire.

Let me describe it in a bit more detail. Typically, I would hear a recording or performance of a piece and say to myself, "great piece, I have to learn it". Sometimes it would be just too difficult, especially earlier in my career. But if that were not the case, the next step would be to get the score. I would study the score with and without the guitar. (What this means is that without the instrument you look at the score and try to figure out the general structure, how the phrases are organized, the harmonies and so on. Then with the guitar, you go through and check how all of this sounds.) After this initial study, then I would likely try to find several different recordings of the piece and compare them. What is the usual tempo, for example, is one thing I would find out. How do the different players handle the phrasing and dynamics?

This can be very illuminating. One strong example that comes to mind is the Passacaglia from the Three Spanish Pieces by Joaquin Rodrigo. For a long time guitarists would only play the first piece, the Fandango. Segovia had recorded it, then Williams, and though difficult, how to play it musically was fairly clear. Then a few guitarists picked up the third piece, the Zapateado. Though technically difficult, it is not difficult musically. But for a long time no-one played the middle piece, the Passacaglia. Then Bream recorded all three, taking a quite slow tempo for the Passacaglia, and suddenly it was obvious how that should be played! Here is a fine live performance by Jerôme Ducharme of that movement:

It does not come together musically unless you take a fairly slow tempo.

So that was how I used comparing and contrasting different performances in my own musical development. But it is a great tool for demonstrating subtleties of musicianship and, incidentally, for revealing aesthetic truths. But it is rarely found in any mainstream forum. Why is that? It is because it is so revealing. Therefore, not to be too dramatic, there is a kind of conspiracy to keep it off the radar!

The economic base of the business is what supports most mainstream commentary on music. This economic base depends on music sales of recordings, sheet music, instruments and electronics. What gives a real punch to sales are rave articles about this or that recording, artist or sound system. (Sheet music sales are less affected by this.) So what you see in the media are puff pieces (non-critical praise) of such and such an artist or recording. Occasionally you will see a review of a recording or concert that is partly negative, but these days even those receive some push-back.

It is of no economic benefit to the business to have listeners--consumers--critically comparing different artists and recordings, therefore that sort of thing just doesn't appear.

But it is, of course, of enormous benefit to the listeners, consumers, music students and musicians as it enables them to become more aesthetically aware.

One of the most thorough-going comparisons I have done here at the Music Salon was of different recordings of a Bach gigue for solo violin. That was provoked by some remarks made by Nigel Kennedy about Bach. Here is that post.

Oddly enough, it was lessons with a voice teacher that also led to my awakening with regard to musical interpretation.

Just for fun, here is my recording of the Zapateado by Rodrigo:

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