Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tolstoy on Performance

The "Anna Karenina" principle derives from this quote that begins Tolstoy's novel:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
We might adapt this principle to music performance by noting that outstanding musical performances are all alike, but every bad musical performance is bad in its own way. But is this true? Oddly enough, I think the opposite is true! Why this is the case reveals something important about the nature of art.

What distinguishes art from mere design is some kind of unique element or tension in the artwork itself. In music, what distinguishes art or concert music from commercial pop, folk or genre music is the same: musical materials or structures that create a unique element or tension in the piece. You might respond by asking what is unique about those innumerable sonatas by Scarlatti or symphonies by Haydn. Of course, they are not innumerable because they do indeed have numbers. And, as I think that I have demonstrated in dozens of posts on Scarlatti and Haydn, the remarkable thing is just how unique each one of those many, many sonatas and symphonies are! I won't take the time to reiterate that here--just use the search box on the right and read my many posts on Scarlatti and Haydn for lots and lots of examples. Good composers never fall prey to the formulaic; each piece has its own individual character even though certain basic structural elements may recur. There are lots of buildings built using bricks, but they can be very, very different nonetheless.

So if you accept the idea that good pieces of music are not good because they fit some kind of predetermined formula, but are good for precisely the opposite reason: that they are the opposite of formulaic, then the next step should be logical. Performances of good pieces of music are good in that they reflect the individuality of the piece of music. The greater the performance, the greater the individuality.

Before looking for examples, let's take a moment to do an analysis of how a weak or poor musical performance might be characterized. As someone who taught guitar at conservatory and university for decades, I'm something of an expert! From long experience, I would describe a weak or poor rendition of a piece of music as including some (or all!) of the following characteristics:

  • halting or wobbling pulse unrelated to the musical phrase
  • soggy or incorrect rhythm
  • mechanical execution of the rhythm unrelated to the musical content
  • poor or inappropriate tone colors
  • lack of dynamic contrasts or inappropriate placing of them
  • poorly balanced chords indicating an obliviousness to the harmony
  • lack of awareness of the harmonic movement and tension
  • inability to "sing" the melody and make the phrases evident
  • obvious technical inadequacies such as inability to play equal notes equally
I'm sure there are many more, but this should give you an idea. Nearly every bad performance I have heard (and I have heard thousands) has included at least one of these faults and many have included most of them! Bad performances, like poor pieces of music, tend to share certain qualities. In the case of a piece of music it is usually boring, repetitive, formulaic, incoherent and unimaginative. In the case of a performance it is weak and inconsistent technically in ways that masks the aesthetic qualities of the piece.

One objection to my theory might be that great performers are often easily identifiable, so is this consistent with them interpreting each piece in an individual way? Yes, I think it is, though the argument is going to be fairly subtle. Let's take Vladimir Horowitz, a great performer on the piano, for an example. If my theory is correct, then he should take a hugely different approach to two composers as different as Mozart and Chopin. Let's have a listen. This is the Rondo in D major K485 by Mozart from a live concert:

From the same concert here is Chopin's Polonaise Op. 53 in A flat major:

Same concert, same piano, same hall, but notice how the colors of the piano are very different. Of course, due to the mechanism of the piano, you can't actually change the tone color. But pianists do so all the time through subtle control of articulation, balance, dynamics and so on. The sound of the Chopin is much thicker and colorful than the Mozart, where he emphasizes the clarity and purity of the sound.

A great musician approaches every piece looking for differences and ways to make it unique. Let's take a couple of other examples. Here is Grigory Sokolov playing Rameau, Les sauvages, originally for harpsichord:

I doubt you could actually play the piano more crisply than that! Now, for contrast, let's hear him playing Brahms. Again, same artist, same concert, same piano but this performance of the Intermezzo No 2 in B flat minor Op 117 by Brahms is legato, flowing and with very different colors from the Rameau:

I think that my theory would be even easier to demonstrate on other instruments as guitarists and string and wind players have more ability to alter the timbre of their instruments. As for singers, well, the possibilities are enormous. But these two examples should be suggestive if not actually conclusive!


Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan

Doesn't it really depend on exactly what you include in the criteria that make the performances 'alike'? You said 'We might adapt this principle to music performance by noting that outstanding musical performances are all alike, but every bad musical performance is bad in its own way'.
If you include as a defining characteristic of good performances not only all the criteria you listed concerning characteristics of a bad performance (in reverse of course) but also include interpreting the piece in a 'unique way' and any other characteristic you consider vital, then wouldn't we be able to say all fine performances are 'alike'? And then you said "I would describe a weak or poor rendition of a piece of music as including some (or all!) of the following characteristics..." Doesn't the 'some or all' mean that bad performances are different from each other? Each one has it's own assortment of weaknesses?

Bryan Townsend said...

You studied philosophy, now didn't you?

Yes, you can make a parallel construction with a bad performance exhibiting all the characteristics I listed and a good performance displaying their opposites, but that doesn't tell us much. Bad performances have two basic qualities: they are clumsy in some way and they are thoughtless. Good performances are alike in that they are skilled, adroit, but different in that the thoughtfulness leads to a different and original performance of each piece.

But yes, bad performances can differ from one another too, but they still display an unfortunate sameness!

Christine Lacroix said...

Hello Bryan

What makes you think I've studied philosophy? I haven't, in fact.
I was just wondering if an excellent performance absolutely had to meet every criteria on a list whereas a bad one had to only screw up one, a few or all.

I question the 'all happy families are alike....' homily however. Who says?

Bryan Townsend said...

You seem to have an analytical mind.

I'm really not coming from an a priori perspective. Rather I'm making empirical observations. There is a dreary sameness to poor performances and a refreshing individuality to good performances, in my experience.

But no list in the sense of exigent criteria, no. My list was more effort to identify the kinds of things that make for a poor performance.

Who says? Tolstoy!! But I make no claim to support his homily--I was disagreeing with it, in fact.

Christine Lacroix said...

Yes, Tolstoy, and maybe because it's the famous Tolstoy people believe it! But I think that the music teacher you critiqued once who responded to you also repeated that quote? I can't remember his name or even where the post is. But you got me thinking about the word 'same' in the post where you mentioned a car with all it's parts replaced being the 'same'. It all depends doesn't it on the definition given to the word. Once you drive the car out of the garage and it's got some mileage on it isn't the same is it? But from a purely subjective point of view the owner could say 'I've been driving the same car for 20 years' even if all the parts have been replaced. But maybe I'm missing the 'philosophical' point?

Bryan Townsend said...

That's getting pretty far away from the "Anna Karenina" Principle which you can read about here:

Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks Bryan, I'll check it out. I read that book so long ago that all of my brain cells have been replaced many times so I don't remember much!
By the way you don't need to click the I'm not a robot square and it still works!

Bryan Townsend said...

Me neither!

That's good news, because the "I'm not a robot" procedure has really been putting me to the test lately!

Marc Puckett said...

Good and useful examples!

The I am not a robot thingey does seem to have been stuck on 'pizza' quite a lot lately, although today again it hasn't made me make any identifications.

Christine Lacroix said...

Forget about the I'm not a robot thing. I don't know why it's even there!

Bryan Townsend said...

Obviously some folks are worried that they might be robots and want to be reassured they are not!