Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mysteries of Music

I talk a lot about aesthetics here, possibly to extent that I risk terminally boring some readers. But so much comes back to aesthetics, specifically to differences in aesthetic opinions. I am in a constant struggle with the nihilism of aesthetic relativism, with the idea that there are no degrees or differences in aesthetic quality that have any objective foundation, with the assertion that Justin Bieber and J. S. Bach are, since everything is relative, aesthetically equal.

But this is just some abstract, bloodless debate with no real consequences in the real world, right? Well, no. I think that the real world consequences are significant and widespread. Let's take as an example my post from yesterday which was very critical of the playing of guitarist Eliot Fisk. I quickly got a couple of comments, one asking, since she really couldn't hear what I was pointing to, whether it was something significant or something that only someone with "ears like a wolf" could hear. The other one agreed with my post.

The problem is that the pursuit of quality in aesthetics, which is equally the avoidance of the bad, is necessary. When it fails, when, that is, a sufficiently large number of people really believe in aesthetic relativism, then we get artists like Eliot Fisk, who are really not artists, chosen to fulfill important roles such as teaching at the New England Conservatory and the Salzburg Mozarteum. Whoever chose to offer these positions to him was either persuaded by non-musical factors or failed to exercise aesthetic judgement.

Why does this matter? It is important because a teacher, especially a teacher in a high prestige institution like the New England Conservatory or the Salzburg Mozarteum, exercises an enormous influence. If they are a good teacher, that is one who knows and observes high aesthetic ideals, then they will be a positive influence on generations of students. If they are egoistical hacks who have no aesthetic ideals apart from the advancement of their own careers, then they will destroy generations of students. Young students rarely have the critical skills to distinguish between the real thing and the false. They imbue their teacher with guru-like status because of the authority lent them by their position in an important musical institution.

Why, you can legitimately ask, do I take such a dislike to Eliot Fisk's playing? I think it is important to clearly point out the reasons. It is not anything to do with his personality, which I don't know (I avoided listening to his TED talk and only met him too briefly to form a personal impression), but with his approach to playing music. The thing about music is that it is a very expressive artform. You do indeed reveal yourself when you play, and not always the things that you think you are revealing! Let's take a close look at Eliot playing a piece by J. S. Bach, one that is a touchstone for any performer--a kind of acid test of you as a musician and a technician (though these two things overlap). Here is the clip:

In order to conduct this exercise I am going to have to be extremely specific and the typical response to that from fans of the artist in question is to challenge that very proceeding as being "nit-picking" or prompted by sour grapes. Here is an example of this kind of response taken from the comments to the above clip:
When Fisk plays at the Wigmore many other great guitarists like J Williams go to watch and listen to him. I wonder how many here who are so critical of Fisk could play at the Wigmore and if anyone would go listen to them. What many fail to see is that Fisk is an artist who dedicated his whole life to the guitar, what he communicates is beyond technique. Sure he can be very sloppy at times but that's not what art is about. At least he has something unique and is able to communicate it. So the real question is do you have something original to express and also are you able to communicate it to others through some medium?  if you can then you too are an artist, in my opinion. If not ... at least don't criticize those who are doing it. At the end of the day all art is subjective . You either like a piece of art or you don't.
Let me answer this, point by point. Yes, perhaps Eliot has played at Wigmore Hall in London and perhaps John Williams did attend the concert, but this is fairly irrelevant. I have also played at Wigmore Hall and some pretty well-known figures in the guitar world attended that concert. What was important was what they said afterwards! Yes, Eliot has devoted his life to the guitar, but again, so have millions of others. The point is, how well? "What he communicates is beyond technique" is an interesting comment. Technique is the instrument by which we communicate. If it is flawed or faulty then our communication is thereby hindered. The idea that "art" is about original inspiration that transcends any mere technical means is a very romantic one, which doesn't mean it is wrong, of course, but it can still be challenged. The real nub of the comment comes at the end: "At the end of the day all art is subjective." And this is the essence of the problem, of course. If all art is merely subjective, then Eliot Fisk can be given the job of teaching impressionable students at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Salzburg Mozarteum. AND SO CAN ANYONE ELSE!! Do you get that? If there are no objective aesthetic standards, then there is no way of distinguishing one artist from another in terms of quality. The writer does actually express a belief in an objective aesthetic quality: the ability to communicate. What does this mean in terms of Eliot's performance we will look at. In order to be clear, here is the first part of the piece in score:

Click to enlarge

Now to the evaluation. I don't need to go very far into the performance as Eliot's way of playing reveals itself immediately. If you listen to the very first chord, one of the notes, the D fretted on the fifth string, I believe, buzzes because of poor fretting. The second harmony, with the C sharp in the bass, he chooses to separate. This is a quirk of the violin, the instrument for which the piece was originally written, but not necessary on the guitar. It is therefore a mannerism, not a musical interpretation. The G minor chord that begins the next measure also has a note that buzzes. The next chord is rushed, coming slightly before it should have. The B flat chord in the second full measure is given a wide vibrato and a redundant low D is hammered out on the third beat. At the end of the next measure, the four sixteenth-notes are thrown out in a completely different tempo (rushed) than the next four sixteenths. The G minor chord at the beginning of the seventh complete measure is played staccato, for no particular reason. As the piece progresses there are more buzzes and frequent wide vibrato on seemingly randomly chosen notes. The tempo is constantly wandering with certain notes and chords lingered on, again, with no particular musical reason, and others chosen to rush ahead on.

The whole effect is of a kind of Bizarro world version of Segovia whose many mannerisms have been copied by a couple of generations of guitarists. But again, mannerisms are not an interpretation. An interpretation is when you notice what is going on in the music and try and reveal it to the listener. You emphasize a harmony because it contains musical tension, not because you have an open string you can hammer. You try and play without buzzes and rushing because that distracts from the music. You try and let the music speak instead of stomping all over it because that shows naive listeners that you are a good stomper.

What is revealed in every measure of this performance is that Eliot has very little regard for the music of J. S. Bach, not enough to actually make an attempt to play it well. But he has enormous regard for himself and his ability to rush tempos and hammer out redundant basses and chords. It is as if you gave a classical guitar to a member of Metallica and asked him to play some Bach. It is a travesty of technique and interpretation.

Hopefully all this will become clear if you compare a different performance. Here are three outstanding performances of the piece, each strong in different ways, but each played with far more attention to precision and detail and to the musical content. This is John Williams:

I could have chosen a live performance that is just as clean, but the sound was poor. This is Hilary Hahn, who takes 50% longer to play the piece than Eliot does:

And finally, a live performance by Manuel Barrueco:

All three of these performances, if you are used to Eliot's, might seem rather dry. The kind of playing that Eliot indulges in is like a drug: every note is squeezed for whatever you can make of it: accent, vibrato, just pushing it forward. But the musical arc of the whole is sacrificed. There are no phrases or paragraphs, just moments of pounding on the beat and whipping the note into a frenzied vibrato. Sure, it's communicating something all right. Just nothing good!


Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks Bryan. I had no idea what it was supposed to sound like. I prefer John Williams' and Hilary Hahn's performances. But what do you think Eliot Fisk would say to his detractors? And are these pieces representative of all of his playing?

Bryan Townsend said...

A piece of music can be played in different ways, of course, but a good performance tends to fall within certain boundaries. You have to respect the basic structure of what the composer wrote. Then you look into the musical structure, the phrases, the harmonies, the characteristic rhythms. You try and make them all come alive in a way that reveals the music.

I don't know how he would respond to his detractors--probably just ignore them and play another concert. I had a look around and Allan Kozinn, a well-respected reviewer at the New York Times gave a positive review to a concert here:

What do I say to that? Well, I wasn't there, so perhaps the concert was exactly as described. Or perhaps Mr. Kozinn sees no point in saying anything negative--there are reviewers with that attitude. I really don't know. But I have no doubt about what I hear and I have never heard a performance of Eliot Fisk that I would want to listen to!

Here is another review, this time by a classical guitarist:

He acknowledges some problems with Eliot Fisk's approach, but says that the overall impression is persuading.

Like I say, this is one of those mysteries of music.

Anonymous said...

Yikes... I see what you mean.

For the violin, Hilary rocks but Perlman rules. Meanwhile poor Heifetz isn't aging well. (Or perhaps we've become too tone-conscious.)

For the guitar, I still find Segovia's version the gold standard:

At any rate, the Chaconne surely is the greatest piece of music ever written for a non-keyboard instrument.

Christine Lacroix said...

I found this excerpt by, wait for it, a thirteen year old, OH NO...David Garrett!

Bryan Townsend said...

What is remarkable about the Segovia recording is how free it is of the kinds of mannerisms that we often associate with Segovia and that Eliot Fisk constantly displays. Segovia takes the music very seriously indeed.

Christine, how do you find these things?

Christine Lacroix said...

Well you said we should listen to recordings by different musicians and I don't know that many plus I'm trying to avoid doing my paperwork. I found this very touching performance of Mozart I think even you might like, performed at the age of 14 ...before he crossed over to the dark side.......

Bryan Townsend said...

Did you know that Mozart wrote all five of his violin concertos in the same year, when he was nineteen? He wrote them for himself to play.

Christine Lacroix said...

Nineteen! And there you've got David Garrett playing his work as a kid. What did you think of his performances?

Bryan Townsend said...

There is nothing wrong with the performances of David Garrett in the two clips. What is interesting is the social inversion implied in his journey to the "dark side".

Christine Lacroix said...

Apparently David Garrett was a true prodigy, a music lover who loved classical music and was self motivated from an early age. There is no denying, however, that he was bullied by a domineering ambitious father and seriously denied a happy, normal childhood, similarly to Lang Lang. His father forced him to practice, sometimes until well into the night. "There were a lot of tears" (his words) When still only a child he started having terrible pain in his shoulder when he played but didn't know what to do about it. In an interview he said he felt his world was crumbling but he couldn't tell his parents. He also recounts how when he arrived at Julliard he had no idea how to make friends or interact with other people since he'd been pulled from school at an early age to further his music career. The students in the theatre and dance sections asked him to play for them and it gave him the opportunity to socialize and discover other kinds of music. Maybe like 2CELLOS he is simply a classic music lover secretly lusting after rock and pop. It isn't really so unusual for young people and not exactly a crime. David Garrett says that the vast majority of his performances are pure classical with classical orchestras but people see him mainly as a cross over artist. That could be because classic music lovers are so horrified by his 'mugging of Beethoven', as you said, that it blinds them to the rest?

Bryan Townsend said...

I was just looking at the tour dates on his website and it looks as if most of his performances are indeed as a traditional soloist with orchestra. Next season he is playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with lots of orchestras. And he is also doing a big tour with his group doing crossover stuff. People see him mainly as a crossover artist because that is how he portrays himself. Just look at his website.

Look, if I heard him play the Tchaikovsky, I would listen to it with open ears. But what I mostly run into is the other stuff.

Christine Lacroix said...

It's true his crossover stuff seems to crop up more often on YouTube. I wonder how YouTube is shaping our perceptions, my perception anyway. I think David Garrett is probably a fine classical violinist who just doesn't have any qualms about re-working the classics. Stjepan Hauser once said in an interview that 2cellos would never do classical crossover since the classics were already masterpieces. The implication that the pop and rock they were covering could use some improvement wasn't lost on the interviewer. I don't remember how he managed to walk that one back!

Bryan Townsend said...

I tend to emphasize aesthetic considerations in all this, but it is likely that artists are confronted more with economic issues. For example, I was once told that the average John Williams album (the classical guitarist, not the film composer) sold only 5000 copies in North America. This was back in the 70s when his career was going strong. In the 80s he did a bunch of different things some of which might be considered crossover nowadays. This might have been largely or partly because his record company were saying to him "John, is there any way you can do something that would sell a few more records?"

I don't know what David Garrett's fee for a concerto performance would be, but just for the purpose of argument let's pick a number: $20,000 for a single performance might not be too out of line. Now, one of the stops on his upcoming tour with his group, where they do all the pop and crossover stuff, is the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City, which holds about 20,000 people. Obviously his take from that concert is going to be MANY times greater than what he gets for a concerto. If you can fill that hall you must be taking home a lot.

I just checked and tickets range between about $30 US and about $178 US for that concert. Let's just take a guess and estimate that the average is around $100 US. Let us make another guess and estimate that Garrett takes home half of the receipts. That means that, if the hall is full, his take for the evening would be, wait for it, one million dollars!

The economics are pretty strongly in favour of doing this kind of thing rather than traditional concerts. Oh, and don't think that the costs of putting the concert on are going to be too high. Those backing musicians get paid no better than scale, probably. It came out that David Bowie was offering Stevie Ray Vaughan a paltry $200 a night for playing on his Serious Moonlight tour back in the 80s (we don't usually find out these things). Stevie played on the album, but said no thanks to the tour and Bowie easily found someone else for the money.

Christine Lacroix said...

A million dollars. That's amazing. If you can make a million dollars in an evening doing what you love you're very lucky!

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, very true. Though it is more a matter of careful marketing than luck. And there is a lot more money in playing crossover than there is in playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

Takis Atsidakos said...

This playing of Chacone is , unfortunately, similar to other modern interpretations of Bach, but also Mozart, Beethoven, even Bartok, Wagner etc i.e. fast, shallow sounding, agressive sound, light in emotion.
Check out the new Bach recording of Gil Shaham. Althought he plays much better, cleaner etc, than Fisk, he speeds to death and is cold as ice. And of course, he gets rapture reviews.
But listen to Szeryng, Perlmann, Grumiaux, Milstein.......humanity, warmth, life changing musicality.

Bryan Townsend said...

I just listened to Nathan Milstein's recording of the Chaconne today. I find his sound to be irritating at times and his tempos to be a bit wayward, but there is definitely something there, some kind of transcendence. But I very much like Hilary Hahn's Chaconne and there is nothing rushed or cold about it. On guitar, I like Pepe Romero's Chaconne a lot--largely because of the amazing sound he gets.

Anonymous said...

I saw a video once and some comments on it and thought, Elliot Fisk is not very good.

And then I came across this video some time later, and thought, Elliot Fisk is very good.

Bryan Townsend said...

I certainly see what you mean! I think that might be the first time I have seen Eliot play a guitar duet--or any chamber music. Yes, it is far less mannered than his usual playing. He is a very accomplished guitarist, there is no doubt. Which makes it even more puzzling why he so often plays in such a heavy-handed, unmusical way.

Christine Lacroix said...

I'm wondering if you would think that it's plausible that a violinist would be able to identify the make and year of a violin from listening to a recording :
If you decide to watch the clip from the tv program (the link is in the article) you will need to fast forward to about 3:30, except of course if you understand German and are interested in what precedes the guessing part.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, that is pretty impressive (I just listened to the first two). Ok, David Garrett, a famous violin soloist who goes around playing concertos with orchestra can identify other famous soloists playing a famous concerto with orchestra. This is probably not as impressive as it seems. If you tested a few professional guitar soloists they could probably identify the players without too much difficulty. I could easily tell John Williams from Julian Bream from Narciso Yepes playing the Aranjuez concerto by Rodrigo, which would be a similar test for me. As for which guitars they are playing, this is even easier because once you have identified the guitarist, you probably know what he was playing anyway: John Williams plays a Greg Smallman guitar, Julian Bream a Hauser and so on. This is common knowledge. It might be a bit the same in the violin world. I should ask my violinist friend.

Mind you, if it were the producer of that program, I would be very tempted to slip David the answers beforehand, just to make sure it was impressive!

Christine Lacroix said...

I think you're probably right. For a violinist like David Garrett, probably familiar with other soloists and their instruments, it might not be a daunting task. However I can't imagine that David Garrett would need to cheat. He's not running for public office, he's a musician!

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh. But that would be for the benefit of the producer, not David Garrett.