Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kinds of Performance

I've been listening to Grigory Sokolov lately and it leads me to mull over different levels of performance. Frankly, he plays at a level that I don't think I have heard before--certainly not often! Way back in 2011 I did a post on levels of creativity so I think I will try to do the same with performance, just as an exercise. Here let me quote the relevant bit from that post:
Let me see if I can define levels of musical creativity:
  1. You write a simple piece in a well-established musical form or genre such as a minuet or a folk-song. Mozart could do this when he was seven.
  2. You write a piece in a more demanding genre such as a sonata movement or a two-part invention. (I say 'write', but this could be improvised as well-in Jazz, you wouldn't write it down, for example.) Second and third year music students typically do this sort of thing.
  3. You write a really appealing piece or song in a well-established genre. A rock group or individual artist in pop music might do something like this that becomes popular--a 'hit'. A classical example might be something like a Haydn minuet.
  4. You write something that really captures the genre, exhausts the genre or exceeds the genre. A good example of this would be one of the more famous songs by the Beatles: "Yesterday" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" for example. A classical example might be one of the Bach fugues like the C major from Bk 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a good Beethoven symphonic movement like the second movement of the Symphony no 7. Perhaps one of the Chopin mazurkas.
  5. You write something that absolutely transforms the genre or form. Examples: The Beatles, Revolver; Bach, the keyboard suites; Haydn, the symphonies; Mozart, the piano concertos, Beethoven, the early piano sonatas.
  6. You create an entirely new form or genre: Haydn, the string quartets and symphonies; Chopin, the nocturnes, the scherzos, the ballades; Stravinsky, the modern ballet; Steve Reich, process music; Scarlatti, the single-movement keyboard sonata.
  7. You create something that transcends not only the form or genre, but that is a master work transcending its era. Bach, the WTC, the Art of Fugue, Beethoven, Symphonies 3, 5 and 9; and several of the later piano sonatas; Shostakovich, Symphonies 5, 7 and 10.
I added some caveats that you can see if you go back and read the whole post, but that's the core of it. Now it seems as if there might be an equivalent for performance. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that there might be a better way to estimate performances than this kind of hierarchy of creativity. I think that there is one fundamental principle that applies over a wide spectrum of performances. That principle could be stated as "attention to detail."

There is a great deal that is automatic in musical performance. One of the reasons we spend so much time in the practice room is to make secure and infallible all the possible technical devices and musical situations. This is the reason behind constant practice of scales, slurs and arpeggios. You have to be able to execute them every time flawlessly. But the downside of this is the possibility of the performance becoming rote and mechanical.

So we can categorize a few ways in which a musical performance can be bad:

  • the player can simply lack the basic technical command of the instrument: this is what you hear in poorly-prepared student recitals
  • the player can have basic technical skills, but be lacking in music understanding so that the expression and argument of the music is lost
  • the player can be technically adroit, but tends to indulge in a display of dexterity rather than any depth of interpretation
Now let's think about possible performances from the point of view of attention to detail. There are various ways of understanding this. First of all, attention to detail is what informs your technical practice. A technically adroit performance means that you handle every note with clarity and definition: there is nothing blurry and the rhythms are not distorted. Harmonies are clear and chords well-balanced. This is attention to technical detail and it is an essential precursor to a good performance. But it doesn't stop there. The next step is attention to musical detail and that involves the following things:
  • understanding and making evident to the listener the structure of the piece from the smallest level (the shaping of individual motifs, the handling of phrases) up to the overall structure (the pacing of the movement, leading to musical climaxes and denouements)
  • understanding of historical performance practice so that you do not play 17th century ornaments in a 19th century piece or vice-versa
  • understanding of the fundamentals and elegances of the style: Classical Style, Romantic Style and so on
  • responding to the aesthetic challenges of the piece
  • playing the music as if it were being created on the spot, or as if it were eternally inevitable (oddly, this is often the same thing!)
After all this has been accomplished and, frankly, very few performers ever get this far, then you can really start paying attention to detail! By this I mean that every note, every chord, every rhythm is played with full attention and awareness so that it is an aesthetic truth. I think that it is this kind of transcendental performance that we hear in the playing of Grigory Sokolov. I would like to offer a performance of his as an example of what I have been trying to describe. This is an entire concert he played in Madrid in 1998:

No comments: