Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Moot? or Mute?

What a wonderful word is "moot"... I imagine a map like Tolkien's, of Middle Earth, with a land named Moot, to which all irrelevant comparisons and questions are banished; or perhaps they simply choose to live in Moot, like some people choose to live in Idaho. There they would live, exchanging non sequiturs, while the rest of us pursue our linear, logical ways.

Someone came up to me the other day after a Brahms g minor Piano Quartet performance and wondered why Brahms insisted on putting the mutes on the strings in the second movement. A perfectly reasonable question, I suppose (wouldn't the strings be able to play louder without them? wouldn't they have a greater emotional/dynamic range?) but to me it was moot. And I struggled against its mootness: my face, I am afraid, assumed that strained expression it gets when I am attempting to appear to consider something reasonably... something which I am aching to rudely dismiss. But something about this question was familiar, echoed within me, and I vaguely remembered moments from my many rehearsals of this piece, listening to string players discuss who should be muted, for how long, and why.

Hard experience has taught me often to put on my own mutes when matters of "string playing" are being discussed in rehearsal. Unless earnestly implored, I will never offer my thoughts, for instance, on bowings or fingerings or slides. I learned this a) from being yelled at, and b) from my own irritation, for example, when a string player (who also plays piano) will suggest some pedaling or fingering to me. This latter is especially irritating if the fingering or pedaling is good, and I must think up some extravagant, false reason to disprove their insights. Just kidding, sort of.

So, I tend to "zone out" when this mute question is discussed. I look benignly at the ceiling, or I think abstractly about how I will play some phrase later on in the movement, and when I feel the string players' eyes rest on me some minutes later, I smile my best smile and agree with whatever they have decided, even though I have very very strong feelings on the matter. For me, the whole movement must be inward, not too fast particularly, and never going out of a certain emotional frame... something recalled, something seen from a distance, slightly blurred, slightly worn down by experience, time, melancholy, or thought. The muting of the strings perfectly expresses this quality, and if occasionally I tend to play a chord too loud in the movement, it is never without severely reproaching myself afterwards. The mutes are synonymous with the movement then, the exact sonic equivalent of its emotional intent, and so to ask "why mute the strings?" ... well, to me it is like asking "why is blue blue"?

I am reminded of past witnessed mootnesses: my friend M. from grad school complaining that they were too cruel to Falstaff after a performance of the eponymous Verdi opera; and, a fellow faculty member at Indiana University wondering why Beethoven had to write that "ugly" pedaling in the last movement of the "Waldstein" Sonata. She/he was referring to the long, magnificent pedal markings in the main theme of the rondo, which indicate a blurring of the tonic and dominant. In both cases, what is questioned is what seems to me the essence, the most beautiful thing, the quality which makes the theme/work transcendent, unique, its reason-for-being.

And so these questions are not so much "moot" as strangely central; they challenge the root, the core. To be fair, then, to the very intelligent person who asked this moot mute question that I am unfairly dissecting, it is the most important question one can ask.

And anyway the post-concert schmooze is an absolute Invasion of the Moot. Everything seems moot after you have just played away for forty-five minutes at a giant romantic epic... or after any performance, when you descend or ascend into the green room and people mill about and pick up on little moments from your performance or your outfit or whatever tangent they can find. And sometimes I wish I could write down all the moot things people say, and make a compilation; it would be hilarious, or tragic, or both.

8 comments:

DO said...

This is exactly why I never, ever like to go backstage after performances.

margo said...

Speaking of tragic--
True story:
backstage after an all-Chopin recital--

Audience Member: Oh, the second piece you played was absolutely beautiful, gorgeous! A student of mine is working on it right now, actually. What was it again? Beethoven?

Me: ???
AM: That, that second piece you played?
Me: Oh, oh, right. Um, that was Chopin Ballade.
AM: Ah, yes... Well, it was very nice.
Me: Thanks, thank you. Thanks for coming.

brad said...

Great topic! I just discovered your blog after reading about it in Alex Ross' article where he writes about you, and it's full of insightful stuff; keep it up.
I'm a jazz pianist professionally who loves classical music and look forward to hearing you in the future when you're in New York again.

The issue of what's moot raises another thought that troubles me as a musician, and also as a layman listening to or observing other people's output: To what extent is criticism - written criticism from professionals - moot, and why? I often feel that reviews of performances or new recordings are moot because they fail to take the work on its own terms. Often, the reviewer takes issue with an idiosyncratic quality in a performance because it is unorthodox or somehow aesthetically out of alignment with everything else. But that quality can't be separated from what makes the performance vital and engaging - it's part and parcel with the whole.

The Brahms you mention is one of my all time favorites. I guess it did cross my mind a few times to wonder why the strings use mutes on the slow movement, particularly in the middle development section where they play alone as a trio and respond to the piano: The harmony is so rich there you could make a case for no mutes, to hear those luscious passage more vibrantly. But like you said: moot! To me, the mutes there are in keeping with an overal characteristic of Brahms' music: That 'verklemmt' aspect: There's this incredible heart-on-your-sleeve romanticism, but it's being held in check just a bit, which makes it more poignant.

littlemissrandom said...

I just found the article on you in Blogger Buzz, and came across to have a look. Your writing is so eloquent, and the way you describe the music makes me yearn to hear it.

Thank you so much for sharing your talents.

bpianissimo said...

Chamber music seems to be sometimes difficult !
But I don't understand why you never "offer your thoughts" . For my part it could perhaps be interesting to explain your opinion about the mutes to the strings players . You could build a more common performance , which would have more strength . I think music is made for being shared between the players and with the public .
I agree with your beautiful interpretation of this movement :"something recalled, something seen from a distance, slightly blurred"

elisabeth said...

Feel free to start that compilation of funny/weird/stupid things people say, on your blog... I would definitely want to read it.

I enjoy reading your blog, if you ever come to Norway let us know... :)

Amy said...

Perhaps because pianists have no equivalent toys, they cannot explicitly show differences in tone. But how many times does one play Bach and think, "On an organ this would be a register change," or "This bass pedal should have a shaded coloring"? In the late Schubert sonatas, there are constant major-minor key changes, changes in tone, mood, and timbre, and to think of them as putting a pianistic "mute" on or off seems the furthest thing from a reasonable argument.

Anonymous said...

I've fought the 'moot-v-mute' battle for years.
An interesting 'extra', is that the Oxford English Dictionary informs us that 'mute' is a word for the 'droppings' of swans.

So not so much a swan song as a swan s*it.