Sunday, July 09, 2006


As I roam FestivaLand I encounter a safari's worth of beasts, either persons or ideas or intractable problems which will never be resolved in a performance. Yet the solution is always the same: a performance, a reception, and an outgoing flight. Confrontation, followed by escape. Take two bows and head for the airport in the morning.

I was driving down Broadway in Seattle (so different from Broadway of my homeland), and feeling completely free of intractable problems. I gripped a scalding coffee already in one hand; the other held the steering wheel; I stared at the blue blue sky through sunglasses, their opacity aching to express the inner, lost, disjointed pseudo-hipster that is the real, real Jeremy (or that which the real Jeremy wishes he was? Let's ask him.) Espresso stands flew by, and I ignored them with the comfort of caffeine-at-hand, with only the small, sour pang of a future desire. A pile of dry-cleaning sat accusingly, expectantly in the back seat, speckled with dust from backstage couches, and murmuring odiferously of sweat and piano benches. Everything was turning up metaphorical roses and I had felt this way since the first brilliant rays made a mockery of my half-drawn shade. It was one of those rare Denk occasions when beauty spurred to action, and not simply to awe, beverage, or repose. The clear, spread sky and the distant, utopian outlines of the mountains made it possible for me not to lie in bed and crave the dark. The bedroom was after all only a cage. Seattle suggests that nature's beauties will always be better than your own pleasures; they are always lurking visibly beyond the burbs. If it didn't rain, I think the people of Seattle would go insane from this realization; you can never be as beautiful as where you live. Like hip professors, the sun and air lectured me outdoors. I knew, like other morning people knew, the desire to do, to be useful: to be fruitful and multiply, to enact. And so off I zoomed in my crappy rental Kia, a man in a tin can ...

While I drove, in this happy state, with grungy hipsters dodging my artless driving, I confess I did not have a clean craw. A few days earlier, someone had said something at a post-concert or a post-rehearsal meal or drink or whatever: it doesn't matter at all who said it or when or how because it is so often said, and so often agreed with. The person said that the problem with such-and-such piece is that people don't know how to "leave it alone." And not just that piece--the person continued--there are so many others: people should just leave great music alone and let it speak for itself. There was general assent to this, and I assented also, though I had my doubts, but I have learned to shelve them, often, for the greater, or for my own good. Anyway this sort of statement is made often and so many musicians seem to agree with it in so many ways: it seems like a natural, virtuous thing, since the music we classical nerds play is often quite amazing and one feels queasy at the notion of "adding anything" to it. So: if tampering is option "a", the alternative is to "leave it alone."

In my opinion, music does not want to be left alone. It gets restless, then empty, and then dies. Music, "left alone," is just a score in the bottom of a bin, a score not piled for future use on top of the piano but in some file cabinet in the closet next to the vacuum cleaner and spare lightbulbs for your annoying IKEA lamp. Unless people are able to access it, chat with it, have an emotional conversation with it, a musical work does not exist. Like the tree in the forest falling.

Ah, you will say: you, Denk, are quibbling. When X said "leave it alone," he didn't mean it literally, but metaphorically, like my earlier roses. I think the substance of this metaphor is worth examining. Nothing is only rarely nothing. Most nothings are somethings in disguise. To find a true nothing, a nothing nothing, is a beautiful puzzle which can give you a headache, and maybe it's not even worth bothering, since nothing results from it har-dee-har-har. To "leave a piece alone" by contemporary standards means perhaps: to do what modern conservatory education tells us to do: play in time, observe markings, play expressively but do not add any extras: present the score, as if there were a perfect "acoustical correlative." This faith in an acoustical correlative is one of the strange cults of our modern classical musical religion, and it too I would like to debunk, but perhaps not today. What I'd suggest is that to "leave a piece alone," by modern standards, may have seemed to Romantic or Classical standards also a definite action, something tangibly "done to the piece;" an immobilization; perhaps something akin to taking a butterfly and sticking a pin through it and preserving it in a perfect display case. Harsh metaphor! But I think we have all heard such performances, preserved mimicries which seem to be right, which have wings on display, but do not fly. It is not possible to "leave it alone," no matter what we do; even our faithfulness can be destructive; and so we had better choose carefully how we plan to personally interact with the piece; shall we lie to ourselves, pretend not to have whims and impulses and biases and desires? The piece, any piece, is funny and fluid; you cannot touch it without changing it.

I have often found the score to be a sterile resource in some crucial ways, particularly in arguments (i.e. discussions) over how something should be played. "But it's marked X!" you say, indignantly; and your colleague says "but couldn't that mean Y?" and you have to confess, depending on your bias, the words and notes on the score seem to evaporate and scatter into a surprising surplus of meanings. "Allegro non troppo," I said recently to violist Z about the first movement of the Brahms Quintet (that old thing), and Z replied "but he says non troppo about everything, he's always qualifying!" True enough, I sheepishly meditated, but my opinion is the same. Arguing about markings can be a truly idiotic enterprise. (Ignoring markings can be idiotic too.) If I need to make a point in rehearsal, I find there's only one sure-fire way: to play it in a way that rings true to my colleagues; the only possible asset is my personal account of, interaction with, understanding of, a musical moment ... To review: if I refer to the score alone, as absolute and tangible authority, I can get in a lot of annoying arguments and get nearly nowhere. If I refer to the score, as mediated intangibly by me, I can make a case, or learn from my failure. Score alone: useless. Score + me: useful, possibly. All of this applies equally well in reverse, whatever that means.

Am I tracing some sort of late-night continuum (for it is now late night in Seattle and I have just finished playing the Schubert E-flat Trio, I am no longer the sunglasses-wearing would-be hipster of beforetimes) between the composer's idea, the score, and the interpretation? The score is the deadest point between these two live fires, a cold conduit. Humans are huddled at either end of the written notes: the composer hoping for a good performance, and the musician like a detective looking for clues. It is so funny that this communication must happen through the scrawling of musical notation, that the piece must be killed in order to be brought back alive.

Is it my imagination or do many recordings also seem to dwell in this same continuum? They are not just "audible pictures" of performances, but with the intervention of digital editing, etc. seem to want to preserve the piece in some perfect, ideal form; something in which no mistake, accident, or quirk will disturb. Particularly, I resent the intrusion of some producers into the rhythmic conception of performances, evening out rubati that would have redeemed the whole. It seems like some recordings out there aspire not to be like an interpretation, but more like the score. The score can be xeroxed; the CD can be ripped and burned; both share that wonderful reproducibility that poor, impoverished ideas or interpretations do not have. Alluring to be immovable, indisputable, definitive. My continuum is now:

Composer's Idea --- Score --- Interpretation --- Recording
(alive) (dead) (alive, hopefully) (dead, possibly)

It is too tempting to press play on your machine and get the same moment a million times in a row. We fall for this spectacular temptation, with its intimations of infinity, and the particular shape of a particular performance becomes frozen in our minds. Perhaps the particular shape of a producer's biases gets frozen in there too, making a dire, spliced,musical smoothie. Sometimes when we say "just leave the piece alone," we might also mean make it more like some super-smooth, polished, varnished recording, and at that moment I think we should be particularly careful. Watch out! (As at the end of the wonderful Schumann song "Zwielicht": sei wach und munter!) Hug the piece closely; don't leave it alone; and after a while, when you begin to sense an entangling affection, when you begin to feel you might "get hurt," when the relationship is getting serious and you are getting nervous about your emotional attachment ... perform it right away! That alone is the best time.


Qais Al-Awqati said...

I guess you have proved that the only use of comments like the performer should "leave it alone" is to allow people who know how to think about music to actually THINK about music. All original thinkers like Jeremy D need an "idiot savant" to induce their synapses to start firing

hari said...

as a jazz and bluesy song lover, i can't imagine leaving songs alone. i have so many different versions, good and bad of the same songs. some songwriters would never allow the initial recordings to be improvised until later. i imagine that with classical music, the instruments from the past have changed in their construction and would automatically alter the sounds. i think it's interesting to take a chance and try to make it even better.

Steinwayliz said...

Enjoyed this posting! Now I remember why I read your blog. That was a wonderfully articulate and sensitive response to an empty comment which I usually dismiss out-of-hand--but you actually addressed it, and with all the right arguments.

Bill Morgan said...

I was present at Lakeside for that Schubert Trio last evening. It was an outstanding performance, by you, Ani Kavafian and Robert deMaine. It's difficult for me to express how the audience, too, shares in the moment. From my viewpoint in the third row, you seemed to be totally enjoying that particular reading. The piano part seems rich, giving you ample chances to 'interpret' the score. Listening to a CD of that performance, even a DVD attempting to capture the body language would fall quite short of 'being there'. Thanks so much for sharing that performance with me. And, for sharing your thoughts in this blog. It was the first time I'd managed to hear the cellist, I believe. I hope it won't be my last. Ani? I've heard Ani so many times since I lived in NYC in the 70s and she played with Tashi. She rarely disappoints.

Phillip said...

"It is not possible to 'leave it alone,' no matter what we do... The piece, any piece, is funny and fluid; you cannot touch it without changing it." Here you've hit on the key. In defense of the "leave it alone" admonition, at its best that can mean simply "don't fight so hard, listen instead to what the music is telling you." How many times have we heard performances where it was clear the musicians were so anxious not to present "just another" run-through of a given warhorse, that their gimmickry was showing, shall we say? Some works have also become so laden with "shtick" moments, things that might be considered part of standard performing tradition, that to "leave something alone" or to allow a passage to flow naturally and undistorted might actually be a transgressive, innovative performance act.

As far as markings in the score go, over the years I've come to realize they fulfill the same role as statistics do in political argument. You can find any set of "facts" to buttress pretty much any political argument, and you can do the same for most any musical interpretative disagreement as well. I prided myself for many years on crafting unassailable rationalizations for making this or that interpretive choice, feeling that if I could out-debate my colleagues I might win the day. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more honest about the fact that usually I just like something a certain way because, well, I just freakin' like it that way! That of course has made it easier to be open to liking it in different ways, when I no longer worry as much about what I used to think of as betraying fundamental laws of musical physics. Thus, your method of simply demonstrating how you think of a passage is the most effective, I agree.

QED said...

Could there be an equivalent to "Reader's Response Theory in this portrayal of composer - score - performer? What about the possibility that the listener adds something to the ideas that make it different from what your triad tries to conceive? Wouldn't the listener be, accordingly, impossible to placate with such an idea as "leaving it as it is?"

Kate said...

Another astute observation, Jeremy. It's a difficult line to walk, interpretation. Go too far and you're liable to bypass what the composer intended completely; fall too short and the piece starts to sound the same as all the others. As a pianist, I struggle with it: how much is too much? What can I infuse of myself to make it mine, while still maintaining the original spirit of the composer? I often tend to err on the side of reverence for what's on the page. I suppose I'd much rather ensure that Beethoven sounds like Beethoven, and not Me with a Dash of Beethovenian Influence.

And speaking of festivals--what ever happened to the Pillow Festival? Have you any news to share on that front, Mr. Artistic Director Denk? :)

Andrew said...

I have just been listening to a fascinating survey, on BBC radio, of Bach's Brandenburg concertos as interpreted through the ages. The changing attitudes towards performance were starkly exemplified by the different lengths of recording time for No. 3: Furtwängler took 15 minutes, Harnoncourt 12, and Musica Antiqua Köln 9. The presenter also commented that interpretations had become less romantic over time. (This reminded me of Artur Rubinstein's declaration that Bach was more romantic than Chopin.)

The point is surely that such notions - tempi and "romantic" - are subjective. And so it surely is too with the concept of "leaving it alone".

Except this difference: this concept is in addition a negative one and is probably marshalled by people wishing the performance they had just heard had not been played in a certain manner or contained what they saw as a personal idiosyncracy. Or perhaps it merely means, sometimes, that the way just heard is different from what the particular listener is used to, which could be a recording played over and over, thus instilling itself in their mind as definitive.

The truth is that the great works are so rich and complex that no single performance can possibly reveal all their depths. Accordingly, we should be grateful for a multiplicity of approaches, each of which reveals different layers or aspects.* And none of these will in any meaningful way have "left it alone".

By the way, Furtwängler (at the piano) playing Brandenburg No. 5 is quite superb.


* Some egregious exceptions aside. For example, I recently suffered a Mahler symphony which the conductor had desecrated with an unbelievably vulgar gimmick. Yuck!

Christopher said...

Physics has already accepted that the process of observation necessarily affects the observed.

While we can accept that our process of faithfully reproducing the composer's instructions will necessarily be different than the next performers', should that mean that we shouldn't do everything we can to try? Perhaps it's better to temporary suspend disbelief and go in with the attitude that today we shall "realize" the score rather than "interpret" the score.

Or perhaps I've just spent too much time around Gunther Schuller. (grin)

This doesn't mean that we have to see the score as sterile. In fact, it makes the score wonderfully sparse, like poetry, filled with different meanings, each one entirely correct.

winhut said...

Thanks for your words/ideas in "Alone"! I now understand why my mind did not/could not wander as you played Beethoven's ultimate last Friday; it was not mechanical Beethoven, but Beethoven living through J. Denk's heart and mind!! Thanks!!
I would like to read your dissertation; please let me know year and institution. Thanks --

Bill Morgan said...

Rubinstein reflects on this topic

One of my favorite artists plays Chopin's piano and reflects some.

Those unfamiliar with youtube are in for a treat.

Grebes said...

I don't think a composer can entirely specify the interpretation of the piece. And editors may have added a lot of what's on the sheet in any case. Personally, I dislike sloppy rhythm as a mode of personal expression. However the shape of the phrases, the loudness, speed of action, and whether or not it's connected to the other notes, offers huge room for personal expression. The pedal that lifts the dampers is often overused and sloppily used. Exact, sparing use of the pedal allows the pianist's imprint on the keys to be more clearly communicated...offers a more naked view of personal interpretation. Busy action and a multitude of rapid notes are more often well played, perhaps because they require little interpretation to be interesting, than the slow spare music. The opportunity to create a personal message in the spare portions of a piece is often underutilized. In the privacy of my own home, I feel free to pound out and repeat variations in the notes and rhythm. I really doubt the composer would mind such solitary pleasures. But a public performance is created out of the freedom within an established form. With types such as Bach Beethoven and Chopin having put down the forms such the extent of notes and rhythm constraints...are a blessing. Thank you Denk for great performances. For example July 14 Stravinsky.