Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Fidelity to the Score

We are taught from the beginning that our sacred duty as musicians is to render the score as transparently as possible. To be perfect, gorgeous vessels of music, making audible the blips and lines on the page, exactly as the composer has set them down. Our artistry, our interpretation (if it exists at all, which it often doesn’t but for many of us keeps us sane) is valid only insofar as it provides a context for what the page contains. Anything added or changed is understood as a failing on the part of the performer.

The best performance, in this view, faithfully renders every last thing on the page. With grace.

The drumbeat of this demand begins in our earliest training, and I suspect this is an important part of what this fidelity demand is about. To be a perfect vessel one must be able to read a score perfectly; if the expectation of good musicians is to render scores perfectly – if it is not just an expectation of excellence but in fact, as it is always couched, a moral obligation – then it follows that we must first be able to read the score perfectly. Pitch, rhythm, meter, harmony, tempo, dynamics, articulation, yes, but also relationships between these things, the elements that lie below the surface. I suspect that making fidelity responsibility number one is a quick way to make musicianship responsibility number two. And I endorse the hell out of this for young and/or inexperienced performers, for expedience’s sake. Because perfect musicianship is the best thing ever, and a rare and wonderful thing to behold.

But the notion that musicians should desire above all to be perfect vessels of the score eventually outlasts its usefulness. (Watch out. This is the part where I start to blaspheme.)

Those of us who work with living composers – marvelously talented, richly imaginative badasses – recognize that the final score is not an eternal jewel of the music gods. It is one outcome of many, having to do with the musician(s) giving the premiere, the constraints of the commission, the state of mind of the composer, and countless other parameters.

The “final” score isn’t even always final: even back in the days when our Composer Gods (you know the ones, the old white men whose music populates the musicology and music theory textbooks) were alive and writing (and improvising and riffing on each other’s work in live performance, a post for another day), they would go back and revise. And publish revisions that stand alongside their first versions to this day. “Which version of Glück’s Orpheus are we doing, the French where Orpheus is a tenor, or the Italian where he’s a castrato, which will be cast with a female mezzo-soprano or, if we’re lucky enough to have one, a male countertenor?” So many contingencies, and that’s just one example. Our music history is loaded with composers going back and rewriting. And this perspective, that the score as an artifact is not de facto complete or final, is the key to transcendence.

Over decades of practice and performance (and perfectly rendering scores) of a wide variety of sub-genres and styles within the classical idiom, performers become exquisitely attuned to shape, pacing, what makes a piece work. And sometimes we can see potential for an unconventional but no less powerful meaning that’s not suggested by the score, potential that can be realized by making a small change in something on the surface: dynamics, tempo, phrasing, or articulation, perhaps. We can tell the difference between forcing or imposing an unmerited interpretation and letting something fly that, though unforeseen by the composer, nevertheless enriches their creation. In my opinion, it’s an act of respect and even love to make these kinds of subtle changes; the knowledgeable, attentive, and open-minded listener will be granted a new layer of delight.

The slippery slope argument rears its head right about now, invariably. Without the moral obligation to be a transparent, perfect vessel for the score, what’s to stop a renegade trumpeter (or let’s be honest, soprano, I am obviously right in the middle of this) from changing rhythms, or God forbid, actual pitches?


That’s not entirely true. We're musicians because we dig listening to and playing the music so much that we’ve devoted untold thousands of hours to being worthy of it. True, I could stand in front of an audience pouring a glass of sour milk for 15 seconds and call that Schubert’s Erlkönig, but I love Schubert too much to do that.

Still, devoted, faithful musicians consider the pitches and rhythms unchangeable, right? Change those and the educated listener will hear it as a mistake. Change those and you are crossing the line.

But you know what? We change rhythms in scores all the time. It’s subtle, but to inflect a line – whether because of language or underlying harmony or simply to shape a phrase – one really has to make some notes a little shorter and others a little longer. Admittedly, the first step, especially for students whose musicianship is still shaky, is to render the rhythms with robotic precision. But then, it is essential to make them slightly irregular – intelligently, sensitively irregular – in order to humanize the piece. (This is why midi renderings of new works are poor versions that composers would never consider releasing to the public. Well, that and timbre. Ugh.)

We change pitches, too. Some scores have misprints. Happens all the time. And not all of them have a page slipped into the score with errata notifications. It is our responsibility as musicians not to miss these typos, but fixing them is sometimes more of an art than a science. Which is to say, the fix is not always clear. And sometimes the typo itself is debatable. But when the composer is not available to comment (because they’re dead or not on Twitter), we have to study the rest of the score and call on our knowledge of style and music theory and the composer’s entire output so far, and with those things in mind, change the pitch in the score.

My point is that the slope isn’t so much slippery as it is less steep than the traditionalists would have us believe. If we transcend the notion that the score is a sacred artifact, if we recognize that it is in fact a set of instructions littered with contingencies, then we can reach a new level of participation in the making of music. We can give ourselves permission to find potential in a musical idea that the composer didn’t foresee. We can be true to our own artistry, taking a piece to a place it hasn’t been before. We can change (or, gasp!, ignore) articulation or dynamics or phrasing in the service of a transcendent performance.

I am not talking about mistakes or dumbing down a piece. I’m talking about performers operating as composers’ equals.

The living composers I frequently work with understand and believe in this. While I thank my lucky stars every day for their brilliance and creativity, and all of the many things they know that I haven’t begun to learn, they readily agree that our collaborations make their work better. They recognize that performers have something important to offer them that they may not be able to reach on their own, something much more than transparent, perfect renditions of their imaginings. And this is true for every composer, not just the ones that recognize it.

Including the dead ones.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fluxus, or The Most Fun I Ever Had on Stage

The most sheer fun I’ve ever had performing involved putting way too much Nivea hand cream on my hands and the hands of four others and squooging it around in front of a very live microphone.  That, or starting off a race to the finish between players bouncing ping pongs on cow bells.  Or it might have been, and I am not exaggerating, gently thudding my head against a post-it on the wall at the same time as 200 other people gently thudded their heads on their own post-its, to create the most resonant, delicious, complex thud I have ever contributed to. 

That was the kind of fun adults rarely have.

For this concert, The Fluxus String and Water Compendium (yup, that’s what the Nivea concert was called, I know, just precious), I simply showed up in my cocktail dress and went for it.  I went for all of it, gleeful* and fearless.  We all did.  

This is not the norm.  The norm is that I prepare for weeks or months for a concert.  I stuff my brain with the notes and rhythms and words and meanings and breathing and placement and resonance.  The stakes are high, sometimes beyond what I’m willing to acknowledge, although often less high than I pretend they are, to be honest.  And no matter how well the performance goes, it is never as fun as I hope it will be.  Don’t get me wrong – I love to perform, I love what I do – but I wouldn’t call it fun, exactly.  It’s satisfying work, but only rarely is it really fun.

Something about Fluxus allows for pure, true, real fun.  Which I had.  Which I now miss.  And as I start to contemplate upcoming performances and the lack of enthusiasm I sometimes approach life with – for no good reason, everything is awesome, I’m just grumpy – I’m thinking about Fluxus and what makes it fun, and my best guess has two parts…

First, there’s not, strictly speaking, an expectation of how a Fluxus performance will turn out.  After the group thud, no one wrote up a review about how it wasn’t as resonant, or exuberant, or studied as the premiere.  No one expected wrapping a tuba in twine to turn out more perfectly.  We were just all delighted with what came out, in the moment.  We were stunned by the simple, strange awesomeness of unforeseen sounds and earnest attempts.  

The second thing, I think, is the game of it, which we too often (maybe always) miss in serious (classical) music-making.  At The Fluxus String and Water Compendium, we delighted in the  “what happens if” experiment, the “you won’t believe what I’m about to do” of it all.  It was PLAY.  But that doesn’t have to be exclusive to Fluxus, right?  Musicians play music; we call ourselves players.  I want to play.

The discrepancy is enough to make me want to sign up with the Folks at Fluxus Headquarters, the grassroots Fluxus Action League, and become a full-time member.  Which I think is actually accomplished by fiat declaration, so here goes: from this day forth, I embrace Fluxus like a long-lost cousin (the kind that was always your favorite but you never saw except at Thanksgiving).  I will be unencumbered by heavy expectations (at least in the moment of performance) and revel in play.

Who’s with me?

(Here's the after party: Marshmallow Flux Happening)

*You may notice in the video that few of us are smiling.  That's a Fluxus thing too: we are taking this play Very Seriously.  But trust me.  We are grinning like idiots on the inside. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Writing (About) Imaginary Music

I’ve been writing fiction lately, because I’ve always wanted to and because about a year and a half ago a story came to me that seemed big enough to be a book, so I wrote it.  I’m in the middle of writing it again, now that I’ve learned some things about plot and pacing and now that several people I trust have given me generous criticism.  I included people making music in it because it’s what I love and it just sort of happened without me choosing it.  (I actually have another book waiting in the wings that is also fiction about music.  Shoot me.)  And I’ve been thinking:

First, in order to write about a piece of music that a character has written, I have to envision it.  I have to fake-compose it.  Here’s where I point out that while I perform new music all the time, it’s my Thing, and I’ve performed a bunch of other musical genres too, I suck at composing.  I don’t do it, partially to spare everyone from having to act all nice and friendly about it because they don’t want to hurt my feelings, but mostly because I just don’t feel moved to write music.  Words, yes.  Music, big no.  But fake music?  Sign me up!  Turns out that is fun like crazy.

All I have to do is string together a stylistically credible structure, with some harmonies, melodies, and rhythms you might expect, and a few things you wouldn’t.  It reminds me, in some ways, of the shtick I used to use in the aural skills classes I taught: No-Hearing Dictation.  Instead of actually playing an example, I’d ask my students to (essentially) guess, collectively, what was likely to come based on what we had been studying, and then to extrapolate from the choices we made what would follow, etc. etc. until the end.  And that’s a bit like what I’m doing when I’m writing imaginary music.  But since words on a page are my medium, writing imaginary music and writing about imaginary music are the same thing.  Which brings me to thing #2. 

The act of trying to write about imaginary music – and asking non-musicians to read and understand it – has exposed this truth I hadn’t really cared about until now: we musicians use metaphors that we don’t own up to All The Time.  We talk about line, thickness, texture as if they are real.  There is no texture in music – there is a complex landscape (metaphor) of relationships that are woven together (metaphor) to become the music.  Nothing we’re listening to is actually thick, not even that loud, painful (metaphor, sort of ) Penderecki Threnody.  Not even Wagner.  We impose the idea of a line on a series of pitches, but it isn’t a line like we talk about what a pen draws on paper, no matter how tastefully the soloist slides from note to note.  The language we use to talk and even think about music is drenched (ha!) in metaphor, to such an extent that it ceases to feel like metaphor at all.  And in the academic music bubble, that’s not a problem.  We all know what we’re talking about, so the metaphors grow more and more arcane.  But I’m trying to talk to the people on the outside, and I’m finding that they don’t understand our dialect. 

Maybe all of this is just navel-gazing.  Maybe it's just what you have to do when you step outside your tiny village, which is fine, that's what I signed up for and I'm not complaining.  But I think it might be useful for us musicians to think about music in ways that bypass the metaphors we’ve come to rely on so completely.  At the very least it will keep things fresh, and it could let new people in if we do it right.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fuck Talent

I used to teach voice to future priests at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.  Some of them liked to sing; most of them knew they would have to chant the liturgy and wanted to not suck at it.  A few of them couldn’t match pitch, at first.

One of these, an older gentleman who was studying to be a deacon in his retirement, absolutely glowed with the love of music.  But he had rarely sung since he was five.  When he was a kindergartener – a KINDERGARTENER – the nun in charge of their little choir told him he had no talent and should just mouth the words.  So he did, though he longed to sing.  He sang in private, ashamed of the voice he couldn’t escape.  Sometimes he would attempt to softly sing along to a hymn.  In response, one Sunday his parish priest – the man with whom he hoped to work closely as a deacon – told him he had the worst voice he had ever heard.

So this gentleman started to study voice with me as part of his deacon training, and we had to work from the ground up.  Matching pitch took a year to conquer.  Tone was a challenge, and gaining a sense of his voice as more than just a functional thing but as a vehicle for art and beauty was a constant struggle.  But he wanted it, so he worked hard.  Harder than any other student in my studio.

He had never experienced unison, so I told him to just sing any note and I matched his pitch, to show him what it felt like.  It brought tears to his eyes.  And to mine.

He brought in hymns he loved, recordings of voices that inspired him.  I followed his lead.  He practiced every day.  He remained open to possibilities.  Steadily, he improved.  After two years of work, he was able to sing an unaccompanied song in tune – which is to say, he matched imaginary pitches.  He had worked so hard and as far as we were both concerned, he was triumphant.  Now he could sing, and if he wanted to sing better, or more, or in different styles, he knew he could learn to do it. 

Fuck talent.  He wanted it and he knew how to work.

To sing, you do need some things.  You  need all the physiological parts that we use for singing – parts that vibrate, hold and move breathe, resonate, articulate sounds.  You need some information about music and about language, which music programs and music teachers will give you if you pay them, or you can learn on your own from reading and listening and watching and figuring things out.  You need a brain that has the capacity to process pitch and rhythm (it is vanishingly rare not to have this).

What you don’t need is a beautiful voice.  There are plenty of great singers, truly great artists whose instruments seem to descend perfectly formed from musical heaven, whose voices did not start out ideal.

I’m convinced that every great singer (whatever that means to you) achieves greatness through a combination of gifts and effort.  Everyone has the capacity to be a great singer, including your neighbor and your senators and little five year old boys who can’t match pitch.

Even singers who knock their teachers’ socks off at their first voice lesson have to work.  They just have to work less.  (Often they blow up early in their career, because along the way they don’t need to learn how to warm up carefully, or build their voice concept by concept.  When something goes wrong, they’re at a loss.)  For them, the ratio is high talent, low effort. 

But for the student who comes in with a pronounced rasp, or a range that can’t even handle a folk song, or an unpleasant tone, their ratio is simply low talent, high effort.  They will have to work harder, and for much longer probably, before they achieve what Miss Perfect Voice does on her first day. 

This doesn’t mean that they can’t achieve it.  They just have to want it and be willing to work for it.  If they are willing to do the work, they’ll get there.

And who are we to tell them they can’t? 

It used to be considered part of a teacher’s job to guide students toward a career.  To weigh in about whether they were suited to whatever it was they were studying with us.  A teacher would take a student aside and tell them to give up and try something else.  If you’re in your mid-30s or older, you have definitely experienced something like this: 
The ballet teacher who suggests to the short, muscular girl that she should try soccer.
The high school science teacher who tells the dramatic, verbally precocious boy that he should give up on science.
The old school music professor who doesn’t want to allow a student to major in music because she doesn’t appear talented enough to be successful in the three years before graduation.

I hate that model.  It shuts down so many would-be greats.  From what I’ve seen, a person’s desire is what dictates their success, not their talent.  If you want to be a singer enough, you can fix (or incorporate) your weird rasp or tone.  You can expand your range.  You can find a niche that suits you.  If you’re willing to work for it, you can have it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cons and Pros of Being a Professional Singer*

Your body is your instrument, which means you have to keep it in shape, and that means regulating food, sleep, environment, and general overuse very carefully.  Just imagine what it would be like if your cello, or electric guitar, or ocarina always wanted to go out partying after rehearsal and you had to say to it, “listen little ocarina, if you go out and try to talk over an entire bar full of people and you drink several shots of bourbon you will sound like crap and your melismas will suck.”  And it would pout and call you a party-pooper, but you would be preserving your/its career.  That is the thing: you have to be the mean mommy of your voice all the time. 

No drinking or smoking (see #1).

Unless you have perfect pitch, you need someone to deliver your note to you, perhaps via some other note, but the point is you can’t pick a note out of thin air and have it be the right one.  And pretty much all of the other instruments can.  This makes you feel helpless.

People assume you are stupid and/or a shitty musician (see what I just said).

In two cases, you are expected to have eyes in the back of your head: 1) lead singer for a band, 2) soloist with an orchestra.  Totally unfair.  I’m getting a hat made of backward-facing mirrors for my next gig.

You face the audience, so you can tell when they are bored and/or hating it.  This is probably why conductors face the players. 

If you’re sick, your instrument is broken.

If your instrument is broken, you cannot buy a new one and fixing it is either slow or impossible.

Your body is your instrument, which means no carrying OTHER instruments unless you’re nice.

You face the audience, so you can tell how enraptured they are with your awesomeness. 

Costumes!  The viola players hardly ever wear them.  Sopranos?  All the damn time.

You have words, which means you don’t have to figure out how to emote the sharp-4 of an augmented sixth chord with just your eyebrows.  (Actually, I excel at this particular expression.  And my flat-7 smirk is dead on.  That, my friends, is what the study of music theory will get you: chromaticism-specific facial expressions.)

Glory.  (This is a lie, actually, but it seems like it would be a pro, so I included it.  For looks.)

Singing feels really, really good.  It’s like getting a massage inside your head.

*If I had taken the time when I was growing up to make this list, or to read someone else’s list, I still would have been a singer.  But sometimes it’s fun to make lists.**
** Please add to this list.  Or make your own about being a tuba player.