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Perfect Execution / Precision / Perfection

Part 2

 

 

Continue from Part 1

Trevor Evans-Young wrote (January 21, 2003):
[To Pete Blue] I was told by a former bassoon player under Stoky, that he had the brass and woodwinds come in a fraction of a second early to compensate for the air going through their instruments. This is why the entrances sound so together on his recordings. He also had free bowings in the strings.

Jim Morrison wrote (January 21, 2003):
Just wanted to say thanks to everyone for the great discussion on imprecision/irregularities. Thanks for all the energy and work you put into sharing those thoughts with us.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 21, 2003):
[To Jim Morrison] Perhaps that 'imprecision' on keyboard is part of what you're grooving to in Hill's performance of Haydn sonatas, the one you've mentioned as especially expressive. That's how I hear it, his willingness to bend things enough to keep it thrilling at almost every moment. What a performance!

In a non-keyboard recording, I remember sometime ago you mentioned you have Berg's violin concerto conducted by Webern (with Krasner as soloist), live, 1936...a recording I too think is especially soulful and intense despite the horrible recording quality. What do you think of the 'insynchronicity' in there? (That one's intense for other reasons, too, not just the 'imprecision', but it all contributes. The performance seems so real, so palpable, just fragile enough without breaking.)

My current favorite non-classical example of soulful 'imprecision' is the Rounder series of calypso recordings from the 1930s; I have about half of them advertised (and sampled) at:
http://www.rounder.com/SearchResults.asp?SearchType_cbo=genre_name&searchtext=calypso&Search_btn=Go

Those guys just get in there and play and sing, and don't seem to care much that they're not exactly together (not even close sometimes), but it all fits remarkably well IMO. Try for example the tracks 1, 7, & 11 on 'Calypso Carnival'.

I can imagine how some would really hate this degree of looseness in the classical repertoire! But man, what a groove.

I was thinking about it some more over the weekend: it's fantastic to hear couple dozen people working toward a common purpose, not needing to agree ALL the time, but cooperating to put together something real. I hear that sometimes when listening to several of my favorite conductors, too, in standard rep: Klemperer and Ansermet especially, Mengelberg, and sometimes Bernstein, Monteux, and some others. When the constituent parts are not exactly together, the ear can pick out the various tone colors and reintegrate them mentally anyway, and the whole thing seems richer than if the ensemble were perfectly homogenized. It seems more organic.

The ear and brain can tolerate a lot more dishevelment than one might expect...just takes some getting accustomed to. An illustration: find some color print of something done by the usual three-color printing process, but where the alignment is not absolutely exact. A little fuzziness. Sunday comic pages will do. The misalignment makes the picture a bit more interesting, and the eye can still realign it into a unified experience. Or look at a watercolor painting as opposed to a photograph.

Same with the ear: if the listener's brain has to do a little bit of work to reassemble things that are not quite together, the listener is more engaged and active than if it's all pre-packaged. THE LISTENER PARTICIPATES! Therefore the music lives. It compels the listener to be active rather than passive.

I suspect that we've all been spoiled by recordings since 1950 or so...recordings of any repertoire...to expect more precision than perhaps we "should" in the field of music, generally. The more things line up in the quest for exactness, the more it seems an antiseptic experience (to me, anyway), to the point where the music gets lost under that 'perfect' surface. Diminishing returns.

Thoughts?

Thomas Radleff wrote (January 22, 2003):
[To Jim Morrison] I´d like to accord with Jim and thank all the contributors of the recent "ensemble imprecision" discussion for their ideas, insights and experience. Very inspiring... it feels as if you´ve been opening my ears a little bit further - or at least speaking in a most professional way about things that I often "somehow" feel by intuition.

Pete Blue wrote (January 22, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I wholly agree with Brad. The way I see it, imprecision enhances a musical performance primarily by making it human. There is something inhuman about perfect execution that, for me, inhibits enjoyment.

Perfection in the creation of music, though, rather than in the recreation, is another matter. I'm reminded of Artur Schnabel's response to those who questioned his severely restricted repertoire in later life -- that he wanted to play music that was better than it could be performed.

Jim Morrison wrote (January 22, 2003):
Quick repsonse and then more later perhaps

< Bradley Lehman wrote: Perhaps that 'imprecision' on keyboard is part of what you're grooving to in Hill's performance of Haydn sonatas, the one you've mentioned as especially expressive. That's how I hear it, his willingness to bend things enough to keep it thrilling at almost every moment. What a performance! >
Yeah, fantastic performance and certainly the imprecision is one of the things I love about this recording, which I do think should be required listening for just about anybody. (Rather than imprecision though, I'm a little more comfortable with terminology like irregularities and perhaps even aprecision.) Lacking skills as a musician, but falling back upon my intuition and the experience/writing of others, my feeling is that musicians can only focus upon a limited number of aspects of performance, and that when precision is given practically paramount importance others aspects like, oh, breath/freedom/expression/flow are left behind. On the flip side, those performances that I cherish most, those very expressive ones-Savall's recordings come immediately to mind-I think the musicians are focusing more on feeling/spontaneity/breath/flow than on precision. Precision in those recordings gets left behind. Maybe hyper-precision is a better phrase. Hyper-precision gets left behind. My favorite record of the Brandenburgs in my collection is conducted by Savall and that's also one of the sloppiest I've heard. The operation not only was successful, the patient got off the table dancing.

I think it was Pete who mentioned who it's possible to get all the precision one really needs while staying focused on expression and I feel that's right.

Also, with nonhyperprecisive (hey, so long as I'm inventing terminology, why not go crazy with it!) performances I feel greater sense of emotions churning deep inside me. Aprecisive recordings, I know from years of experience, more me more than hyperprecisive ones. As I was telling someone the other day, I go to the arts not only to encounter greatness, but also to have greatness alter me, to have greatness change me. When I hear what I would call hyperprecise recordings, it's more of a one-way thing. I'm simply witnessing the music, not being caught up in it. I am not the music while the music lasts! I never was the music. But with recordings that do have a aprecisive quality to them I feel like I'm involved in a transformative communicative experience.

Okay, enough for now. Thanks for listening. Hope some of these not only sounds sensible, but actually is! ;-)

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 22, 2003):
Let me try to understand this new terminology that Jim Morrison suggests on a continuum from Hyperprecision to Aprecison (these terms are an anathema for etymologists because they mix Greek prefixes with Latin stem words, but now such combinations proliferate beyond any attempt to control or eradicate them):

Aprecision = Due to the ‘rough edges,’ the listener feels more involved in a transformative communicaexperience. [It is rare indeed when a professional performance with its ‘rough edges’ (dare I mention the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series?) becomes for me this ‘transformative communicative experience’ that you are speaking of here. The ‘aprecision’ draws my attention away from enjoying the total experience while making me concentrate instead upon on the unusual elements that seem to say, “Here I am! Isn’t this very unusual and unique? Don’t worry about the fact that I am changing Bach’s notation to suit my need express myself individualistically. Just enjoy this performance because you will never again hear it performed this way.” Being distracted by all the irregularities, it becomes difficult for me as a listener to be uplifted to a higher realm where all the elements join together in a ‘oneness’ to create harmonious sounds (without ‘loose or rough edges’) that are worthy to be considered an offering to higher being (This was the original purpose and intent of the Bach cantatas, wasn’t it?)

Nonhyperprecision = having all the qualities that are lacking in hyperprecision (see below), in other words, aprecision.

Hyperprecision = Precision rules over all other factors which are excluded. Because precision can be a limiting factor and precision itself becomes of a paramount importance to the exclusion of everything else such as breath, freedom, feeling/expression, and flow, the musical performance is sensed as remote and non-engaging by the listener.

I think we can agree that such a ‘hyperprecision’ has become sheer pedantry, a ‘soulless’ method of performing. This is an extreme that is just as bad as unleashing rampant individualistic expression without regard to the precision that the composer has written into the score. Perhaps the latter could be termed, according to your scheme, 'hyperimprecision.'

Jim, you are absolutely correct in feeling uncomfortable about the words ‘precision’ or its opposite, ‘imprecision.’ I checked the MGG for its applications of the words ‘Präzision’ and ‘Genauigkeit’ and determined that there were performing artists of the past, whether vocalists, pianists, violinists, woodwind or brass players, or even conductors who were particularly noted for their ‘precision.’ But just what does ‘precise’ mean here? Does it simply mean ‘not playing the wrong notes’ or does it imply rhythmic or ‘intonational’ ‘precision’? Brad implied, in his criticism of Agricola’s description that the latter was probably describing how a pedant or ill-prepared conductor would necessarily have to conduct in a primitively strict manner because the higher art of expression would be oblivious to him. [Brad’s statement: >> His comments as you've cited them sound to me like admonitions on how to keep an amateur group together, or if not a fully amateur group, a week-in/week-out church choir. People who are lucky to get the notes at all need to learn how to count and to hit the correct pitches to begin with, rather than trying anything fancy. I don't think we can know how much they should apply to the highest levels of artistry above that: I don't buy the notion that they are supposed to be normative for everybody.<<]

Is it a sign of a childish, primitive motivation to ‘keep strictly to the rules?’ In the MGG I found a few references (in Africa and in the Pacific region) where the native people placed a high priority upon precision. (Was Emerson right after all?) One musicologist studying an African tribe determined that they were able to sustain with metronomic accuracy extremely difficult rhythms over a long performance on drums of various sorts. The Maori (in another part of the world, I think, were observed by a musicologist attempting to record their music) are very concerned about absolute precision in various forms when performing their songs, some of which lasted up to 45 minutes. The term they use is ‘whakaeke’ which means among other things: having the greatest amount of accuracy and ‘Einmütigkeit’ (a feeling of unified oneness as also exists in some choirs and ensembles); singing a song without any pauses to take a breath because the participants breath at different times (sounds like the ideal for choir performances where a musical phrase is not broken into many pieces), and making no mistakes in the rhythm, diction, or the melody. Anyone who makes a mistake (is ‘imprecise’ for a number of different reasons) or is in the slightest way ‘insecure’ is eliminated from the group:

[Maori probten einen Gesang vor der Tonaufnahme bis zu einer 3/4 Stunde lang und sangen ihn nicht, solange die geringste Gefahr eines Fehlers bestand. Whakaeke ist ein Begriff, der größte Genauigkeit und Einmütigkeit in der Ausführung bezeichnet. Ein Verstoß gegen whakaeke ist Unsicherheit, ein anderer Unterbrechung eines Gesangs. Genaugenommen sollte ein Gesang ununterbrochen und ohne Atempause vorgetragen werden; deshalb sind gewöhnlich wenigstens zwei Sänger beteiligt, die an verschiedenen Stellen atmen. Parallelismus, wie Singen in Quinten, ist nicht gestattet. Jedoch ist es zulässig, daß ein Sänger von einem höheren Ton aus in einen Gesang einfällt. Gegen whakaeke verstoßen ferner falscher Rhythmus, falsche Aussprache und falsche Melodie. Es existieren termini technici für alle diese Fehler; wer sie begeht, wird vom Singen ausgeschlossen.]

Is this concern for precision simply a primitive urge of 'small or limited minds' or is it a hint or sign of an emerging ideal for ensemble performances that has become a standard indicator of more developed cultures later on?

I found some quotes that will help to put rhythmic ‚imprecision’ into a historical perspective, but that will have to wait for now.

Alpha H. Walker wrote (January 22, 2003):
Could someone please remind me what recording this is that everyone keeps referring to -" Hill's performance of Haydn?" For some reason I missed the original post.

Thanks in advance!

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 22, 2003):
< Jim Morrison wrote: Also, with nonhyperprecisive (hey, so long as I'm inventing terminology, why not go crazy with it!) performances I feel greater sense of emotions churning deep inside me. Aprecisive recordings, I know from years of experience, more me more than hyperprecisive ones. As I was telling someone the other day, I go to the arts not only to encounter greatness, but also to have greatness alter me, to have greatness change me. When I hear what I would call hyperprecise recordings, it's more of a one-way thing. I'm simply witnessing the music, not being caught up in it. I am not the music while the music lasts! I never was the music. But with recordings that do have a aprecisive quality to them I feel like I'm involved in a transformative communicative experience. >
Last night I opened a newly-received recording, Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances", recorded April 1946 by Gregor Fitelberg/London Philharmonic. [This is a filler in Dutton's issue "Ernest Ansermet Conducts Rimsky-Korsakov, #9712.] The booklet includes reviews from the original release on 78rpm records. And in this review I was struck by the reviewer's divided attitude: in his head he cites the aprecisive quality as a "fault," but his gut tells him there are more important things:

"This performance does not lack vitality; on the contrary, the vitality seems at times to boil over. The orchestral effects are very clear; the colouring accurate and there is a good sense of the realistic; the hall atmosphere (Wembley Town Hall, seemingly to be almost as satisfactory as the Kingsway Hall), mostly to be commended, at times becomes a trifle overpowering in the bass register. As orchestral playing, the performance is fairly good, though there is here and there some slipshod work over trills, and so on. But that is possibly a fault to be laid at the charge of the conductor rather than the orchestra; for Fitelberg seems to us to be over-excitable, to get all hot under the collar and so try to get more out of the music than it will tolerate. No one could complain of his lack of fervour or vividness; but at times in his excitement he becomes careless about the phrase rhythms. But this is without question the best recording of these eDances: the effects obtainable on a good electrical reproducer are most exhilarating." (December 1948)

=====

This morning I'm listening again to Otto Klemperer's 1954 recording of the Bach orchestral suites, and marveling again at how well the performance communicates the music, and reveling in the "aprecisiveness" of it all. The music sounds so rugged and vital. Klemperer does not need to make any big dramatic effects out of anything; the composition takes care of that. He establishes the (difficult) interpretive balance between detail and forward flow, gets the orchestral balances right, chooses tempi that allow the notes to move seemingly under their own power, and then within that structure he lets his people play, not worrying if everything always quite lines up. Every line sounds alert, everywhere in the texture: everybody is aware of one another, but foremost they are projecting their own lines with vital integrity. The string sections aren't unanimous, the whole orchestra has a less homogeneous 'blend' than one might expect today, the trumpets biff some things...and the music is the better for that lack of 'perfection'!

In general I'd say: the more "rational" a composition is, like most of Bach's, the more it can stand (and benefit from) an "irrational" performance style. It's that balance between structure and spontaneity. The listener's mind knows the structure is solid and will not fall apart, so the surface can be a bit bumpety, quirky, infinitely interesting.

It's like looking at a building that is built of irregular stone, compared with one of steel and concrete. The steel building seems cold and institutional, while the stone building seems organic and one of a kind.

Or: those walls of stacked-up stones in western Ireland are 'sexier' than any amount of chain-link fence will ever be. They not only mark boundaries, they also serve as a place to stash all those loose stones that had to be put somewhere anyway.

It's like the chaos theory question, "What is the length of Great Britain's coastline?" (Or, "What is the perimeter of this tree?") The measurement depends how closely one examines all the little twisty turns along that edge: the length becomes practically infinite even though it's enclosing a finite area.

A composition of Bach encloses a finite musical "area" that we usually know very well already, as the structure: and a good performance (I suggest) reveals a seemingly infinite variety of irrational little twisty turns we didn't know about...that's why we keep coming back to the music, to hear something we didn't already know, and something we can't get from merely looking at the page. Clinically 'perfect' super-polished performances wear out their welcome in just one or two listen-throughs, because (as Gertrude Stein would say) "there's no there there."

Say, how about that word 'unanimous' anyway? I just thought of this. A 'unanimous' performance has only one life to it, the conductor's single projection subsuming everything. Let's make up the word 'polyanimous' to describe good [i.e. communicative] ensemble performances.

Or let's contrast the word 'consensus' with ....

Whatever. I don't need to cross all the T's and dot all the I's here, where this is going, I've said enough. Anybody who's paying attention will have already taken this further in the imagination, and it doesn't need to be all spelled out here in the posting.

One doesn't get "tossed on the horns of a lemma." Things get interesting when there's a dilemma or a trilemma or tetralemma. Again, whatever. Oatmeal, that deadly dull food, is more interesting with some lumps.

[Yes, that paragraph about the stones in Ireland was stuck into this posting deliberately to break up the progression of the logic, being "one example too many" on purpose, to see what it would do. Objective, deliberate irregularity. Explore a momentary tangent just to see where it might go.]

Donald Satz wrote (January 22, 2003):
[To Alpha H. Walker] The recording must be Robert Hill's harpsichord performances of some Haydn keyboard sonatas on the Ars Musici label - #1283.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 22, 2003):
< Thomas Braatz wrote:
Aprecision = Due to the ‘rough edges,’ the listener feels more involved in a transformative communicative experience. [It is rare indeed when a professional performance with its ‘rough edges’ (dare I mention the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series?) becomes for me this ‘transformative communicative experience’ that you are speaking of here. The ‘aprecision’ draws my attention away from enjoying the total experience while making me concentrate instead upon on the unusual elements that seem to say, “Here I am! Isn’t this very unusual and unique? Don’t worry about the fact that I am changing Bach’s notation to suit my need express myself individualistically. Just enjoy this performance because you will never again hear it performed this way.” Being distracted by all the irregularities, it becomes difficult for me as a listener to be uplifted to a higher realm where all the elements join together in a ‘oneness’ to create harmonious sounds (without ‘loose or rough edges’) that are worthy to be considered an offering to higher being (This was the original purpose and intent of the Bach cantatas, wasn’t it?) >
Pardon the theological interpretation, but I think God gets a heck of a lotmore good work done through people who mildly _dis_agree with one another (creating a dynamic process, a dialogue) than working through an authoritarian approach where everybody [supposedly] agrees. And I think that's the point of a cantata, too. A bunch of disparate singers and players come together to praise their God, working together to the best of their ability (even if it's not 'perfect') and together creating something vital that exists in process. The performers get something out of it. So do the congregation, listening to this process: they are spurred to meditate on the ideas that are the topic of the music and the day's readings, and their bodies are also moved by the vitality of the music. Why should the listener expect a 'perfect' delivery of the music? Those are real people up there trying their best, not a platonic celestial choir and orchestra.

As for your whipping-boy, Harnoncourt supposedly "changing Bachâ?Ts notatio=
n to suit [his] need [to] express [him]self individualistically", I suggest that's not what he's about. He and his players and singers are trying to reproduce the effects that Bach's congregation would have heard, through examination of what the notation probably meant to performers of that time, along with social considerations. Harnoncourt has written essays explaining why he plays a whole note in the basso continuo line detached: musical (practical) and historical reasons. Maybe you as a modern listener don't care for the conclusions he comes to, maybe it 'yanks your chain' to see something different on the page compared with the sound coming into your ears, and that's just the way it is. Fair enough. But what do you think of the spirit of Harnoncourt's approach, as contrasted with the letter of it?

I don't think Harnoncourt does surprising or questionable things for the purpose of selling individualistic records; he torks us a bit to shake us by the ear, to get us to hear the music and pay attention to it in ways we didn't before.

One might disagree with that didactic approach, feeling somewhat dissatisfied with it; I do: I'd rather hear a performance of music than an analytical lecture (in musical notes) about the music. When I want to bask in the sheer beauty/perfection of some piece, I don't generally get out the Harnoncourt recording. But when I want to learn something about the music I didn't already know, it's always worth hearing what Harnoncourt has to contribute.He is stimulating. Annoying sometimes, unpleasant sometimes, polemic sometimes, but generally stimulating. He makes us listen and think, even if we disagree.

And a Bach cantata wasn't written for my personal pleasure here in the 21st century. It was a professional job, helping a particular staff evangelize a particular congregation on a particular occa, fitting into the whole impact of a church service. There is no way to reproduce such an occasion exactly. But I think it's worth at least trying to simulate the effect the music might have had, as a piece freshly composed yesterday and performed by real [imperfect] people in a real occasion. A 'perfect' recording transportsus out of that realm of reality, for better or worse. Both a virtue and a liability, depending on our expectations. Some people obviously prefer a perfectly unified approach. Fine, since we're yanking the music far out of its original context anyway.

But I suspect, all around, the music is more communicative [more "meaningful"] when it's firmly rooted in everyday reality, an imperfect world. A mereglimpse of the divine now and then coming through such a medium can be more moving than a full-360 surround sound, stereo-vision, absolutely flawless presentation of 100% undiluted divinity. (As if such a thing is possible in a 'perfectly' rendered performance....) When the recipient has to do a bit of personal growth and self-examination and work to come to contemplate that glimpse of divinity, fitting it into his personal reality, it "means" more than if the divinity is just handed over whole to overwhelm him. Doesn't it? Isn't that process part of the point?

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 22, 2003):
Pedantic conducting?

< Thomas Braatz wrote: I checked the MGG for its applications of the words ‘Präzision’ and ‘Genauigkeit’ and determined that there were performing artists of the past, whether vocalists, pianists, violinists, woodwind or brass players, or even conductors who were particularly noted for their ‘precision.’ But just what does ‘precise’ mean here? Does it simply mean ‘not playing the wrong notes’ or does it imply rhythmic or ‘intonational’ ‘precision’? Brad implied, in his criticism of Agricola’s description that the latter was probably describing how a pedant or ill-prepared conductor would necessarily have to conduct in a primitively strict manner because the higher art of expression would be oblivious to him. [Brad’s statement: >> His comments as you've cited them sound to me like admonitions on how to keep an amateur group together, or if not a fully amateur group, a week-in/week-out church choir. People who are lucky to get the notes at all need to learn how to count and to hit the correct pitches to begin with, rather than trying anything fancy. I don't think we can know how much they should apply to the highest levels of artistry above that: I don't buy the notion that they are supposed to be normative for everybody.<<] >
Ummmm....huh? How could my statement there be taken as saying ANYTHING about "a pedant or ill-prepared conductor"?! Or conducting in "a primitively strict manner"?

I'm certainly surprised to see such a bizarre interpretation read into my words. Not merely surprised: bewildered!

Take any conductor, artistically skilled or not, and give him/her the charge of an amateur group who are barely able to hit the correct notes in the notated rhythms. "First things first" would be for that conductor to train those people how to recognize what's on the page (or else teach them the notes by rote), accurately, before trying anything subtle. This could be the greatest conductor in the world, in terms of awareness of the higher arts of expression...and he/she could be impeccably prepared. This conductor would have to prioritize, starting with the group's basic skills of reading and listening and execution, the same way a terrible conductor would have to do.

Point is: the fact that a conductor facing an inferior ensemble starts with basics does not imply anything about the conductor's artistic skills! A conductor has to make the best out of the people and rehearsal time available.

Reductio ad absurdum: pick some conductor who has the technical and interpretive skills to be able to micro-manage every note of The Rite of Spring. Give that conductor one hour to get your local middle school band to play the national anthem, starting from nothing. The most advanced conducting methods in his repertoire are not a liability in this assignment; indeed, he will use every trick in his book, the opposite of "a primitively strict manner", to coax sounds out of these kids. And the fact that the performance under these conditions will be a mess anyway (by objective standards of precision) doesn't mean he's a pedantic or ill-prepared conductor. Q.E.D.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 23, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad, your comments on Harnoncourt seem to be reversing a general trend toward greater and greater perfection in performance practices. If I try to consider the 1st performance of Beethoven’s ninth and try to trace in my mind (imagination) that this music continued to sound better and better because it was played on instruments that were being perfected as time went on and because the amount of study and artistry involved in any given performance increased over time, then I come to the conclusion that many of the significant performances and recordings made during the past half-century have reached yet another, higher level of human achievement in this regard compared to the 1st performance. Great conductors approached this work with great awe and reverence. Think of Toscanini, who refused for a long time to even try to record this symphony! What does that tell you about the attitude that such a great conductor had about a recorded performance by him of this celebrated work? Recorded performances are generally scrutinized and criticized more carefully than unrecorded (on major labels) performances given by the local suburb orchestras. Such orchestras as the latter, with varying degrees of artistry present, are the equivalent of the local church choirs that present an occasional Bach cantata in a church setting. A much higher standard applies to recording artists with their choirs and orchestras who have recorded significant numbers of Bach’s cantatas.

Brad, I think you are confusing recorded music with live performances. There is a great distinction to be noted here. When, unfortunately rarely now, I hear a live performance of a Bach cantata in a church, the experience of hearing such live music and the expectations that I have of such are performance are quite different from listening to a recording where I concentrate with score in hand on everything that I hear. I can even go back again to repeat a section to find out, if, what I thought that I had heard, really happened that way. With a recording, any ‘liveness’ or extemporized qualities born out the moment and the situation at hand are literally frozen forever. Now the ‘rough edges’ no longer sound like a ‘living’ moment that ‘lives’ over and over again each time I listen to the same recording. I have been listening to the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cantata series for about 7 years now at the rate of at least one a week, and during the time span of my reports to the BCML this has increased to listening to the same cantata at least several times a week. Compared to the first ‘listenings’ when I was very much surprised by the unusual aspects of Harnoncourt’s interpretations (there is always the possibility that when something is new and different it may impress the listener as being good because it uncovers things not heard before in other recordings of the same work.) But over the course of the past two years, when my intensive listening experience began, my cautiously positive estimation regarding the validity of Harnoncourt’s approach and the actual results that he has achieved has continued to erode as the many faults in his approach become apparent. I read your postings (translations from some of Harnoncourt’s works), Brad, and thereupon have read in the original German much of what he has written about his approach to Bach’s music. This reading experience was a very mixed blessing: It did serve to allow me to contemplate what he wrote and compare this with his deeds: the cantata series. The result of this enterprise only served to confirm some ideas that I had already been entertaining.

The Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantata series can notbe considered as just another live performance by some local group or church choir. Because of its uniqueness of approach and because it serves as a model for many, if not most, HIP recordings and performances, it demands to be recognized. For this reason and trying not be prejudiced, I have tried to put down my thoughts and reactions to these cantatas as honestly as I could, pointing specifically to the problems inherent in this approach. It would be very helpful, Brad, (and I know that you are extremely busy with many things, including a new addition to your family) if, at some time you would comment specifically and in detail on some of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cantata recordings. Perhaps I will learn to see through your eyes and hear through your ears some of the meaningful aspects of the ‘rough-edged’ approach toward Bach’s ensemble music, choir/soloists, orchestra, that I have entirely overlooked or overheard. As it is, when I hear what you describe as Harnoncourt’s ‘annoying’ and ‘unpleasant’ sounds, they do not conjure up feelings of positive stimulation; on the contrary, they make me wonder why a musical ear (which I assume Harnoncourt has) would allow so many imperfections (much of which is due to plain sloppiness and a misunderstanding of choral music truly entails) to exist. By attempting to reconstruct for our times what, in Harnoncourt’s mind, the listening experience was that Bach’s congregation experienced, he asks the normal listener to believe that all these irregularities were countenanced by Bach personally. For example, by making listeners believe that Bach’s brass instruments had to sound as primitive as they do on Harnoncourt’s recordings, Harnoncourt has promulgated the notion that brass players could not play these instruments any better in Bach’s time. Instead of striving for excellence in accuracy (precision) in intonation, attack, and actual notation, he wants us to believe that ‘this is as good as it gets’ and that sloppiness and carelessness are special signs of expressiveness on the part of the performers. I can’t buy that. Sorry!

Jim Morrison wrote (January 23, 2003):
< Donasld Satz wrote: The recording must be Robert Hill's harpsichord performances of some Haydn keyboard sonatas on the Ars Musici label - #1283. >
That's the one.

Pete Blue wrote (January 23, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] In this time-honored debate over the merits of the Bach Cantata recordings of Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, I come down on both sides. Objectively I agree with Brad's analysis, but subjectively I agree with Tom's evaluation.

I might add contra Tom that I don't buy a distinction between recorded and live listening. I think careful listening is the same in both environments. The availability of endless repeated relistening in the case of recordings does not , for me, render the need for precision more urgent, but rather requires some ineffable quality that enables a particular performance to bear repetition in spite of mistakes (indeed, sometimes even because of them! Maria Callas!).

And I add two more cents: Like the U.S. Supreme Court Justice who couldn't define pornography but knew what it was when he saw it , I can't define functional vs. dysfunctional imprecision to everyone's satisfaction; but I know what is meant when I hear evidence of them. The middle school band playing the national anthem offends my ears, and Klemperer's Suites pleases themHarnoncourt/Leonhardt is somewhere in between.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 23, 2003):
In my search of the MGG to determine one aspect of ‚imprecision,’ that of intentional or expressive (on the spur of the moment) alteration of the set rhythm in a piece of music, I keep finding the following:

1) rubato (the definition of this word is an ever-changing one) has been around for centuries but undergoes modifications with the meaning being more strictly defined at times, or used to the point of excess at other times.

2) rubato is applied mainly to voices or instruments in a solo capacity. I found only one instance which mentions its application in madrigals, but its meaning there could be quite different implying a change of tempo such as ritardando or and acceleration which markings did not exist at that time.

3) rubato in the 20th century is of a schizophrenic variety: it wants the strictest adherence to tempo and rhythmic patterns while also allowing for individualistic expression.

Here is an English definition:

Robert Donington’s article on Rubato in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

“Rubato (Italian :’stolen’)., Of tempo, extended beyond the time mathematically available; thus slowed doen, stretched or broadened. ‘Tempo rubato’ (‘stolen time’) signifies the time thus ‘stolen (i.e. added). In some late Baroque authorities, the meaning is rhythmic alteration of notes within the bar, regarded as a species of ornament. Since the time here ‘stolen’ is restored with the bar, ‘borrowed time’ would be a more accurate description. In current usage ‘rubato’ implies some distortion of the strict mathematical tempo applied to one or more notes, or entire phrases, without restoration; and also to time added as pauses or breaks in the continuity of the tempo, to mark the separation of phrases more conspicuously than merely by a silence of articulation within the tempo.”

There have been doctoral dissertations written on changing meaning of the word ‘rubato’ which becomes so complex that it changes from country to country in Europe as well as from time to time, and even from composer to composer:

„An Stelle von Chopins sich stets im Rahmen eines Grundmetrums bewegenden Rubato tritt bei Liszt deklamatorische Freiheit: »Il faut déclamer« (Liszt).“ [„Chopin’s rubato which was always based on the notion of an established rhythmic foundation was changed by Liszt to give rubato full declamatory freedom.”]

This was the Chopin’s ‘rubato’ that Brad already alluded to:

(A paraphrase of the following): Following the model of Mozart’s method of playing rubato, Chopin’s rubato was completely and strictly in rhythm. Mikul, his student, stated:
Chopin was unrelenting in keeping a strict tempo and beat. A metronome was his constant companion at the keyboard. No matter how ‘wild’ the tempo variations in his right hand were, the left would continue implacably forward in its beat, while the right hand would be singing, sometimes undecidedly hesitant or, at other times, as if in a passionate conversation sometimes impulsively coming in a little earlier or with faster movement, thereby freeing the musical expression of all the rhythmic shackles which would keep it bound.

[Sein vielfach verkanntes Tempo rubato erweist sich in der Nachfolge von Mozarts Spielart als ein durchaus rhythmisches. Man versteht das recht erst aus dem Bericht seines Schülers Karl Mikuli: »Im Tempohalten war Chopin unerbittlich, und es wird manchen überraschen zu erfahren, daß das Metronom bei ihm nicht vom Claviere kam. Selbst bei seinem so viel verleumdeten Tempo rubato spielte immer eine, die begleitende, Hand streng gemessen fort, während die andere, singende, entweder unentschlossen zögernd, oder aber wie in leidenschaftlicher Rede mit einer gewissen ungeduldigen Heftigkeit früher einfallend und bewegter, die Wahrheit des musikalischen Ausdrucks von allen rhythmischen Fesseln frei machte.]

Here are some examples of the excessive or very noticeable application of rubato:

The great Italian violinist and composer, Geminiani, as the leader of the orchestra in Naples, often confused his orchestra with exaggerated rubato and this was, according to Burney, the reason why Geminiani was relegated to the position of a tenor violist as long as he remained in that city.

[Im folgenden Jahr finden wir ihn als Konzert-Meister. in Neapel erwähnt. Burney behauptet, Geminiani habe mit seinem übertriebenen tempo rubato das Orch. nicht selten in Verwirrung gebracht und deshalb bloß den Posten eines Tenorviolisten innehaben können, solange er sich in dieser Stadt aufhielt.]

Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771) wrote over 60 violin concerti in which he played the solos and was famous for his very expressive manner of play – his rubat, followed the principle of Choprin (and, of course, Mozart.)

[Die Soli sind im Concerto grosso virtuoser gehalten als sonst üblich. Naturgemäß gibt der große Geiger das Beste in den über 60 Violin-Konzerten, in denen sich sein eigenes ausdrucksstarkes Spiel widerspiegelt (sein Rubato, das im Prinzip dem Chopins glich, war berühmt.)]

The 20th century has a schizophrenic reaction to rubato:

Charles Ives was a pioneer, way ahead of his time, (polytonality, atonality, dissonant counterpoint, using polymetric and polyrhythmic structures), but expected of his performers (though he had never thought seriously about having his works performed) that they would have no difficulty with all the harmonic and rhythmic difficulties and would naturally perform his works correctly. It is a real paradox that he demanded mathematical precision from them, while simultaneously allowing them the greatest improvisatory freedom, both of which he felt were part of the American performance tradition.

[Ives hat nie an Aufführung seiner Werke gedacht und sich nicht um Fragen der Aufführungs-Praxis gekümmert. Er hat ausführende Kräfte vorausgesetzt, denen harmonische und rhythmische Schwierigkeiten völlig fremd und die deshalb in der Lage sind, seine Kompositionen werkgerecht wiederzugeben. Paradoxerweise hat er von den Spielern mathematische Präzision gefordert, ihnen aber gleichzeitig äußerste Freiheit im Geiste der Improvisation zugestanden, den er als integrierenden Bestandteil der amerikanischen Musikpraxis empfand. Schon im frühen 20. Jh. hat sich Ives durch die Anwendung von Polytonalität, Atonalität, dissonierendem Kontrapunkt, Polymetrik und Polyrhythmik solcher Techniken bedient, die später der modernen Musik wesenseigen geworden sind.]

The rhythms in Stravinsky’s „Le Sacre du Printemps,“„L’Histoire du Soldat“ and jazz are despite significant differences similar to each other in their resistance against the extremes of rubato. These new rhythms do not entice the performer to apply traditional rubato to any great extent as do the more traditional rhythms of his most frequently performed work, “L’Oiseau de Feu” (1910). Stravinsky was shocked, when he heard this work performed in a distorted, sentimentalized, exaggerated manner. This is not what he had had in mind and this would explain the numerous, provocative statements against Romanticism which he made, as well as some of the changes he made in his manner of composing. He abhorred the excessive expression of feeling of the performances he heard. He had hoped, for a while, that the player piano or the phonograph would establish correctly once and for all time any questions that an interpreter might have about the tempos and the accents to be used. He worked very carefully in notating every detail in his scores. But he found that there was an infinite variety of distinctions to be made: “A tempo can be wrong according to the metronome, but correct in spirit, even though the slight metronomic variation is not very great at all. The two works first mentioned can easily lead to many exaggerations, but, on the other hand, a pedantic precision could be harmful, because it may be missing any kind of expressive ‘fire.’ Through the use of detailed notation in his scores and the recordings he made, he hoped to make his intentions as a composer as clear as possible. He was concerned about articulation and rhythmic diction. Even where he seems to speak about an extremely mechanistic performance of his works, he nevertheless did not oppose the music of Tschaikowsky, Debussy or Schönberg.

[Die Rhythmen von Le Sacre du Printemps, von L'Histoire du Soldat und des Jazz sind ungeachtet bedeutsamer Divergenzen einander ähnlich in ihrer vehementen Auflehnung gegen die Extreme des Rubatos. Die neuen Rhythmen verführen den Interpreten nicht dazu, das traditionelle Rubato so reichlich anzuwenden, wie sie es bei Auff. von Strawinskys meistgespieltem Werk, dem Ballett L'Oiseau de Feu (1910), so oft taten. Strawinsky war entsetzt, wenn er seine Musik verzerrt, sentimentalisiert, nicht nur übertrieben dargestellt, sondern verfälscht hören mußte, und daraus erklären sich viele seiner provokatorischen Äußerungen gegen die Romantik und sogar manche seiner musikalischen Entscheidungen. Gefühlsschwelgerei von Interpreten brachte Strawinsky auf. Er versuchte, solchen Entgleisungen so gut wie möglich vorzubeugen. Fortgesetzt überarbeitete er seine Notation im Interesse größerer Genauigkeit. In den Gesprächen behauptete er, »daß jede musikalische Komposition ihr individuelles Zeitmaß (ihren Pulsschlag) besitzen muß« (213). Zeitweilig hoffte er, daß das Player-Piano oder der Phonograph sämtliche Tempo- und Betonungsfragen ein für allemal klären würde. Aber mit wachsender Erfahrung erkannte er die unendliche Feinheit und Vielschichtigkeit solcher Probleme. »Ein Tempo kann zwar metronomisch falsch, im Geiste aber richtig sein, obwohl augenscheinlich dabei der metronomische Spielraum nicht sehr groß sein kann« (Gespräche, 215). Le Sacre du Printemps und L'Histoire du Soldat können bei Aufführung immer noch leicht allerlei Übertreibungen zum Opfer fallen (wenn wohl auch nicht solchen Verzerrungen wie L'Oiseau de Feu). Andererseits wieder kann ihnen eine pedantische Genauigkeit schaden, der jegliches Feuer fehlt. - Außer der Grundfrage des Tempos und der Interaktion mit diesem waren für den Dirigenten Strawinsky die wichtigsten Anliegen Fragen »der Artikulation und der rhythmischen Diktion. Die Nuance hängt von diesen ab« (Gespräche, 215). Interpreten können niemals ganz genau wissen, ob sie die Absichten des Komp. auch tatsächlich verwirklichen. Durch seine Notation, seine Aufnahmen und seine Gespräche ermöglichte es Strawinsky guten Interpreten jedoch, seinen Intentionen so nahe zu kommen, daß weniger Raum für Irrtümer bleibt, als in jeder anderen Musik noch eben anginge, inbegriffen selbst Tonbandkompositionen, denn diese werden ja über keineswegs einheitliche Verstärker und Lautsprecher in Räumen mit den unterschiedlichsten schallreflektierenden Bedingungen gespielt. In dieser Hinsicht setzte Strawinsky eine Tendenz der Vergangenheit fort. Ebenso vertrat er aber auch einen Gedanken der Gegenwart, nämlich den einer bis zum Äußersten textgetreuen Aufführung, handle es sich nun um ein klassisches oder zeitgenössisches, ein romantisch fernes oder romantisch vertrautes Werk. So ist Strawinskys Einstellung Tl. einer kontinuierlichen Entwicklung. Selbst wo er einer extrem mechanistischen Auffassung das Wort zu reden schien, opponierte er niemals gegen die Musik Tschaikowskys, Debussys oder Schönbergs; er stimmte mit den absichtlich vereinfachten Schlagworten von J. Cocteaus Rappel à l'ordre (Paris 1926) niemals voll überein und beschäftigte sich weiterhin unaufhörlich mit dem Geist des Rhythmus.]

Pete Blue wrote (January 23, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Scholars have tried to define and analyze musical expressivity for centuries, and Tom's description of their efforts is excellent. But to me it's like examining a snowflake. The object disappears in the act of analysis.

No one, I believe, can tell you what tasteful rubato is or isn't, and equally certainly no one can measure it. As an example, try to create a jazz drumset track on a sequencer. I believe you'll find it impossible to create anything that nearly anyone couldn't easily distinguish from a live drummer. At least since the late 1940s/early 1950s, jazz drummers have played "behind the beat" to get the idiomatic funky feel of bebop and postbop jazz rhythm sections. Try to recreate, drumstroke by drumstroke, any four bars played by Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey, for instance, and no matter how minutely you quantify, no matter how precisely you measure minute departures from strict time, the results will be stiff and unswinging.

Medical researchers name a disease and pat themselves on the back for their accomplishment, but until treatment and cure are found, they've actually accomplished very little. Likewise, IMO, with musicologists.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 23, 2003):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: (...) Charles Ives was a pioneer, way ahead of his time, (polytonality, atonality, dcounterpoint, using polymetric and polyrhythmic structures), but expected of his performers (though he had never thought seriously about having his works performed) that they would have no difficulty with all the harmonic and rhythmic difficulties and would naturally perform his works correctly. It is a real paradox that he demanded mathematical precision from them, while simultaneously allowing them the greatest improvisatory freedom, both of which he felt were part of the American performance tradition. (...) >
Tom, I like that collection of quotes about rubato. You're right, it has always varied by time and place and individuals; and dozens more quotes could be found along the same lines. (I already used Mozart's here a few days ago, the letter to his father about how his left hand stays strict.)

=====

You mentioned madrigals: a salient quote there would be the preface to the first book of Frescobaldi's keyboard toccatas (1637) where he instructs the keyboard soloist to change tempo in certain situations. As I posted here last October:

"This kind of playing [i.e. toccatas], just as in modern madrigal practice, should not stress the beat. Although these madrigals are difficult, they will be made easier by taking the beat sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, or even pausing, depending on the expression of the sense of the words."

Yes. Just as in 17th-century Italian madrigal practice, i.e. ensemble music to be sung. Tempo fluctuations according to the sense of the words.

That preface is among the documents that every keyboard player of Bach should get to know, since Bach was a fan of Frescobaldi's music. It suggests some ideas that can be useful in playing Bach, as well:
http://listserv.albany.edu:8080/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0006&L=hpschd-l&P=R10001

=====

As for Charles Ives, there is a setting by him of the hymn tune "Shall we gather at the river" for voice and piano; I played it in college when accompanying a friend's undergraduate recital. Ives notated the desynchronized effect he wanted: the piano part continues strictly, while the voice part occasionally drags far behind it. At the end of the song, the singer finishes the last phrase after the piano is already done and the final chord released! We never did figure out for sure if he was trying to be funny, or if he was reproducing the effect of a singer who can't count, or an accompanist who is oblivious to a singer, or a singer with excellent rubato, or if he was simply writing down the sounds he heard in a church service as a slice of Americana: people meaning well but not quite getting it together. Probably all the above to some extent.

This is also the guy who wrote the "Concord" piano sonata in which a flute player wanders onstage in the middle of things (fourth movement, "Thoreau"), plays a few notes, and wanders back out.

=====

"One should always aim at being interesting, rather than exact." - Voltaire (That one crops up in the middle of the recent movie "Tadpole" that we were watching last night; I hadn't heard that quote before.)

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 23, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] On your Voltaire aphorism:
>>"One should always aim at being interesting, rather than exact." - Voltaire (That one crops up in the middle of the recent movie "Tadpole" that we were watching last night; I hadn't heard that quote before.)<<
Voltaire also stated:

Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung.

and

A witty saying proves nothing.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 23, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] I am amused by the apostle Paul's inability to understand the Epimenides paradox when he cites it in the first chapter of Titus. He uses it to try to "prove" something it's not meant to prove!

Trevor Evans-Young wrote (January 23, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Reading all of this thread, I was reminded of the beginning of Mahler's 4th, where he requests that the orchestra retard a little but the woodwinds keep the previous time. Mahler's music is so heavily notated with instructions about 'rubato' that there would seem to be no place for a conductor to put his individual stamp on it. But, how do we account for the different interpretations of his music. What makes Bernstein's accounts seem, to me, more personal, more fitting to the psychological expression of the music. Can this be quantified ie. 'Bernstein starts the rit. at measure 44, where Klemperer starts at 45'? Kaplan's recording of the 2nd where he states that he follows all of the instructions exactly, sounds to me very staid and matter-of-fact. So how exactly is the expression expressed where all of the expression is notated? In the other extreme as in Bach's case, how is the expression expressed where there is no indication?

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (January 23, 2003):
[To Trevor Evans-Young]
So how exactly is the expression
< expressed where all of the expression is notated? In the other >extreme as in Bach's case, how is the expression expressed where >there is no indication? >
to give my two cents on the question, let me introduce another extreme: academia or complete subjectivity on the conductor's part. I think where an ensemble/conductor claims to be should determine where he/she/they is/are on this continuum. If someone or an ensemble claims to be HIP, then they should lean toward academia: it takes a lot of homework to try and figure out an approximation of a period performance, however: one should never, and I repeat never base things solely on the books-I think it was Tom that said either on this list or the BMCL that the most important thing is musical excellence, which still requires some subjectivity, and this lack of subjectivity is really what Harnoncourt is being accused of. Ho0wever, if a conductor/performer doesn't claim to be HIP, then we still have the question: is complete subjectivity ok? I think that perhaps in Romantic music onward, to be very subjective is probably the correct way (if there is such a thing) to interpret this music, because Romantic music is based on pure emotion anyways-in this case its just a question of intuition really, of the ability to intuit what emotion(s) is(are) being communicated through the music. With Mahler, I guess all his directions are part of his musical communication!

Continue of this discussion see: Particularity, Objectivity, Subjectivity, Peculiarity



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