Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Musical Decision-making

I confess, I didn’t learn what this was until freshman year of college. I remember a friend saying to me “oh you know when you play a certain piece a lot, and all the decisions you’ve made seem really final, then you play with someone else and you have to make new decisions?”.  I was a bit confused because I had innocently thought “you just play a piece like it’s supposed to go.”

In my mind, the great performances I had heard were just artists who “REALLY played it how it’s supposed to go.”

Obviously I had a lot to learn about communicating in a chamber ensemble!  In truth, I had been making musical decisions my whole life.  Anytime you play music, whether it’s intentional or not, you are making thousands of little decisions about how to play it.  Anyone, musician or not who happens to hum a tune they know is making musical decisions.  These decisions about how you hear something, and eventually what makes your “voice” unique come from thousands of factors, all affecting your judgement of what seems right for that bit of music. 

Some examples of musical aspects we make decisions about are: Where do notes lead? Over a phrase, where do groups of notes lead (that is grow or move into each other), what is their overall shape? How connected are notes? Do they have stronger or more gentle articulation?  Timing: do you stay steady? Linger on an important moment, do you have a sense of rushing or moving forward?  What kind of sound quality are you trying to produce? A dark tone? Rich and warm tone?  Silky or feathery tone?  The questions are infinite, but most musicians have strong opinions about all these factors because they hear the piece as a “whole.”

Your decisions might be affected by what you’ve listened to, what you think the spirit of the music is, or what it means to you.  It’s truly amazing how differently people can hear things.  I’ll never forget a hilarious instance when I borrowed a colleagues part for the Bartok concerto and in a section where I had pencilled in “warm”, she had pencilled in “tortured”.  We joke that both markings really meant “use more vibrato.”

If composers tried to mark all these details into the score, the music would be covered in ink and practically illegible.  It would also take a lot of the creativity and fun out of interpretation.
I took a wonderful class at the University of Montreal one year called “interpretation” where we listened to various recordings of great artists and literally tried to notate all their musical decisions.  We had to blow up the scores to be able to fit all the subtle details in.  It was also remarkable to see from this perspective how “plain” the music really is.

Sometimes, the music is downright illogical, or confusing.  At the end of the famous 3rd movement “Heiliger Dankgesang” of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet that we will play this coming season, Beethoven writes a series of repeated notes, but ties them together with slur markings.  Usually, when you see this marking connecting two notes that are the same, it means there is no separation, that is play it like one long note.  However, Beethoven could easily have just written one long note instead of tying together smaller note divisions.  Does this mean you are supposed to make tiny separations?  Pulse each note division?  Perhaps Beethoven wanted the subdivisions of the beat felt more strongly but not emphasized under a long held note? Larry decided to research what other quartets had chosen to do and listened to a myriad of recordings from all different time periods.  He notated their solutions on a separate piece of paper and brought them to rehearsal.  There were almost as many interpretations as there were quartet recordings!  We still have not come to a final decision about how we will play that one important bar, but look forward to lively discussion and experimentation to test ideas and come to a unified musical decision. 

Until next time,