Hitting the Right Notes: SAR10 International Conference
This past weekend I was in Zurich presenting at the 10th International Conference organized by the Society of Artistic Research. Compared to the conference in Vilnius in September (2018), this conference included a wider range of artistic research fields, from visual arts to theater, dance to theory and everything in between.
The topic of my presentation was the role of accuracy in performance of solo unaccompanied clarinet repertoire. When I say accuracy, I mean notational accuracy - the idea of playing the right note at the right time, in tune. The talk was inspired by my experience performing Markku Klami’s Twirl multiple times last fall. I found that in certain performances, I really focused on ‘accuracy’ in both performance intention and physically what I did when performing - reading the score. In other performances, I focused on extra-musical, or extra-notational elements, like things that Markku had said to me during our interview. When I listened back to the recordings, the ‘accuracy-focused’ performances were indeed more accurate, and I thought that they would the ‘best ones’. In actuality, it was the performances that might have been less notationally ‘accurate’ that I preferred. I also remembered getting some feedback from others at the time, who had heard more than one performance, echoing the same.
This got me thinking not only about whether I should be focusing on accuracy when I perform, but also whether I should continue to judge my performances on “how many of the right notes I hit in a run” or “did I nail that really high note on the third page”. Now, anyone who is reading this might be thinking , “well, duh, you shouldn’t focus on accuracy” and “of course the success of a performance should not be judged on the percentage of notes that were correct”. And in the discussion part of my presentation in Zurich, multiple people commented on the very same. Someone made the point, correctly, that there really is no such thing as “accuracy” in the way I define it. And indeed, a contemporary viola specialist who attended my talk even suggested that I survey some contemporary musicians about the term “accuracy” and the role in plays in their performance, because I would find that “accuracy” as a musical value or choice does not occur to contemporary specialists in the same way that it plays in a role when “classically-trained” (her term, not mine, though I agree) musicians perform contemporary music.
I think it is absolutely true that aspiring to accuracy is fundamentally and theoretically fruitless, like aiming for an ‘authentic performance’. And contemporary music specialists might scoff at the idea of ‘focusing on accuracy’ and making that a goal of a performance. But that does not mean that players do not do it and that the practice of doing so is not there. And so following my presentation and the discussion that took place afterwards, I really began to think about, and frame, this question of accuracy and performance within one of the research questions of my doctoral project - what is it that contemporary music uniquely offers to the ‘classically-trained’ clarinetist? Perhaps it is the ability, or opportunity, or necessity, to abandon accuracy in performance both mentally and musically. And so, I would like to present, in written and visual form some of the content of my presentation with some added commentary that I will consider both in my research, and should I ever decide to present this talk again.
I opened the presentation with this slide, a quote I found in the opening letter that Leon Botstein wrote for the spring 1999 issue of The Musical Quarterly. The letter was entitled “Musings on the History of Performance in the Twentieth Century” and focused mainly on the role that recording, and recording technology has affected how musicians choose to investigate and perform classical music. I was drawn his point that this technology has “affected the approach to performance standard and expectations” in general, because even though commercial recording is not something I do very often, recording for festivals, scholarships, competitions, and auditions, is. And I do believe that it has ‘flavored’ my approach to performance. When I started learning contemporary music, first with the unaccompanied standard solos, my focus was on “the narrowly technical”, and very rarely did my interpretation go past that. Many could say that this approach is simply a sign of musical immaturity, but I disagree. When it comes to contemporary music, there are plenty of performers and teachers who still focus the ‘narrowly technical’, or believe that a good performance of a difficult contemporary score is the one that gets all the right notes.
Next, I discussed some developments in musical thinking in the 20th century that began placing a higher value on accuracy in performance. First, the expansion of historical and early music studies that emphasized ‘authenticity’ and ‘objectivity’ in performance resulted in a systematic removal of individual interpretation and a renewed focus on notation and performing notation “accurately”. Through the 20th century, with the transition from modern to contemporary music periods, composers began yielding more power and influence than the performer. Scores were increasingly difficult, requiring a greater focus on the “narrowly technical", so much that performance became less about the performer and his/her interpretation than about the composer and his/her notated score. Philosophically, also, you had composers who urged against needless expressionism in their works (Stravinsky) and promoted the idea that the performer (and composer) should be anonymous in musical presentation (Boulez). For clarinet, I am reminded of the strict adherence to the score required to perform Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1919), which is often the first solo unaccompanied piece that classical clarinetists learn.
I propose that focus on notational accuracy is of utmost importance during preparation of contemporary music. Contemporary scores are often much more notationally complex and technically demanding and require detail-oriented, repetitive practice. I find in my practice that it takes much more time to go over a contemporary work slowly, repetitively trying to absorb all markings, notes, dynamics and articulations into my muscle memory and into my ear. It is only after I fully study a work in this way, that I can begin to understand the musical purpose of a figure, or gesture, or motive, and then start to act upon my musical judgement and develop my own musical vision. At some point in my preparation (when is determined very much by the composer and style of the work), there is a point where I stop relying so much on my eyes and start listening. I admit that I have not paid much notice of this point in the past, but I suspect that it is at that stage of preparation where I should begin intentionally incorporating my musical judgements and vision, with focus less on accuracy.
Why would one want to abandon accuracy as a goal in a performance? I have noticed that when I focus on accuracy in a performance, I tend to listen less to myself. And when I stop listening, I prohibit my musical judgement and vision to come through in a performance. It requires a balance - to focus simultaneously on listening and reading - and is an intentional decision one must make when playing solo repertoire. When playing with others, I always naturally divide my mental focus and my listening between my own part and what is going on around me. But when playing alone, it can become easy to “tunnel vision” on one’s own score, and reading one’s own part. And the more we make an effort to try to be true to the ‘composer’s vision’, as some composers demand, the less we as players focus on our own vision and our own voice in a work. Because, as the first point in the slide makes, there is a difference between ‘non-interpretation’ (which we’ve already discussed has merits and supporters throughout music history) and restrained interpretation (an interpretation or performance vision can be true to the composers intention even when the composer might not be present to give his/her opinion).
And finally, I discussed abandoning accuracy in performance in my personal practice. First, and foremost, there is risk involved. As a young artist, it is scarier to take risks. And since accuracy is still greatly valued in classical music performance generally, telling myself “I won’t base failure on accuracy” or “I won’t make accuracy a goal in performance” is a big mental jump. But i think contemporary music, in particular solo unaccompanied works, uniquely offers the performer the opening to begin experimenting with this idea. The audience is very rarely sitting there with the score, and even if they are, like the jury in my doctoral concerts, they are not nearly as familiar with the score as I am. I am also discovering that the “point” I mentioned earlier, at which one can stop reading and start listening, is very different between composers. For example, between the Finnish and American composers that I have started studying. This is a more abstract idea, but one I will begin to pay attention to in my future musical preparations because I think it is an important quality inherent to the music that might give clues as to style or composing method.
Following my presentation was long discussion, where I was asked to pose question to the audience based on my presentation. It was an interesting format for a conference, usually presenters present and the audience asks questions (or doesn’t). Below were the questions I posed. The discussion was rich enough that we really only spoke about the first question. Some listeners suggested that abandoning accuracy in ensemble situations depends a great deal on the socialization process (what is the view of each member, etc) and whether the composer is present in rehearsals and/or performance. Both are very practical responses, and of course situations I have been in myself, but I find it curious that when it comes to contemporary music, the composer’s presence would play such a role. It does, again, represent a very unique aspect of performing contemporary music, since you would never have Brahms or Poulenc or Ives in one of your rehearsals. We never got to the third question, which was one that interested me very much. My thinking here is that this could depend a great deal on what the style of the contemporary work is, as well as where it is from or being performed (Finland, Germany, US, France, etc.). With regards to the second question, I do believe that we owe audiences a distinct musical vision, and I do not believe many in the audience would have thought otherwise.