Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Musical "Facts"

Joel Krosnick, cellist for the Julliard String Quartet, invoked an interesting word usage a couple of times during the master class he gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. As I recall, the way he put it was that notes should not be performed too "factually." He applied this usage to both Johannes Brahms (for the C minor Opus 60 piano quartet) and Franz Schubert (for the E-flat major D. 929 piano trio). The point he seemed to be making for both composers was that the underlying harmonic rhythm was more important than the metric durations assigned to the individual notes. In both of these compositions, the students were working on the slow movement (the Andante from the Brahms and the Andante con moto from the Schubert). Ironically, the third work he heard was the opening Allegro movement of the Schubert D minor D. 810 string quartet, usually called "Death and the Maiden;" and his primary suggestion was that the students try taking the pace a bit slower for the benefit of the resulting sound. I took this to mean that this music has harmonic rhythm, too; and performers have to find a tempo that is appropriate to the pace of that harmonic rhythm.

This approach reinforced my primary impression of how Lorin Maazel conducted the New York Philharmonic during their visit to North Korea. As I previously suggested, much of his approach seemed to focus on teaching the concept of "espressivo" to a culture whose esthetic was heavily rooted in the precision of mass synchronized events. However, while it was clear that he was encouraging the solo passages in Antonín Dvořák's "New World" symphony to "linger" and "twist around" the background of the ensemble, there was also that sense of a harmonic rhythm driving each of the four movements of the symphony whose "breath" was not ruled by any metronome beat.

These two sets of impressions, in turn, reflect back on what I have been learning through my reading of John Dewey. I already talked about Dewey's approach to rhythm in my thoughts about William Schuman's violin concerto. However, since this approach keeps popping up in my listening experience, I figure it is time to let Dewey speak for himself. Here is a passage from "The Natural History of Form," the seventh chapter of Art as Experience, in which he offers and discusses a "short definition" of rhythm:

It is ordered variation of changes. When there is a uniformly even flow, with no variations of intensity or speed, there is no rhythm. There is stagnation even though it be the stagnation of unvarying motion. Equally there is no rhythm when variations are not placed. There is a wealth of suggestion in the phrase "takes place."

Both Schubert and Brahms had at least an intuitive understanding of that "wealth of suggestion;" and much of what Krosnick was telling the Conservatory students could be interpreted as an invitation to dig into just what it means for a performance of one of these compositions to "take place."

That meaning ultimately comes down to whether or not the performance is doing anything more than filling a particular interval of time. After all, unless one is performing one of John Cage's compositions that is explicitly "about" one or more specific durations of time, there has to be more to a performance than its duration. What that "more" is rarely amounts to some fixed set of qualities. Rather the "more" is discovered through the activity of preparing the performance; it reveals itself or evolves so that it may then serve somewhat like a spinal chord. Furthermore, in the spirit of this biological metaphor, the evolution may be a response to either endogenous (i.e. from the music itself) or exogenous (external to the music) events. Thus, while Krosnick noted several times about the heartbreaking quality of the principle theme of the Brahms movement, he neglected to consider this quality as an autobiographical reflection on the heartbreak of unrequited love in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which Brahms had explicitly invoked by referring to Werther's "signature" yellow vest in one of his letters.

There is also an exogenous connection to the Schubert trio, but it goes in the other direction. Schubert began work on his D. 944 ("Great") C major symphony shortly after completing this trio; and, as Krosnick observed, both of the compositions have a slow movement marked "Andante con moto." However, they share a deeper connection in that the "moto" factor in each of these movements reveals at least a faint suggestion of a march (which was a music form that Schubert seemed to enjoy). That suggestion is a bit stronger due to the use of brass in the symphony. However, it is still there in the piano trio, although it is interrupted by one of Schubert's "storms" (as Krosnick calls them), which may be the basis for a forward-looking exogenous connection to the sorts of mood swings we would later encounter in compositions by Gustav Mahler.

Looking back on what I have just written, I realized that I approached this particular writing task with a bit of trepidation. Having entitled one of my previous reports of a master class, "Learning to Listen to Elliott Carter," I realized how familiar I was with all three of the works presented last night to Krosnick; and I started asking myself, "What did I learn this time?" However, I think Krosnick has helped me with the answer, because it lies in applying that first observation I cited in a broader context: What one learns from a listening experience is not always (if ever) "factual!"

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