Friday, January 23, 2009

Dramatistic Musical Performance

It is unlikely that Yuliya Gorenman was exposed to Kenneth Burke's dramatistic approach to human behavior, either while she was growing up in the Soviet Union (particularly in light of Burke's personal break with Marxism) or in the course of her music studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Peabody Conservatory; but there was a decidedly dramatistic flavor to the ways in which she coached three San Francisco Conservatory students in the Piano Master Class she conducted this morning. I mean this very much in the literal sense of Burke's own words, in that the conversations she conducted with the students (in which the audience would occasionally be included) were grounded more in theories of action than in theories of knowledge; or, to shift to my own terminology, her use of language was far more verb-based than noun-based. From Burke's point of view, this involved a focus on dynamic concepts such as purpose and motive, rather than the positivist emphasis on static texts (musical or otherwise) so characteristic of our legacy from the Age of Enlightenment. Most interesting in her approach was the extent to which she could apply these dynamic concepts to not only the behavior of the performer but also the music itself. Thus, she was perfectly comfortable with inquiry concerned with what the music wanted to do or say or with the contextual influence behind such actions. For those in the audience, the result was a refreshingly novel way in which to approach listening, demonstrated through performances of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, and Robert Schumann.

This is not to say that she disregarded the actions of the pianist. However, one came away with the impression that such actions can always be achieved through proper technical training, while the "secret sauce" of a good performance comes from a performer who already hears that performance in his/her own head and then simply summons the body to realize what the mind already knows through listening. That knowledge is verb-based and reveals itself through Donald Schön's two stages of knowing-in-action and reflection-in-action. Through this approach she could negotiate the almost improvisatory nature of the first movement of Beethoven's Opus 109 sonata and steer away from the dangers of repetition in the "Grand Polonaise Brilliante" section of Chopin's Opus 22.

However, this dramatistic thinking came into full flower when she took on the opening section of Schumann's Opus 17 fantasie, drawing upon the extent to which the composition delivered a "secret message," which drew upon its invocation of Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte." However, beyond the idea of delivering a message, Schumann's fantasie introduced a new rhetoric which extrapolated the German Lied to a strictly musical phenomenon. At a time when Felix Mendelssohn was just beginning to experiment with the idea of "songs without words," Schumann was taking the experiment to the next level of poetry without the poet, so to speak. In the melodies and phrases of the fantasie, we hear the phraseology of Wilhelm Müller, Heinrich Heine, and (of course) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The world of this fantasie is the world of a song cycle in which Schumann has distilled the musical setting of the poetry from the poetry itself. In coaching her student to meet the technical challenges of that musical setting, Gorenman coached the rest of us in hearing that "unwritten poetry" from which the music had been extracted, thus creating a listening experience as transcendent as Schumann's compositional effort. This was truly one of the most exciting lessons in learning to be a better listener!

1 comment:

Yuliya Gorenman said...

Thank you for your kind words about my performance and master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last January.
Please visit my website


Yuliya Gorenman