Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Visual Metaphor?

Thinking more about my experience of watching videos of Pierre Boulez conducting the music of Edgard Varèse (which I reported on, I realize that Boulez employed a gesture I had not previously encountered. He would raise both arms, curve them forward, and then bring them down with the rest of his body vaguely following that curve, almost as if he were diving into water. I let that pass as idiosyncrasy until, earlier this week while watching videos of Valery Gergiev conducting the music of Johannes Brahms, I saw him execute the same gesture! This led me to reflect back on what Boulez had been doing and whether or not Gergiev had decided to appropriate it as a good idea.

As I have written in the past, I have come to appreciate Boulez as "a conductor who recognizes the importance of knowing where the climaxes are and making sure that they are recognized as such." Those climaxes are not always indicated explicitly in the score, and where they are is often a matter of how a performer decides to read that score. When the score does attempt to indicate such climaxes, it is usually through the use of a "phrasing slur," a notational artifact for which Heinrich Schenker had a particularly venomous regard. (He did not seem to object to the idea that one could use notation to indicate phrase boundaries or even the hierarchical embedding of subphrases within phrases. His attack was against editors whose phrasing slurs made no sense, at least in his own opinion.) The shape of the notation itself led me to wonder whether Boulez was arcing his body over the end of a phrase in imitation of a slur arc. In other words, just as the use of slur notation served as a metaphor for delimiting the extent of a phrase, Boulez was using his body as a visual metaphor for the notation. If this were, indeed, the case, I could see how other conductors, particularly those who have mastered the skill of conducting with the entire body (like Gergiev), could see the value in this particular gesture and appropriate it for their own performances. When we then take these two examples together, we find ourselves with an interesting illustration of a common foundation for performance shared by Brahms and Varèse, however radically different the experiences of listening to these two composers may be!

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