Monday, November 29, 2010

Imitating Casals

Recently I have been writing on about the distinction between imitation and reproduction in the performance of music.  I recently wrote that “imitation does not aspire to ‘authentic reproduction,’ because it is more concerned with conveying the significance of that which is being imitated, rather than simply ‘duplicating’ it.”  I realized this morning that this distinction may also apply to a story I discussed back in January of 2009 in which cellist Bernard Greenhouse (formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio) talked about learning “how to improvise in Bach” from Pablo Casals.  Casals began an extended series of lessons by requiring Greenhouse to reproduce, as accurately as possible, his own performance of a movement from one of the solo cello suites.  This took a considerable amount of time and was executed without the benefit of any recording equipment, but Casals wanted Greenhouse to internalize the fact that what he heard was the way to perform this movement.

Eventually, Greenhouse mastered this task and could basically play along with Casals in perfect unison.  Then Casals shifted the lesson to how one could depart from this “standard” in the interests of inventive improvisation.  At the time I concluded that Casals was trying to teach Greenhouse how to be a better listener, because listening was a prerequisite skill for improvising.  However, I think there may have been an equally valid perspective, which is that one cannot find one’s own interpretation of a performance until one has the ability to reproduce another interpretation.  In other words one needs the skill of reproduction in order to master the skill of imitation.  This proposition is still in the conjecture stage but clearly needs further consideration!

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