Thursday, July 26, 2007

Information Content in Grieg

John Cage once said that, in his youth he had decided he would dedicate his life to learning and performing the piano music of Edvard Grieg; and we also get suggestions that he made this decision because he found the music of Beethoven too challenging. My own experiences with Grieg were heavily influenced by the (probably familiar) high school experience when any piano student with an ounce of either talent or ambition would take a crack at the first movement of the piano concerto. This saturated me with so many mediocre performances that I quickly became sick of the damned thing (except in the treatment given by the Hoffnung Festival Orchestra); and that feeling percolated into the rest of the Grieg repertoire.

Nevertheless, when I was living in Santa Barbara a little less than thirty years ago, I had this absolutely wonderful piano teacher, who believed that, since I was not out to be a professional pianist, I should take the time to explore just about anything the repertoire had to offer, ranging from the downright impossible (such as the fourth movement of Ives' first piano sonata) to the (deceptively?) simplistic (such as Mompou's "Charmes").

Actually, I think she gave me the Ives to see how I would approach it, since she was trying to prepare it herself at the same time. Looking back on my copy, I see that I meticulously marked out all the "1 & 2 &" beats on the first two pages, making particular note when these fell between the beats of the triplets, quintuplets, and septuplets in the notation. I seem to have done this only on the first two pages. I think this is because my first "assignment" was limited to those pages. However, after concentrating on those pages, I began to develop a feel for the rhythms and did not have to mark those "training wheels" on the remaining pages.

It was with this attitude of exploration that I found sheet music for the first three sets of Grieg Lyric Pieces at a friend's used book store and decided to buy them (in spite of the somewhat disparaging look on my friend's face). (This was the same friend who had taken the late Steven De Groote to task for including the Liszt "Dante" sonata on the program for a recital he gave in Santa Barbara, as if Liszt was just too vulgar to receive serious attention.) Like much of the music I purchased at that time, it then just sat in a pile, waiting for the "right time" when I would give it some attention.

I cannot remember when I decided to look at the first set (Opus 12 from 1867). I remember that it was more challenging than Mompou, but it also had a tendency to be tediously repetitious. Nevertheless, I was amused that the "Watchman's Song" had been inspired by Macbeth, particularly since the mood was so much more sober than the character it was supposed to invoke. This was my first clue that there was probably more to this music than what I was reading on the surface.

Ten years later I was living in Los Angeles, taking piano lessons from a promising young composer, who decided to put me on the "Berceuse" movement at the beginning of the second set (Opus 38, 1884). The two of us never communicated very well (which is probably why, to this day, I do not think very much of his work, which puts me at odds with much of the listening public for "serious" music); so I did not make very much further progress with Grieg. I do not think I returned to that second set until I had also returned from Singapore (now about ten years ago) and was no longer taking lessons, just using my time on my own as best as I could. By this time I think I had acquired the full CD set of Grieg's piano music, released by BIS with pianist Eva Knardahl. I was not sure what to make of Knardahl, beyond her achieving the ambition that Cage had set for himself and never fulfilled; but, if nothing else, she made me aware that the Lyric Pieces were embedded in a cultural context that I did not understand very well. I was thus willing to admit that I had not really "gotten" either of the first two sets and that I was not sure what it would take to "get" them.

What probably turned the trick for me was the decision of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel to run a "focus series" on the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, which included a documentary about the man made by Torben Skjødt Jensen in 1995. I had known about both his Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath from my student days but had never given very much thought to his Danish nationality and the impact it had on his talents as both writer and director. Nevertheless, I consumed the entire TCM series voraciously, thinking little about it until I decided to return to Grieg a couple of months ago and take on the last of the Lyric Pieces sets I had in sheet music.

This time I was more interested in getting beyond the simple repetitions; but what really turned me around was the "Erotic Piece," which is the fifth composition in that third set (Opus 43, 1886). My immediate impression was that this was not particularly erotic; but then, with an impact not that different from that of Proust's madeleine, my memory flashed back to Dreyer's Gertrud and I realized that this was an eroticism that had more to do with sexual frustration than with consummation. This, in turn, led me to approach the other pieces in the set as growing from a soil rich with sadness, however upbeat the surface structure may have been. From this vantage point I could listen to Knardahl with "fresh ears," more aware of the ways in which those seemingly tedious repetitious were actually fraught with emotional intensity.

This throws a new light on my recent attempt to home in on the "right" way to invoke information theory in the study of music. If we just look at the notes in the Lyric Pieces compositions, we find a relatively low level of information content, by virtue of all the repetition. However, as I have tried to argue for some time, information content resides only partially in the notes; one must also take the performance of those notes into account. Because Knardahl was so good at finding the right ways to play the repeated passages without having them sound "repetitious," she was intuitively raising the information content of the listening experience to a very high level, obliging us to (almost literally) hang on every note summoned from her keyboard. From a point of view of historical irony, it is interesting to note that Cage eventually moved to an aesthetic in which notation could be almost incidental to the acts of performance.

Now my challenge is on the other foot, so to speak. My guess is that my technique will never be up to conveying the subtleties through which Grieg really "works;" but I have finally come to a point where I am no longer dismissive of the man's compositions. At that point I have also decided to trade in my sheet music for the Dover publication of all of the sets of Lyric Pieces, because I expect them to occupy me for several years to come!

No comments: