Saturday, January 24, 2009

Trying to Demystify the Dramatistic

I suspect that many who read yesterday's musings on trying to take a "dramatistic" approach to musical performance may have felt that I had forsaken the empirical-analytic not for the historical-hermeneutic (as Jürgen Habermas would have put it) but for fuzzy-headed mysticism. Was I really trying to ascribe motivated agency to "the music itself;" and, if so, where on the continuum between the strictly literal and the full-fledged metaphorical was I trying to do this? Given that the title of this blog is "The Rehearsal Studio," I have no problem answering the first question in the affirmative, with the proviso that, for the sake of "rehearsal," that ascription should be viewed as a hypothesis. As to the latter question, I was clearly working from the metaphorical end of the continuum. One does not walk up to a sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven on the street and ask if it is carrying an umbrella because it thinks it is going to rain (to choose a mundane agent motivation that we encounter frequently in San Francisco); but, also, to put aside those accusations of mysticism, one would not consult a medium to contact the spirit world to find out what that sonata would have to say about its motives. What the sonata "has to say" resides solely in the text that Beethoven bequeathed us, subject to the analytic enhancements of musicologists and editors and our own context-sensitive capacity for interpretation that can take into account both Beethoven's context and our own.

Where, then, do these motives reside? If they are to be viewed metaphorically, then the power of the metaphor may well reside in the etymology of that noun "motive." They may be viewed in terms of that dynamic force that is responsible for moving the performance "forward along the time line." I recently invoked this metaphor when I wrote about the "journey" through Elliott Carter's second string quartet, in which the "path from beginning to end" may be a challenging one (for both performers and listeners) but it still "navigable" if one is "equipped" with proper listening skills. In that same post I also argued that the skills that "equip" one for this quartet are significantly different than those with which we "navigate" the movements of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. However, to be more specific about what it means to be so "equipped" in the context of Yuliya Gorenman's Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music yesterday, I shall try to draw upon past thoughts regarding Beethoven's Opus 109 sonata.

As Gorenman observed, the first movement of this sonata deserves that same "quasi una Fantasia" label that Beethoven had assigned to this two Opus 27 sonatas. At the very least this suggests a departure from the normative structural conventions, which provide the usual "navigational maps" that lay out the "journey" from the beginning to the end of a sonata. Thus, when one prepares to perform (or listen to) that first movement, there is a real question of just where "forward" goes (other than in the temporal direction of the ticking clock). The last time I tried to address this question was when I heard Mack McCray play this sonata at Old St. Mary's Cathedral, which is rather a happy coincidence, since McCray, in his capacity as Chairman of the Piano Department at the Conservatory, was the one who introduced Gorenman to the audience. At that time I interpreted the sense of "forward" in terms of a temporal organization of the distribution of energy, illustrated by a graph that plotted the level of amplitude (a physical approximation to the psychological experience of loudness) across the time-line of the duration of the third movement:

As every good performer knows, a strategy for the distribution of energy requires knowing in advance where you want your climaxes to be and then gauging your "expenditures of energy" to make sure that those climaxes are delivered in ways that sound climactic. This a priori understanding of how energy will be distributed across the entire duration of the composition is part of what it means to hear the entire performance in your head before your body realizes that performance as "physical sound in real time." I should acknowledge that I was probably disposed to think about performance in these terms by not only McCray's performance of Opus 109 but also Gorenman's performance of Opus 27, Number 2 ("Moonlight") at a benefit luncheon I attended on Thursday. This earlier sonata is particularly distinguished by the radically different "energy strategies" required for its two outer movements; and the final movement is particularly challenging because, without a well-conceived strategy, it just all goes by in a blur. Gorenman had convincing strategies (which is to say strategies that the listener could readily follow) for both movements on Thursday; and much of her coaching of Opus 109 on Friday seemed directed at getting the student to think in terms of such strategies. I suspect that it was this "stance" she took toward performance as a journey through time that must be navigated that supported that claim I made yesterday that her Master Class was also an exciting lesson in learning to be a better listener.

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