Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Challenge of Description

Stephen Hough's Piano Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was an impressive event for a variety of reasons. Most important was that it covered an extremely challenging sector of the piano repertoire, but also Hough drew upon a broad palette of personal experiences to summon the resources he needed to engage with his four students and coach them accordingly. For example, in coaching the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff's second (Opus 36 in B-flat minor) piano sonata, he drew heavily on what he had learned from his own close listening to the acoustic recordings that Rachmaninoff had made for RCA Victor. He also discussed the biographical setting in which Rachmaninoff revised the original (1913) version of this sonata in 1931 (using this as an opportunity to promote his preference for the original, since the student had prepared the 1931 version). Nevertheless, Hough also demonstrated (inadvertently) just how challenging the problem of description is where both executing and listening to music are concerned. Once one gets beyond those "self-evident truths" that I have been teasing out while reading Philippe Hamon's Du Descriptif, the terrain through which one makes descriptive "moves" (to invoke the terminology of Erving Goffman) is littered with mine fields; and most of those mines get planted when our language shifts from the literal to the figurative (as it has been doing in this very sentence). Thus, I hope Hough will forgive me if I point out two of those mines, even if neither turned out to be severely damaging. He encountered both of them when he ventured beyond his areas of personal expertise in the interest of metaphor and may have tripped over the true nature of the object being offered for comparison to the target of discussion.

The first mine was encountered when he tried to provide a "big picture" view of "what is going on" in the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's G major (Opus 58) piano concerto based on two levels of interplay. One involved the alternation between passages that were best played in a strictly measured manner and those that could be given a more "improvisatory" (Hough's word) treatment; the other involved the relationship between the solo part and the orchestral accompaniment. He described this latter interplay as having the spontaneity of jazz improvisation, where one performer would "throw something out" and another would "pick it up." (Those quotes may not be exact.) I am not sure how much experience Hough has had with listening to jazz; but it struck me that he was trying to evoke his personal misconception of "trading fours," a process in which jazz players alternate improvisations of a four-bar passage. Had Hough ever slogged through the almost 900 pages of Paul Berliner's Thinking in Jazz, he might have realized that trading fours is not altogether spontaneous. Rather, it tends to be at its best when it finds just the right balance between drawing upon disciplines that arise through extensive performing experiences and always looking for new ways to push the envelope enclosing those disciplines. The land mine itself, so to speak, was the assumption that Hough could talk about listening to jazz in the same way that he could already talk about the repertoire he performed.

Beyond the likely confusion in understanding the phenomenon he had chosen to evoke, there is a deeper question of whether or not an understanding of jazz practice can inform the performance of a particular classical composition. Joseph Kerman's view of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a radical, particularly where his piano concertos are concerned, at least hints that an understanding of the practice of jazz could inform the would-be Mozart soloist. While I do not necessarily believe that the same can be said of Beethoven, I still have to recognize that Friedrich Gulda, who has recorded the compete canon of both the sonatas and concertos of Beethoven, is clearly informed by his also being a jazz pianist. Thus, to apply Hough's process of close listening to Rachmaninoff's recordings, I could probably eventually be able to hear the connection in Gulda's recording of Opus 58; but I have yet to do so. However, because Hough has demonstrated his own listening skill, I would seriously (and enthusiastically) recommend these Gulda recordings to him!

The other mine was in the area of classical ballet (which I realize invokes a rather gory connotation). The occasion involved a student who had prepared four selections from Pyotr Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker as arranged for solo piano by Mikhail Pletnev. Hough felt it was important to be aware of what was happening in the ballet, even if one was performing arrangements like these in a concert setting. I agree with this; and, as I have observed, I have seen so many Nutcracker productions that it is virtually impossible for me to listen to this music and not see dancers in my head (visions of sugar plum fairies, as it were), even when I am listening to an "extreme virtuoso" piano performance. Hough's mistake was to invoke what was in his head, which happened to be totally inconsistent with the music the student was playing!

The case in point was that two of the selections came from the second act pas de deux: the opening adagio and the ballerina (Sugar Plum Fairy) variation. Like just about every pas de deux in the classical Russian tradition, this is "pure dance," totally detached from both the setting and the narrative of whatever ballet happens to be on the program, meaning that all the things Hough said about the spectacular "candy-land" (my word) imagery of the second act are irrelevant (and sometimes dissolve off of the stage) when that pas de deux begins. Where Hough did get it right, however, was in his remark about how much Tchaikovsky could get out of a descending major scale, since the adagio music is little more than a set of variations on that scale with more and more voices piled on top of it as the variations progress. Where this is most interesting is where those added voices intertwine with the scale, ascending sinuously upward while the scale proceeds downward at a steady metered pace. This intertwining brings out Tchaikovsky's orchestration at its best, and Pletnev deftly captured it in his arrangement. However, the pianist has one hell of a time bringing it out with the clarity one would expect from an orchestra; and, while the student did a creditable job, I suspect he would have appreciated some coaching tips. Similarly, in the variation Hough recognized the need for the music to have an "affinity" (again, my word) with the steps; but I came away feeling he was sufficiently unfamiliar with this ballet to appreciate just how minimal those steps usually are, in such a way that even the slightest movement carries significance far beyond the physical effort behind it. Again, I agree with Hough that a knowledge that this was what one would be seeing on the stage could positively inform the musical performance; but the problem was that he did not really know what that particular "this" was for the musical selection.

It may have been unfair for me to focus on two events out of an entire highly satisfying evening. Perhaps it would have been better for me to choose the metaphor of a mattress with two peas under it, rather than a mine field. My purpose, however, was to deal with the challenge of the task of description, rather than with techniques of piano pedagogy and coaching; and, philosophically at least, I believe that impediments to effective description are dangerous hazards, rather than petty annoyances. As is often the case in research, this was a situation in which we may learn more when things go wrong than we do when they go right. I have no idea whether or not Hough was even aware of the mines I chose to select as my own focus of attention, let alone whether or not he would even regard them as hazardous. However, they turned out to be very useful in my own pursuits of logical inquiry; and I feel I understand them better for having taken the time to document them.

No comments: