Thursday, November 17, 2011

Take off the plastic-wrap and breathe!

I recently consulted my Dictionary of Bowing and Pizzicato Terms (Berman, Jackson, Sarch: ASTA, Fourth edition, 1999) to check a bowing usage. The dictionary has over 100 bowing terms from the Italian, English, French and German languages. Flipping through the booklet I wondered how many of the terms are in use today, as many of the terms have their origins in the Baroque era. Modern playing as I hear it tends to lean heavily on two styles of bowing; up and down. Although with the current style of “seamless sound” one could argue there is only one. Would a modern player know what to make of the term FouettĂ©? Strappato? CollĂ©?

This has little to do with the capabilities of today’s players but with the style of playing which is in vogue and taught as an ideal. The prevailing concept of beautiful string sound is one of endless flow, void of overt articulation. This style, exemplified in the Eugene Ormandy sheen, seems even more prevalent in American than in Europe or Russia.
(Interestingly, we hear this seamlessness in New Age music, with its endless synthesized strings. Personally, this sound is particularly distressing. Nothing like trying to sink into a relaxing massage or spa visit while being carried along by background music that never breathes. Gasp! Very stressful!)
I consider much of this preference for seamless bowing as a result of both modern recordings and the influence of the 19th century aesthetic ideal. From the modern recording aspect, there has been commentary on how today’s orchestras and performers tend to imitate recordings, and seek an unblemished, smoothly packaged sound of digital perfection. It is a loss that we idolize this ‘plastic-wrapped’ sound. Yes, the recorded-sound bears repeated listening and up-close scrutiny, but the result is a style of performance that offends no one and offers little character.
From the 19th century we take on a concept of endless, flowing beauty: a style of ‘cantabile’ without breathing, which allowed instrumental music to rise ‘above’ vocal music. The violin – the king of instruments – was a perfect poster-child for this machine-like non-stop production of beauty.  And so yet today, string players seem to aim at making bowing an invisible, internal function of a high-performance machine. Bowing - as an expressive tool itself - is no longer an aspect to be heard for its musical sake.
When coaching musicians, for example, the biggest musical issue seems to be phrasing; how to end one phrase and begin the next. Too often that process is completed with a simple, uneventful change of bow direction. But a phrase or note can be closed in a variety of ways: with a vowel or consonant, gently, harshly, left open, ‘torn,’ allowed to vaporize, moving forward with energy or winding-down, etc. The next phrase may need to begin with an explosive edge tone, or slow-energy hesitancy, or a defiant nudge, for example. And then there is the manner of “connecting” one phrase - or note – to the next. Seamlessly, or with space between? How much space? How do you pace the transition?
This isn’t just an issue for string players. The ideal of this gorgeous streaming violin sound as perfect beauty also permeates the aesthetic concepts of other instruments. Wind players, for example, rather unknowingly and unquestioningly, imitate this ideal. This, when wind players have at their disposal two of the most evocative, expressive tools: breath and articulation.  It is particularly sad to see wind players ignore the use of a rich palette of breath and articulation for the development of super-human lungs in order to remove any trace of being a human that breathes. Most wind players are unaware of their imitating a violin sound. This speaks not to their ignorance but rather shows the sheer dominance of the violin as the perfect instrument of ideal beauty and the de facto assumptions of 19th century aesthetics on music.
I realize that the era of music as rhetoric - as conceived in the Baroque era - is passed; however, articulation and phrasing still provide living metaphors in music. (I’d rather argue that in this post-modern world perhaps beauty in music based on the 19th century and 20th century ideals may contribute to the dead metaphors that plague music today.)
From the Baroque manuals stuffed full with rules of articulation and phrasing, we’ve moved to an ironed-out, plastic-wrapped packaging of sound. Whereas Vivaldi needed to add to his score the admonition of “guardate la legatura” to ensure players would mind the slur. Today we are in need of strong reminders to mind the articulation! And, most ironically – to breathe!