Sunday, November 25, 2012

Offering Greatness by the EarFull


It’s been an autumn for exploring the world of Rainer Maria Rilke, and I've been enjoying the writings of Stephanie Dowrick as she reflects on the reader’s experience in  In the Company of Rilke 




When discussing Beauty and greatness she quotes from John Armstrong's book on Goethe
“It is obvious that one can encounter great objects…or great individuals… and yet be untouched by them, they remain ‘outside’ of us. Admiring them, saying that they are great doesn't automatically enrich your inner world.” 
Here I paused and thought about the scenario implied when we offer concerts of great music and use that double-edged word “masterpiece.” We spend a lot of time and energy telling people ‘this is great music.’ Greatness in music has become something very tangible, measurable, a thing we are able to offer in regular doses.

Greatness of music is a topic I’m quite curious about, and readers will be familiar with my habit of shifting through other arts and fields for answers and new perspectives. One of my favorite fields for mining ideas, of course, is wine tasting, which regularly deals with greatness. So what makes wine great?

One common thought is what makes wine great is complexity.

Matt Kramer in his “Making Sense of Wine” debates the topic:
“The single greatest standard used in assessing the quality of a wine is complexity. The more times you can return to a glass of wine and find something different in it – in the bouquet, in the taste – the more complex the wine. The very greatest wines are not so much overpowering as they as seemingly limitless.”
He continues: 
“What satisfies us so fundamentally about complexity is still the subject of speculation, largely in the academic field of aesthetics. It appears that we favor – relish might be a more descript if less exact term – uncertainty or lack of predictability. One researcher contends that uncertainty in music is complexity. And that uncertainty gives greater ‘meaning’ to music.”
“Another researcher in this field employs the notion of disorder or entropy. The more things are jumbled, the more “information” can be conveyed at one time. The trick is our ability to sort it out and make it meaningful. In short, there must be both –pattern and uncertainty (complexity) for sustained interest. Complexity is thus more than multiplicity. For a wine (melody) to be truly satisfying, especially after repeated exposure, it must continually surprise as part of a larger and pleasing pattern. So it is with wine.” [Now do you see why I find wine is such a wonderful playground or contemplating music?]
I tend to see this concept of ‘complexity’ more in terms of the potential for offering metaphor. When the distance between “This is That” is far - the metaphor-building space wide and rich with many detours on the way - then interactions may continually offer new and fresh reception. ‘Complexity’ could imply a ‘simple’ piece might lack ‘greatness' – yet the components of music such as color, texture, movement, gesture, etc. that go beyond structure and harmonic outline create opportunities for potentially rich and complex metaphors.  Each hearing of a work offers nudges in new directions while following a familiar path.

The quote of Armstrong continues, however, adding another layer to greatness:
“Admiring [greatness], saying that they are great doesn't automatically enrich your inner world….Goethe is alluding to the most intimate and elusive aspect of experience: that in which we take possession of the things we encounter and make them our own.”
Greatness it seems is a two-party system. While possibly a ‘thing’ of music, greatness is also an experience – and ‘most intimate’ and ‘elusive’ at that.

What jumps out here is how the current concert format is a rather heavy-handed system for dispensing greatness. How many of our behaviors on stage and in the concert proceedings (repertoire, program notes, pre-concert talks, distributed information, code of conduct, physical environment etc.) limit the listener to a role of being fed greatness as a thing  we solely supply? (I've scrutinized this topic often enough!)


When or how do we allow for this “most intimate and elusive aspect of experience?” Would we let go of our ownership of greatness and allow listeners to take possession - and make it their own?

I am seeing an important shift in concert formats that does offer space for listeners to take ownership. Usually artists who speak from the stage divulge information regarding the greatness within the music - the thingy-ness of the music. In some newer formats, however, musicians speak from the stage to share insights into their relationship with the music and how they took ownership of the music - providing glimpses of possible avenues for the listener to travel when building their own intimate relationship and ownership of the music. (The live entertainment world, ironically, knows well to avoid telling an audience what a work is or what it means, because it shuts down the welcome between the person on stage and the audience. The most gracious - and successful - response is to create space for the listener/viewers’ version of the event. But classical music is far from understanding the stagecraft of a live performer.)

This is a topic to chew on over a life-time. And I will take a public plunge into the fray on December 10th, 2012 when I present the Classical Connoisseur - Wine and Music Tasting event at PianoForte. We will have on hand not only some great music and top-notch musicians, but some great wines. We will explore the qualities of wine and music - greatness included.

We will curiously compare the act of wine tasting and music tasting. What qualities do composers create? What qualities might the musicians add? What qualities do you the listener create in your “most intimate and elusive” act of making what you hear your own.

I’ll be sure to remember Rilke and Goethe - and point out the difference between wine tasters and wine drinkers. Only one takes the time to swallow.



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My recommended reading list for exploring the wine-music-aesthetics connection:

Questions of Taste edited by Barry C. Smith.  Oxford University Press. 2007. 
This includes the thought provoking chapter “The Philosophy of Wine” by Roger Scruton, the philosopher, writer and wine correspondent for the New Statesmen. In the music field he’s the esteemed author of  Understanding Music Philosophy and Interpretation 
Kent Bach in his chapter: “Knowledge, Wine and Taste” raises the question “What good is knowledge in enjoying wines?”

Making Sense of Wine by Matt Kramer. Running Press 2003. 
A chapter deals with the concept of connoisseurship, a topic the music field would do well to understand more thoroughly. One of the classic books on wine.

Reading Between the Wines   by Terry Theise. University of California Press 2010. 
The chapter called “Befriending your palate” offers perspectives on qualities: what we know (informational bits) verses what we know via our experience. A fun book, too.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Discarding the Fourth Wall of Classical Music


This summer I’ve been taking a break from my own musicking and taking in other people’s performances and compositions. One concert oddity keeps coming up: the fourth wall.

You may well know the scenario. You arrive early to a concert with high expectations only to be kept in the lobby because the orchestra is “still rehearsing.” Then you’re allowed into the hall only to be subjected to the furious chaos of musicians practicing away, cramming for an event moments away.



The anticipation of an exquisite evening of live music shatters under the cacophony.

Imagine for a moment – you excitedly arrive at a venue for a dance production, but are held in the lobby while “the troupe is stilling practicing.” Once inside you witness a pair of dancers still on stage as they practice a tricky lift, another dancer repeatedly leaps across the stage trying to ace a difficult leap, and yet another couple rehearses their pas a deux.  Absurd! I’d certainly want my money back!

Or – imagine a theater company “still rehearsing”. And while you sit reading the program notes actors practice lines - all at the same time, at that! – on stage, in their own little world, pretending there’s no audience in the room. Absurd and rude!

Classical music seems the only performance art that refuses to accept that music is performed on a stage – a place with unique responsibilities and demands.

The stage is somewhere other than the practice room, greenroom, workshop, or studio. The stage is both a place and an experience between performer and audience. The theater world knows there is no fourth wall between the actors and the audience. (There may be a fourth wall between the characters and the audience, but everyone knows there is no wall.) Classical musicians, however, remain convinced of the fourth wall between them and their audience. Many traditional behaviors even reinforce this point to the audience.

For example, besides the practicing on stage, the first entrances on stage by musicians are usually casual, with attention given to equipment, seating arrangements, music stands, page turns, etc. rather than the audience. Then the musicians’ awareness is directed to a few notes that the musicians play between themselves, for themselves, in that traditional tuning routine. When the conductor appears on stage, the musicians stand – for the conductor rather than the audience! By now, before a note of the musical program has been played, the audience has accepted the idea that the players are indeed behind a fourth wall.

Once the wall’s presence is mutually accepted, it is there for the course of the event. Later, when it comes time for the audience to offer applause from the house, it is directed toward those performers who have remained in front of the wall -  a soloist, conductor, or perhaps composer. Considering the fact that applause is something an audience needs to do, we put an unfortunate damper on their needs very quickly, within the first few moments of a concert.

I can hardly blame musicians for this behavior when I consider the historical context of classical music performance. Musicians have often been an invisible workforce. Either they were considered the anonymous doer who should only be heard or they provided the back drop for a star conductor or soloist. For the most part, musicians could create, or were forced to create, a fourth wall and pretend the audience wasn’t watching or listening because the real show began when the maestro, diva, or virtuoso star entered.

As a conductor in the 21st century, I’d prefer to give musicians an honest stage where they may create a fully-acknowledged relationship with their audience.

One group, St. Martin-in-the Fields treats the stage as a special performance space, and the effect sweeps you into the spell of their music. Pre-concert, the stage is set-up, half-lit and empty of musicians. Everything suggests. The silence and stillness begs for sounds and movement. Then, at “curtain time” out rush the musicians from all sides of the stage, walking swiftly to their place, where they remain standing. They immediately acknowledge the audience’s presence. Then they sit – and bang – the exhilarating wow! of live music fills the room. The pacing is especially effective. Notice the lack of hand-shake and bowing ceremonies. Relegating the tuning process to backstage also prevents the creation of a fourth wall.

The more we keep the stage about the relationship between performer and audience, the more magical.

At a recent concert I sat with a friend, a retired lawyer who frequently attends music, arts, and theater events. During intermission – while the stage was a buzz with string players tackling fast passages, the proverbial trumpet player repeating that one phrase with a large leap, some winds doing fast tonguing passages - I asked him what he thought about this pre-performance noise. His comments were stronger than I expected. “I’ve always wondered why we must be subjected to such crud before we can hear the program. I come to a performance hyped up for ‘on with the show!’ This is just crud.“

Today’s audiences are seeking an experience of live music which engages them with the events and the people on stage. That is – a stage where players and audience fully acknowledge each other’s presence. From here, perhaps we can create a live-music experience that is “worthwhile, unique, and essential” - the goal of live performance as James B. Nicola remarks in Playing the Audience: the Practical Actor’s Guide to Live Performance.

We could learn much from the theater world in regards to the ‘contract with the audience.’ Classical music/musicians seem to relish their distance from the audience. Perhaps this attitude sufficed under a Toscanini or Stokowski with the dazzling spotlight on the conductor. But today’s performers are artists of live music. Let’s give them three walls and a stage worthy of their art.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Elgar Resonates with Full Voice in Toronto


When a review begins with:

"This afternoon, a packed house at Koerner Hall was treated to a rare and stirring performance of Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom by the Pax Christi Chorale, in honour of its 25th anniversary."

And closes with:
"More, please."

Perhaps we should take note.

The occasion was the music of Elgar resonating fully with listeners and performers. As the Musical Toronto Review reports.


The performance was led by conductor Stephanie Martin. Her attentive and skillful musicianship created a highly polished performance of depth and force.

Interview with conductor Stephanie Martin by David Perlman




Having had the fortune to be present at the concert, I concur.
More, please.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Debriefings on Recent Jury Duty

Jury duty is a unique experience. The premise is ‘getting it right.’
The task is neither governed by the clock (it’s 4 o’clock - I’m done, time to go home!) nor by just getting it ‘done.’ (it’s off my desk!)

Here the goal is to get it right - just and fair.

‘Getting it right’ entails listening, thinking, seeing more than one side, holding an open mind, and questioning.

Privately grappling with matters of rightness and being human.

There is no answer key to supply a conclusion.

Jury duty is a duty, rather than a hobby.

Our actions carry a burden of responsibility and importance that goes beyond us.

The task touches people’s lives.

We are aware of the heightened obligation and fully commit our time, skills and energy to ‘getting it right.’

The task garners $17.20 per day.

Thus jury duty means committing to the obligation of ‘getting it right;’ accepting the weight of the endeavor, wrestling in seclusion over questions of truth and human-ness – all while receiving a meager reward.

It is no wonder people prefer to avoid jury duty. What person would embrace such a life?

We’re called artists. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When Perfection Paralyzes

I’ve worked with musicians of various stripes in their endeavors to prepare artistically for a performance. As an artistic coach and conductor I have found there are usually three types of preparation styles that musicians use to develop their performance concepts of a work.

The first type of player looks to others for answers to How does the piece go? What is the right way to play this piece? The outside source is usually an esteemed teacher whose words are treated as absolute and right. This performer seeks to perpetuate at the best of their ability, the way that was passed down to them in a sort of pedigree approach.

This style, then, is pre-occupied with producing sounds in close replica of an external model. The player competes internally with their own skills to come closer to the teacher’s example. This model is typical for young players and provides a good launch site for developing a sense of musicianship.

However, a player stuck in this mode, unable or unwilling to develop personal music maturity, will often come to a coaching session seeking confirmation that their teacher/ideal model continues to be right. They are usually unwilling to absorb new possibilities and can even become hostile if their idol’s methods are questioned. If a musician continues in the servitude of this external ideal, the romance may eventually wear off. Unfortunately without the skills to develop personal musicianship, the player often becomes unfulfilled and disgruntled.

(Consider this instance from a rehearsal of the Dvorak cello concerto. When I asked for confirmation that the soloist did indeed want to move aggressively ahead at the point in the score where Dvorak writes dolce. The surprising reply was, “Hmm, I’m not sure, I need to listen to X’s recording again.” This, from a player who had just graduated from a top school with a doctorate degree in music performance! I’m tempted to suggest that the longer one remains in school the more committed the player becomes to this ‘pedigree’ style of musicianship. It does bring success in that environment!)

The second type of player wrestles with a piece, looking for answers to artistic questions from within.
The ‘right way’ of performing will be one that is genuine and true to the self and the music. They see their role as a creative artist, rather than a reproducer. Their competitive drive is towards developing musical depth. These types of musicians are very pro-active and are usually artistically satisfied. This player also knows that no one else is exactly like them; as a unique artist they feel no rivalry towards other players.

(This musician is an absolute pleasure to coach as everything becomes grist for their artistic mill.
Note that this musician will find working under mediocre conductors - who keep them on a tight leash - justifiably torturous!)

The third type seeks to execute a ‘right way’ of performance which is neither based on what another person offers as a roadmap , nor what is discovered or created from within. This musician strives to play a piece perfectly. Perfection - as defined by some vague cosmic, super-human ideal.

This third style incorporates one striking aspect. Whereas both the ‘do as the teacher says’ reproducer and the ‘I will dig deep and discover’ creator are following the respective routes out of a desire to communicate and connect with a listener, the perfectionist’s style is concerned solely with their own achievements. The listener remains outside the artistic equation as the artistic goal is to prove one’s ability to attain perfection to oneself.

I see a familiar analogy of this mindset in the Olympic athlete whose goal of acing a perfect ten or nailing a triple jump fulfills the performer’s own desire; the audience is only an observer or witness. Performance art, however, includes the audience in the goal. Actors, for example, judge their ‘rightness’ or the value of a performance on Did I get them? Did I connect to the audience? Did I move them? The value received by the audience is a priority. A perfectly spoken, paced, and acted scene has no meaning and no value if nobody ‘got it.’

To perform on stage in front of listeners and present art in a manner of an Olympic athlete is stingy. One can admire a player’s intense drive to continually improve, but when the listener is removed from the equation, this behavior become self-gratifying and conceited. For a musician who touts having high standards and a relentless - even heroic - drive for being perfect, it can be a crushing blow to realize how perfection can cripple one’s art.

When a player is stuck in this mode, perfection paralyzes artistic development. Only note-production remains. Such players tend to approach a piece as an engineer would, seeking the one correct way, exacting the notated data, calculating the required technique, refining the logistics; counting, measuring, redesigning.

So how do you coach a perfectionist? I try to re-frame the drive for perfection to a drive for excellence; artistic, communicative excellence. When perfection paralyzes, the artist becomes pre-occupied with inner-dialogues related to technique, the bits of music which are measurable, countable, and tangible to the ear. So my comments direct the player to consider the listener’s version of the event, something much more difficult to grasp. I try to redirect their concern of “Was it perfect?” to include the audience’s needs and help players develop the skills to understand “Did it work?” This may require a frank discussion about music-making and the role of the performer. (Most perfection-driven players will resist re-direction because it goes against their way of approaching music – and, I suspect, way of life, too. In such cases, I respect their human-spirit and offer to be a neutral ‘third ear’ in their endeavors.)

When the drive for perfection dominates a performer’s mind set, music loses heart, poetry, and depth. Surprisingly, if not tragically, I have worked with musicians who are unable to grasp the poetic, metaphoric side of music. Notes are just notes. They tend to be well-programmed, extremely sensitive and finessed machines with acute ears, but lack a sensibility as to how sounds might relate to qualities other than what is scored on the paper. They can realize the composer’s blue print with precision and ease, yet the concept of conveying meaning is foreign. Perfection paralyzes the soul and chills the muse.

(A player with this type of artistic preparation usually finds a niche in modern repertoire where a correct performance tends to require a literal reproduction of the notated instructions. The more technical challenges a piece offers, the more satisfying the preparation process and final performance.)

What causes some players to pursue perfection rather than artful performance remains unclear to me. I’m hardly qualified to speculate, either. However, what is most concerning is the player’s detachment from their audience. Musicianship differs from a sport that awards medals we take home around our neck. Rather the artist sets out to win the sort of medals which every audience member takes home and carries with them forever.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Twilight Zone Revisited

It’s time to revisit the question of audience age. In the essay Twilight Zone from 2009, I explored people’s relationship to time, one of our stronger life-shaping metaphors. Since then, I’ve continued to dig deeper into metaphor and have found new and compelling ideas applicable to music. There are good reasons our audiences are typically over the age of 40.

Music offers sounds that “when viewed through a lens of metaphor” become meaningful. This metaphorical thinking is a basic requirement for composers, performers, and listeners. (Because the word metaphor can be rather dry and mysterious I often use the phrase a  "wine-tasting approach to music" )

Surprisingly, the ability to form metaphor is a cognitive process which begins to develop around the age of nine. In the teens to mid- twenties, metaphorical thinking remains limited, with the use of simple metaphors usually based on similar, concrete characteristics. After these years the richness and complexity of a person’s metaphor-building gains  psychological and personal depth. Our metaphors develop out of the richness of life experiences.

For younger minds, metaphor is more imaginative – usually based on some physical attribute that easily reminds a person of something else. As we gradually experience more of life psychologically, the connection between items moves beyond similar outward appearances and gathers complexity and depth, leaping between more distant notions.

Haydn’s “Clock Symphony” offers an easy example of the age-related development of metaphors. Most young people will easily imagine the pizzicato celli/bass parts as a clock. There is an easily grasped, audio description of a physical thing. With some imagination, they may decide it is like the grandfather clock in their aunt’s living room. How delightful and fun that Papa Haydn wrote such music! This is the simple metaphor-building of younger minds.

It is further in life - and studies suggest beyond the late twenties - when people develop more complex metaphorical responses and understanding. Instead of a clock, a real clock, an older listener might connect the bass line with a more abstract notion of clock work, tapping into their rich psychological and emotional inner world through this metaphorical lens. Ask most 49-year-olds about this clock-sound motif and there will be complex responses quite unrelated to the machinery in auntie’s living room.  A 65-year-old would potentially have yet even richer, more complex metaphorical connections when hearing this Haydn symphony.

(Staying with the clock, another example comes to mind: Beethoven’s 8th Symphony. If it is ‘about the metronome’ – this is a simple, imaginative response: unfortunately, this is usually about as deep as we go with this symphony, too.)

Everything music offers us through sounds can be used in metaphor-building. In terms of our audiences then, consider this important fact:  metaphorical thinking is dependent on a having a rich reservoir of life experiences, i.e. age and fullness of life.

I’m reminded of a recent concert of Mahler’s 1st Symphony. I had disturbing images of Scooby-Doo cartoons in my head instead of the usual Mahler-esque tragedies. The shifting character and dramatic ‘monster chords’ were slick and easy - as a cartoon sound track. Was it because the conductor was so young? Was the metaphor-building that Mahler asks for still beyond the cognitive and psychological experience of the youthful leader?

I have a friend who is an English teacher and often leads high school students through Shakespeare. He is so acutely aware of what concepts are ‘available’ to each age group. The freshmen will relate to some layers of the drama, while be unable to comprehend a more complex, psychological event that the seniors will grasp instantly. The pacing and selection of layers, the density of metaphor and character types – all this is offered to students in a manner which suites their cognitive and emotional stage - and opens the door for further depth and exploration.

I’m concerned that we assume we can speak to fifth-graders and 53 year-olds about music as if is contains the same truths for each. When we lecture our adult listeners about the historical facts and structure of a piece, we miss an opportunity to guide listeners towards meaning. Metaphorical thinking requires the development of internal references - and no matter of memorizing names, dates, and trivia will enhance metaphorical thought.

Why are we reluctant to guide people into the metaphorical realms of music? What would music education look like if approached as part of metaphor-building of the human experience?

What would our box-office and programming concerns look like if we had an understanding of our audiences the way my English-teacher friend knows his students?

Contrary to feeling disappointed when only the older crowd shows up, perhaps we would value their presence. Rather than seeing them as soon-to-be-obsolete patrons, we might acknowledge that an older listener is a deep listener.

Indeed, when we fail to feed the spirit of the older listener, classical music becomes a soon-to-be-obsolete art.