Thursday, 20 July 2017

Thought 560: On Performance Markings in Sheet Music: Fidelity v Musicality

The main composer I grew up playing on the piano was J.S. Bach who avoided the use of performance markings in his written music, also known as 'articulation'.

Those who have glanced at my own written music will have noticed that, apart from a metronome mark at the beginning of each piece, which is placed there purely for the purposes of satisfactory computer playback, I tend to do away with performance markings entirely, except for a few slurs in my piece Riverflow

There are three reasons for this:
  1. A certain laziness.
  2. Not wanting to restrict or bind whoever decides to play my music in their preferred way of playing it, I myself varying in how I choose to play the same piece depending on the piano I'm using or my mood at a given time.
  3. My general snobbery about performance snobbery.
Concerning point 2, I have never been entirely convinced by the musical school that seeks to replicate utmost fidelity to the composer's intention, as evidenced by the articulation indications he leaves in his piece as well as other characteristics such as his period, his body of work as a whole, his philosophy and so forth. 

The reason for this is, while it may be argued that if the composer took the trouble to signal these indications they should be respected, the converse also holds, i.e. the interpreter of the sheet music is taking the not-too-small trouble of learning and playing a piece created by another. 

If I'm taking the trouble to learn a piece why should I feel bound by performance markings which disagree with my musical sensibility and the way I feel the music? 

It seems to me less presumptuous, and a big point in J.S. Bach's favour, to allow for maximum interpretative freedom as a composer to those who take the trouble to learn one of my compositions rather than force them into one direction or the other when I myself am not too sure which is the best way to play the piece, playing it differently as the mood and the instrument itself take me, for example, with or without the sustaining pedal. 

To be sure articulation markings are but indications but many schooled in the classical music tradition are proud to think themselves as close to the composer's intent as possible, short of the composer himself performing his works. 

This strikes me as a meretricious ground for pride since, when it comes to music, what matters is musicality, not fidelity. 

This joins up somewhat with point 3 above, which is that I tend to see many musical pedagogues, especially in so-called 'master classes', as too focused on performance considerations, i.e. on how a piece should be played (its interpretation, in other words), which is after all a matter of personal sensibility and taste, rather than those pertaining to actually delivering the piece itself, which is more than three quarters of the challenge. 

In other words, time spent (or wasted) on whether a musical passage should be played staccato or legato might be more fruitfully devoted to focusing on alleviating performance anxiety, understanding the chord structures of the piece, looking at the score away from the instrument, analysing the form and architecture of the music and so forth. 

In short, performance markings are best seen as a suggestion as to how to play the piece, a suggestion which as a composer I often don't bother making, but this how should never supersede the more urgent problem of playing and delivering the piece in the first place.

That being said it is true that to effectively deliver a piece, the manner, the how of its performance is not inconsequential. But views on effectivity vary from musician to musician, from period to period and from audiophile to audiophile. Which is why considerations of performance-interpretation matter less, in my opinion, than those of simple delivery

But I speak as a mediocre musician!