Final Thoughts

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Pianist Marisa Gupta offers final thoughts on her two artist residencies at Yellow Barn, both titled Faithful to the Spirit, which focused on the influence of recordings on the interpretation of chamber music:

I would like to preface this post by offering my sincerest thanks to Nick Morgan, whose research into the National Gramophonic Society was the inspiration for our residencies. The NGS made the first complete recordings of important pieces of chamber music (including major works by Debussy, Schubert, Brahms, Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Ravel, and others), often in consultation with the composers. Though largely forgotten today, it is an invaluable resource for all performers.

Interpretation au deuxième degré

The French distinguish between interpreting something au premier ou au deuxième degré (in the first or second degree).  A joke, concept or message taken at the ‘first degree’ means it is viewed literally, overly seriously, or at face value. There is no exact English equivalent for au deuxième degré but it means roughly to interpret something with an understanding of hidden meanings.

Our residencies at Yellow Barn have been about exploring musical possibilities at the second degree. Early recordings hint at the possible hidden meanings behind the signs and symbols of notation. While most musicians are aware of certain limits of notation, comparing historical recordings with modern ones illustrate that the ambiguities are greater than interpretations today suggest. Listening to performances through the history of recording, one hears a radical shift in how a composer’s score is viewed philosophically: a shift from the second degree (a plethora of un-notated expressive devices and tendency to freely adapt the score) to the first degree (the widespread approach of today which subscribes to strict and literal fidelity to the written notation).

Why this shift (which became particularly pronounced after WW2) occurred is complex. Migration contributed to the disappearance of national schools, leading to greater uniformity of interpretations. In earlier eras, there was less distinction between composers and performers, and professional and amateur musicians. Before recordings, if people wanted to hear a performance, they had to hear it live or play it themselves. Most performers were composers too, and their playing and composition styles were intimately related. To be a virtuoso meant not just technical prowess at the instrument, but also at improvisation.

Today musical life is more compartmentalized and specialized. Most composers and performers eventually follow distinct educational and career paths. Virtuoso performers today are not generally skilled improvisers, though technical accomplishment across the board is astonishing. Technology is ubiquitous; listeners can hear pieces performed to the highest standard of perfection, recorded under the most auspicious of conditions at the press of a button. We have shifted from viewing interpretation as free re-creation (improvisations, and even approximations of a piece), to a view in which we are expected to be faithful executants – adhering to the letter of a composer’s score. Furthermore, the rise to prominence of the conservatory system, competitions and the field of record reviews meant the need for an objective measure of quality; one of the benchmarks has become fidelity to the score.

To our modern sensibilities, liberties taken in earlier eras may seem like distortions of a composer’s intentions. It is possible we have reached a height of folly of another sort – one that mistakenly equates strict and literal fidelity to the score with being faithful to the spirit of a composer’s intentions.

These residencies have made us realize that the nature and degree of compliance we should adopt in interpreting music is more nuanced than we have been conditioned to believe. As the defining characteristic of performances on early recordings is the individuality and diversity of playing styles, this exploration has surprisingly made me less concerned about performance practice. Instead, what our residencies at Yellow Barn has allowed us to do is consider and re-evaluate one of the most powerful influences on musical life (recordings) over the last century. It has fired our imaginations, allowing us to consider a wider array of hidden meanings behind the music we perform. Most importantly, it has inspired us to remain faithful to both the time in which we live, and our voices as individuals.