31 July 2007
Performance Practice in New Music
...ultimately, I think that creating a compelling performance of a piece is a dark art...The idea of ‘performance practice’ means wildly different things to different people. I frequently play music from centuries past, where long-dead composers are scant help with interpretative questions. We’ve been left some valuable clues, but exactly what was ‘intended’ and how that might be given voice today is a matter of heated debate. Being able to phone or email the composer for a chat is much more satisfying! But ultimately, I think that creating a compelling performance of a piece is a dark art – it’s hard to define how and why you make certain decisions, regardless of whether the composer is alive or dead.
I’m convinced that notation of any age can only tell you so much. A conversation with a composer yields nuances, points of flexibility that a score doesn’t reveal: ‘that’s just a gesture’, ‘of course you can play it faster’, or ‘if there’s a more idiomatic way of doing that'… Sometimes the opposite is true too – what looks loose is in fact firmly fixed. Learning to navigate a path through the written and the implied is endlessly fascinating.
Sometimes my ideas on how a phrase should sound are different from the composer’s opinion. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate. Generally, I take their advice.
A piece grows on or into me and means very different things at different times.My interpretations change constantly. A piece grows on or into me and means very different things at different times. A piece also takes its own life in performance, altered by the presence of listeners, the tenor of their attentiveness, the acoustic of the room, the amount of sleep I’ve had, the adrenalin pulsing through my body … in effect, it becomes a new piece each time I play it. It’s the same with old or new music.
Looking at bodies of work inspired by particular players, I often feel that I can sense something of them. Their idiomatic licks, techniques, favourite instruments reappear in different composers’ works in multiple guises. Sometimes it feels as though there are also traces of their personalities. I envy those players who worked with Vivaldi or Berio – to name just a couple – into whose hands canonic works were born. I have sometimes cursed them too, and their seemingly inhuman technique: ‘What kind of player would say this was possible?!’
I enjoy developing relationships with composers, gaining first-hand knowledge of their thoughts, lives, influences, and work. Ultimately though, I’m not sure how much my association with them shapes the way I play a piece. Having such relationships and playing pieces written specifically for me means that I feel very differently about the music, but I don't know how this translates into sound.
It’s an interesting tightrope – walking between responding to the audience and the moment in a performance and technical accuracy in the delivery of a text; between the different priorities and demands of composer, audience, context, acoustic space; between intellectual rigour and visceral instincts. And I think the tightrope is similar whether the music is old or new.
When I compare my experience of performing both early and contemporary repertoire, what I think differs most is my sense of responsibility for the pieces written for me. The protectiveness and tenderness I feel for these newborns is so potent. I have such desire to represent them with integrity at their birth and then to see them live rich lives in the hands of many players.
© Australian Music Centre (2007) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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