Finding the underlying meaning below the surface of the notes.
Some of the things that have come to me as the deepest discoveries about playing the piano are the hardest to put into words and the hardest to recreate when I would will to recreate them.
One of these has to do with the idea that the notes are symbols of deeper meanings, and that we must transcend the notes into those deeper meetings.
I got the first inkling of this idea when I worked for the first time on the Goldberg Variations when I was a teenager. I was using the Ralph Kirpatrick edition. In the introductory notes, he said something which I interpreted as “one rhythm can contain within it other rhythms”. It was as if, were one to orchestrate a passage from the Goldberg, several instruments, playing different rhythms, could combine to just one of the voice lines.
A trivial example would be to think of a whole note as consisting internally of different contemporary threads: a dotted half note followed by a quarter; four quarter notes; a breve that would swallow two whole notes in a row; and so on without any limitation to the number of these threads. There were certain such inside rhythms that, rather than occluding the musical purpose and flow of the originally written music, would actually help bring out and make more alive the voice in its originally written form.
Discovering which these were and then somehow feeling certain of these rhythms inside the written rhythm was a key to ‘unlocking’, ‘bringing to life’, ‘animating’, ‘adding to the purpose and flow of’, the written rhythm.
The klangfarbenmelodie of Schoenberg was another example. Something kept evolving and changing through time though the voice in the piece remained intact and that voice and not another.
As I grew older I had other more personal insights that revolved around the same theme that more was going on than meets the eye (or ear) when we play what is on the page.
Lines were driven through time by pulses, systoles of a heart pumping system. One pulse could go a long way to bring organization and meaning to a group of separate notes. I noticed that this was a secret of the way many great conductors communicated with their bodies and batons to the orchestra.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, if there was a strong enough electrical pulse, the inert matter of the piece would would suddenly come alive. A qualitative change which could not be foreseen. The pulse sends the blood through the arteries and carries with it all the proteins that upon deliver create the syntheses of the thousands of molecules that the body must produce to remain alive.
A simple change of chords in a harmonic progression can often be banal. But if they are turned into the esoteric meaning of a more complicated array of notes, where the written notes provide just the exoteric (immediately obvious) meaning of the passage. Which makes of these notes symbols for, manifestations by way of accessible ‘shadows’, of the transcendent Platonic ideas of the piece that remain hidden to the eyes and ears as long as we sense only what is on the surface and not what the surface is hiding. The exoteric message is understood by all, the esoteric* meaning is known only to the few, and communicated more widely by the artists that in real time are working to reveal the esoteric meaning.
The more esoteric meaning let the notes convey a hidden harmonic message. It’s like the esoteric meaning (known by only a few) versus the exoteric meaning (easily known by many). In this case the esoteric meaning is the imprint of the harmonic rhythm* on the individual notes.
We can distill the underlying harmonic chorale or pattern from the rest of the notes, as long as we don’t loose the individuality of the written notes. It is like when we see eternal beauty in a particular face. The chorale, rather than seeming simplified or banal now contains all the essence of the individualities of the passage.
A “harmonic rhythm” is created out the moments when the underlying chords change. Wait, this is too simple. Rather, a synthesis is created of a nexus of pulse rhythms and harmonic rhythms. Sometimes the needs of the pulsations will require an identical chord to repeated in the harmonic rhythm before another chord appears. The harmonic rhythm doesn’t always have to rely on when a chord changes. It is the beauty of relationship between the prototype and the seemingly endless manifestations of notes that that can arise out of the that prototype. To see the universe in a grain of sand (Blake).
This combined harmonic and pulse rhythm embodies the spirit of the written notes, that which holds by higher compulsion the notes in their place. That which gives it life and meaning.
* Esoteric, by the way, does not mean in this context something that is hard to understand, but something that strikes us as so obvious that we don’t know how we missed it and was misguided by the surface reality.
Somehow I’ve worked towards a personal combination and synthesis of all of these, and others that still become newly apparent to me at this stage of life.
Don’t be captive to the notes. Be captive to the underlying meaning of the notes. Don’t let the physical mechanism be captive to what the notes say to do on the written page. Let the body create impossible things, impossible syntheses
Can You Bring Two Things Out at Once? Guiding the Listener
An advanced student with superior musicianship said at their lesson “I want to hear this passage in a certain way and part of this way is to have certain things stand out in particular. However I can’t succeed bringing them out; or at least not just the things I want to bring out.”
Number one: you haven’t leveled the playing field so that the notes that you don’t want to bring out are uniformly softer than the notes you do want to bring out. The reason they are not so, is that often you have specific but varying desires as to how loud each of these ‘background’ notes should be. You are musical, so you have specific intentions regarding each stratum of what you are playing simultaneously.
Now, in piano playing it is generally very difficult to “bring out” two different things at once, because what you do to direct attention to one is occluded in the listener’s ear by what you are doing to pay attention to the other. “Too many cooks spoil …” It is not impossible to succeed in having the listener be more aware of two things at once, when there are more than two things to choose from – it’s just very difficult. If the ‘things’ we are talking about are individual voices amid tonal polyphony, then succeeding relies less on different (or similar) degrees of loudness assigned to each of two voices. Then, it is a matter of lending an individual character to each of the two voices.
The safer course is to prioritize only one among the things you want to bring out and always direct the listener’s ear in that direction. The listener needs a clear road map as to what to listen to. The most reliable course is keeping all but the desired voice in the shade.
P.S. Once, at a masterclass, someone was playing the development section of the first movement of the Brahms second piano sonata (Op. 2). Her listeners were confused as to what was going on to the music. I asked her to explain in words ‘what was going on in the piece at that point’. She gave a brilliant verbal analysis. I then asked her whether she thought her listeners were hearing (or “getting”) all the things she just described. She assumed the answer was that they did. The listeners objected that they did not, and had no idea that the things she had mentioned were actually happening. “But they are so obvious,” she said.
Then I proposed a new tactic. Pretend the listeners are in a state of perfect nescience, or ideal ignorance. Unless you go out of your way to point something out to them, to exaggerate it, they will not recognize that that thing is happening (they will not recognize for instance that there is a series of sevenths each resolving to a sixth according to a standard species of counterpoint). So she went into the modality of lecturing about the music by playing it. Now her listeners all said, “We hear it now; we get what is going on in this development section.”
The conclusion is that sometimes, no matter the quality of the audience, sometimes you have to play things as if you are saying: “What don’t you get! Don’t you hear these things that are happening in the music?! Can I make it any more obvious? I’m already exaggerating it as it is.”
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The Newness of Time Itself
“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (Baudelaire courtesy of Debussy).
Notes, sounds, meld and melt in time. Memory and anticipation interpenetrate each note heard in the present tense. And memory also coerces the immanent future to follow the patterns of the past.
Sometimes, in our performing, this leads to a sense of taking a piece for granted: we’ve heard it all before, nothing is new to us, no surprises are left for us. The piece starts, we dutifully endure through its time span playing each note in its place. The piece ends, we stop playing, we bow and go through the ritual of accepting the praise of the audience.
Are there steps we can take to bring life, spontaneity and freshness, back into the performance. We cannot re-order the notes; we seem to be chained to an ineluctable sequence of cause and effect. And though we are free to pick up the implication of where the current note seems headed, when we do get to play the note and hear it through our outer ears, it can remain essentially a surprise. Though we expect time to repeat, we are nonetheless free to consider each next moment an open question. We live in in immanent cloud of possibilities where there is always more than one direction the music might head next. When we ‘finally’ get to hear it, all the possibles are wiped away, effaced in the blatancy of the bright light of the actual present. This is no less true when we have wagered on one particular note and we win the hand: the note we thought would happen did happen. We find that we were ‘correct’ in our assumption of what sound (not manifested yet in time), does indeed become manifested in the richness of time as it flows into the present.
Yet this bright light of the present, though it remains shining as long as we remain in the present, shines only briefly on any particular note. As far as the note is concerned, this light is good for only one transient moment.
So if we don’t want to fall back into the darkness of the non-present, somehow we must live within the light of this omnipresent present.
To offset the staid performance is the conviction, remaining in our consciousness, that every note we take the trouble to hear is the first note of the piece. Like a true beginning, like the promise of each day’s sunrise, it opens up for us a world of infinite possibilities. And for us to maintain this through the very last note of the piece (which itself could have been followed by another – but just wasn’t).
To the extent that we can we let each note within the piece shed at least some of its accumulation of the past, an accretion that is rapid and inevitable under normal circumstances, the piece fights its way back into a state of alertness and freshness.
Mental presence is the key.
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Two Shorter Blogs: 1. Two Types of Staccato 2. Playing a “Vamp” to Bring Out the Rhythms of a Piece
There are two basic types of staccato depending on how the pianist executes it physically.
In one type, the physical action that is used to push down the key contains within it the action that in a moment will release the key. Sort of a “follow through”.
In the other type, instead of basically one action, as in the above case, there are three different actions: pushing the note down; holding it down even if for a very brief time; and releasing the key.
In the first type the release lies inside the attack. The initial motion telegraphs the release. In the second type there is a neutral body posture in between the attack and the release. The effect of these staccatos on the sound of the phrase is very different.
Generally, staccato does not imply any specific ratio of duration of silence to sound, but covers all cases from the shortest of staccatos, bordering on being unheard or unnoticed, and one that is just shy of being played détaché. Regardless of these variations in the length of the staccato, it can be executed is such a way as to fall into either of the two types above.
A ‘long’ staccato can be of the first type. All it means is that the downward motion, while transitioning to upward motion, gets stuck for a while; gets absorbed into the key, before the finger can get away. But, when the finger does get away from key, it is still a component of the overall motion begun when the note began.
Human consciousness is capable of awareness down to very small durations of time. Thus a ‘short’ staccato can be of the second type. All this means is that, pauses in a neutral, inactive position, for a very small fraction of a second. During this moment, all sense of motion recedes over the mental horizon, so that the release, when it comes, has nothing to do with the attack.
#2. “Vamping” to bring out the rhythm and pulse of a piece
I’m thinking of the vamps played by the pianists or pit orchestras for old-time vaudeville shows. A singer is waiting in the wings to come on stage. There is introductory music that is meant to accompany her while she walks out on stage. The vamp is obvious and blatant in nature, with a very stressed rhythm. It recycles for a while until the singer is ready to sing the first note. At this point the vamp morphs into the proper accompaniment for the song.
Often I will sit at the second piano and play a vamp while the student is playing their piece. It almost seems as if I were trying to turn the piece into something obvious like a Sousa march, like a German oom-pah band. I’m yanking out of the inside the underlying pulse, the meter, the chords, and depositing them onto the outside of the piece.
The general effect of this procedure is that the student becomes more aware of some of the most basic qualities of the piece they are playing, by hearing them emphasized in an accompaniment into which they have no choice but fit their performance. The playing transforms itself so as harmonize and “get along” with the vamp. If effective, when my vamp ceases, the student continues playing in a very alive fashion. Once the outside of the piece is enlivened and comes to life, the more subtle aesthetic effects of the piece can be relied on to come into focus.
Sometimes I will take a vamp that is based on one chord alone, and play it continuously and unchanged as the student’ plays through his piece. Why do this, when there will be many places in the piece where the vamp does not conform harmonically to what the student is playing? Because that makes the pulse and rhythm stand out even more obviously (as the harmony clashes with piece).