In the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, there are two places where one plays in series three identical mordants.*
Ideally, we want to play each of the three mordants with freshness and brio (liveliness or spirit). To do this it is useful that each one of the three has a certain difference or freedom from the others. When doing the second or third, there should be no memory either in the hand or in the ear of the exact nature of the one or two preceding it. In an important way, each of the three should be created as the first one. This principle can be generalized: every note is the first note of the piece. The piece is being created by us on the keyboard on the spot: ex nihlio (out of nothingness).
When something new happens, especially if happens suddenly, it occupies our full attention at the center of our consciousness. This is true of a sensation that repeats. At first it takes over a large portion of our attention. However if the sensation keeps on repeating, especially if with little or no change, we become inured to it fairly quickly: it recedes into the background of consciousness where it may remain unnoticed, or be forgotten altogether. It is only if the sensation changes or stops entirely will we suddenly become aware (sic) of its absence. (aware of its absence … an interesting philosophical concept).
What is the advantage of being first? The first has a quality of freshness, newness, that is often a prized quality (especially as we grow older). It is like watching the sun rise in the morning after a night of darkness, versus looking at the sun in the middle of the day when we have gotten a number of hours to get used to its presence.
For the pianist playing the mordants, this ‘newness’ has several aspects. In the repetition there should be no accumulated tension in the hand from the repetition before it. More importantly, psychologically, there should be “no obligation to the past”: we do not need to feel that we have to make the second instance sound just like the first (or the third like the second, or like the first and second). That it is an easier thing to do to do if we do it over and over exactly the same, than to look for newness. However, for freshness,** we should want to have forgotten what is in the immediate past, what the first mordant sounded like as we craft the second one.
Some habits take years to form (and sometimes years to undo). However, on a shorter time scale, one measured in seconds, our mind, always on the alert for a possible “pattern”, tries to create one, a pattern based on the immediate past which we makes us have a prediction of what will happen in the next moment.
At heart every iteration of the mordant happens in a new way. We want to break the shackles***of memory. Each mordant stands alone in time, perfect and new: as is the promise in the newness of a sunrise. The pinnacle of being new is that of it being unforeseen. No obligation to memory. Warding off comparison with the past. And if it happens that something repeats, there was no obligation for it to repeat.
As pianists we are frequently asked to repeat a short phrase or a chord over and over. Like the opening of the “Waldstein” by Beethoven. Or like the oscillation between the interval of a third and sixth in Chopin’s, toccata-like Etude, Op 10, No. 7 in C Major. Most of all, how we go about executing a long trill, with an obligation to make each next two notes sound like all the ones the preceded it in time. A short two-note melody repeating incessantly, in which a portion of the past continuously overlay and replaces the new, next moment in time.***
But as for this ‘newness’ it can apply at all levels of time-scale. As with the recapitulation of a Classical period sonata-form movement which often involves the literal repetition of material heard earlier in the movement.
Based on what we have said so far, it would appear that the secret to executing such repeating figurations, is for both the ear and the hand to forget that there is any repetition going on. Each event is unforeseen; as if there has been what we might best term an amnesia of what came before. A person with short term memory loss forgets that he has said something moments or minutes earlier. It is odd, but we need to selectively cultivate this state when playing. If we do not think that something is repeating, then every time we execute it, it is not effected by what has happened before.
* In this instance the mordant is an ornament that consists of a note in the score, then a note just below it, followed by the original note.
** The association between time and music is closer than the relation any other art has with time. Time, at heart, is that which brings change and newness. The closer we are to an ongoing sense of newness the deeply we live in the flow of time (see the writings of the French philosopher Henri Bergson).
*** The poem “London” by William Blake expresses what the absence of newness can do to our minds. We are left with no choices, everything has been determined already by our actions in the past, or the actions of others. Line 8 is especially relevant.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street, Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear, In every voice: in every ban, The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry Every blackning Church appalls, And the hapless Soldiers sigh Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlots curse Blasts the new-born Infants tear And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
Some Unpublished Odds and Ends
14 short entries:
1. the Chopin Barcarolle. 2. downwards is often the least useful direction of motion. 3. where legato is harder to achieve. 4. altering what the listener thinks just happened. 5. Rachael found her sound. 6. Applied dominants. 7. A dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth. 8. Changing from eighths to sixteenths. 9. Repeating chords. 10. Things not to think about. 11. restoring mobility to the body while playing. 12. music and language come from a common source. 13. phrases within phrases. 14. is repeating something four times in music too many times.
The Chopin Barcarolle:
In the opening phrase the notes in the left hand connect one to the next in one way, and the notes of the right connect each to each in a substantially different way. The goal here is to bring the two hands more into sonic accord.
Though the opening passage is beamed as repeating groups of three notes. Practice it first as in groups of two notes, and hold the second of each two notes longer than the first.
Why? Sometimes distorting a phrase leads to bringing out the undistorted shape better than if one just practiced it in the undistorted form.
More generally, sometimes the best route to something is to go the opposite first. From that position it will seem easier to get to the originally intended form.
For the opening note or chord of a piece, motion downwards in the arms is often the least useful direction to go.
A singing legato line is often broken at a point in a phrase where a relatively longer note is followed by relatively shorter note. We
simply forget the longer by the time it ends. To solve this, when you start the longer note, pose the question to yourself: how do I want this note be sounding shortly before it ends. Then, when a moment or two later, you near that end, focus your ear carefully on the remains of that sound, and connect as legato you can, that softer end of the note to the sound of the next note. Legato must take place between the end of one note and the beginning of the next, not from one attack to the next attack. The latter may seem easier at first, but ultimately the attack becomes a distraction to the flow of the notes between attacks. The point is that, in spite of the difference in the loudness of the end of one note, and loudness of the next note when it begins, we can still make a bridge to connect the sound, so sound flows through from one to the other.
How you play the next note, or part of a piece, can transform how the listener thinks you played the previous note or part. The listener always searches for an antecedent that makes sense as being the most logical thing to precede the new part. If there is a crescendo written during the duration of a single note (which is acoustically impossible) play the next note with the loudness that you think the previous note would have achieved by its end, if it were crescendo-ing the whole time.
The performer has to be a magician of time.
Rachael found her “sound” at the piano today. It had been a long
search. I celebrated for Rachael. Plus it provided me the joy of
being reminded that the piano can be a beautiful sounding instrument and not percussive instrument of stops and starts. Such a reminder is a useful thing for us to have once in a while.
Explaining “applied dominants” to a scientist.
Bob is a 16-year old math prodigy who is already conversant with Complex Variables in mathematics. Thus my explanation was couched in terms from quantum physics.
Bob, think of it this way: it doesn’t violate the continuity of the key of C major if, just for a “trillionth” (sic) of a second, we think of ourselves as being in the key of G Major – which turns the previous chord, a D7 chord, into a V7 of G. If we stay with harmonic notation then then G itself the V (of C), and D7 is V7 of V.
Think of the momentary presence of the key G Major as a “virtual particle” whose existence is so short that it doesn’t violate the principles of quantum mechanics.
He got it.
When there is a dotted eighth and a sixteenth, sometimes it helps to feel like the latter can take up a bit more time than it should mathematically, let it flow by languorously. But in other situations one wants the opposite, we dispose of the short note in a brief burst.
When shifting from, for example, eighths to sixteenths in the middle of the passage, the primary feeling in the body and the mind should be that the speed did of the notes never not change; that only the outward perception of the speed changes.
While playing a series of rapidly repeating identical chords, raise the question in your mind, over and over, as you go from one iteration of the chord to the next: is there any finger that is not partaking of the energy coming down the arm. You may have time only to check one or two fingers at a time, but with new iteration of the chord you can check another one or two fingers. By “check” I mean searching for the internal sensation of the finger connecting with the arm and the shoulder. This is done by tracing the sensation either from the shoulder to the finger or from the finger to the shoulder.
It is sometimes more important what not to think about than what to think about. For instance, instead of the horizontal plane of the keyboard think of the third dimension in space (the vertical).
While sitting on the piano bench, raise you arms up and move them around freely in space. Or swing your arms at your sides. Or get up and walk around and see how your arms want to move naturally.
Sometimes you have to say nonsense syllables along with the, either out loud or internally to our self, in order to get the phrase to come into shape and say something meaningful. Phrases ‘speak’ in a verbally inarticulate language that like normal spoken language has ups and downs, cadence and flow. Perhaps there was a pre-historic time when there not yet any difference between proto-music and proto-language.
While playing the current phrase of music, know that it is part of a larger phrase, which is part of an even larger phrase … all the way until you can contemplate the entire movement (even the entire piece) as being one phrase, whose architecture never lets go of the notes as they pass by one by one. However large a phrase you wish to contemplate, never loose sight while playing of where in that phrase you are. Slowly proceed through time from its beginning to its end, always having a sense of how much you traveled since the beginning and how much you still have to travel to get to its end.*
* When I used to go through the Lincoln Tunnel from “the city” to “Jersey”, after I lost site of the daylight behind me, the only real way I could tell how far I had gone in the tunnel so far, was through an internal sense of the passage of time. It became spatial again when I could the daylight ahead of me at the end of the tunnel.
How many times should a composer repeat a figure identically?
When Bruckner, as he so often does, repeats a phrase identically four times in a row, one after the other, I have two very different reactions, sometimes one sometimes the other. I oscillate between being bored by repeat 3 and 4, and being swept into a relentless vortex. What I am conjuring with is my personal balance between sometimes hearing more each time the phrase repeats, and the inuring effect of doing something over and over again. Mozart made it simpler. For special effects, he would repeat three times. Of course three is a prime, and a “mystical” number, though four has its many philosophical and psychological proponents.