THE MISNOMER 'INTERPRETATION'
.By Noel Huntley, Ph.D.
Clearly, the two broad factors determining instrumental performance are: technique and artistry. Technique or skill is achieved by training and thus is a product of past experience, in contrast to musical (artistic) ability which is in present time, and is a qualitative expression created in the moment from what we would vaguely call the soul level.
Technique, being fully mechanistic, can easily be evaluated and described in words or even measured, whereas musical ability, in its purest sense, cannot be intellectualised or contrived and is an innate ability endowed at birth. When this statement may be found to be contradictory it is due to a blockage or suppression of the ability which then was released by the person's efforts in overcoming some inhibitory factor.
Thus strictly speaking, musical expression can't be thought out. It is not a property of the conscious mind or intellect. Some may disagree and state that one can analyse a piece of music and make conscious decisions regarding whether to play the notes, say, louder or faster, etc. and the result is an enhancement of artistic expression. It is true that minor improvements in musical sound can be achieved by these contrivances but it is extremely limited and will contribute almost negligible merit to the performance when a high level of talent is being considered. Moreover, and this is the whole point, these deliberations are not dictated by musical ability. Thus even if it sounds better there is no musical control underlying the expression---it will not be integrated holistically.
Musical ability is spontaneous; the higher centres of consciousness automatically cause subtle variations in volume, smoothness, and timing, creating an effect which is merely observed after it has occurred by the performer's conscious mind. When it is occurring, one needn't know any details of how it is happening. Technique depends on space and time, whereas musical ability transcends space and time; it is holistic---it spans space and time as one whole. This is the nature of aesthetics. If, however, the conscious mind tries to observe this, it (the conscious mind) will break down---quantum reduce---the integration into separate components. That is, even in listening to music, the attention must drift away from conscious observation or intellectual analysis to experience the music. This is so rapid and subtle that one will think one is doing both simultaneously.
Consider a musical passage being played on an instrument when the aesthetics of the musical passage is being grasped. The input of energy to the learning patterns controlling the movements, transfers from deliberate conscious control of individual and combined movements directly, to a higher frequency input which spans space and time to a certain degree. This whole input energy works with the holistic nature of the learning patterns in such a way that the individual sounds covered by these learning patterns, spanning maybe a second or two in time, interrelates the degrees of loudness, smoothness and timing, spontaneously and automatically. All these elements exist in a state of unity within a certain interval of time; the learning patterns then provide a spacetime breakdown so that the energies separate out to provide muscular action in space and time. When this occurs the tensions in the muscles are perfectly regulated by this higher process---and the actions are all interrelated and reference one whole (to form the unity of the music). The fine nuances regulated by the aesthetic mind, generally, will not be observable to the conscious mind.
The musical essence of a good composition is a single whole---a single idea. At a higher dimensional level it could be grasped as one whole. However, it is automatically broken down when the conscious mind perceives it but then all parts within that whole must relate to the whole. When we are appreciating music, our attention is spanning time to some degree---as one whole, not as some psychologists have surmised: intellectually combining memory of the past sounds, the present, and future (anticipation). In musical performance the learning patterns can duplicate this unity and the interrelationship of the expressive features, on an instrument that is capable of manifesting such expression.
Let us look at the factors of musical performance as it applies to the individual. The musician's ability is the sum and interrelationship of technique and artistic talent, but also there are numerous other factors. There are personality characteristics which influence the resultant performance. Positive and negative behaviour patterns, such as depressive or excessively cheerful ones, should automatically be overridden by the aesthetics involved in such expression. A talented musician will not be influenced by lower emotions (lower frequencies in the scale: emotions ranging up to aesthetics). Nevertheless different individuals will have different foibles, preferences, dynamism, in addition to, of course, variations in technique/athletic ability and musical perception/understanding.
The influence on the musical expression of many of these personality preferences, peculiarities, and the differences from person to person has led to the use of the term 'interpretation', meaning each individual has his or her own rendering, and it is considered that the merit of this determines the musical accomplishment. Different people may have a different need to express in different ways but these 'ego' characteristics have been allowed to obscure the true meaning of ' interpretation' which is in fact duplication, or recreating the original aesthetic concepts of the composer.
This may be highlighted by a thought experiment in which we create or find a brilliant pianist, technically that is, with no music ability, such as a robot not programmed musically. An expressive piece of music is chosen for the 'robot' to play and compared with each performance by numerous top concert pianists. The difference will be so marked that the observer will detect a common theme of expression for all the concert pianists (but still depending on their true musical understanding). This common theme is the duplication and recreation of the aesthetic content of the music. The personality side or interpretation, which is a relative factor, is now superimposed on the basic absolute aesthetics of the original concepts of the composer.
Another indication of this absolute element is the following. The composer writes the score as well as can be with expression marks such as accents, crescendos, etc. These are only guides, but generally good guides, since intellectual rendering, which is what this is, cannot remotely duplicate aesthetics. However, a very musical individual could pay no attention to these markings, but exhibit the same effects, or very closely, by his or her own creative playing. Thus the expressive marks are inherent in the music.
The essence of the musical concepts of a composer is translated into a musical score. This process has significant limitations in providing a full translation. It cannot give the extreme subtle variations in volume, smoothness and timing, necessary to finalise the procedure of expressing the composer's concepts. It's a little like conceiving a perfect circle mentally (the perfect composition) but to have available only, say, short straight lines to express (draw) it. It thus only suggests a circle. The perceiving or performing individual, say, recognises the circle (understands the music) and adds the extra curvature to the joined straight lines, now producing the actual circle---expressing more fully the composer's aesthetic concepts and intention. The musician adds the extra musical dimension which the score can't handle.
If one considers, say, the top ten concert pianists and have them play a musical composition of some depth, such as Chopin's Ballade number 1, it can be observed that in fact they play it very similarly---the underlying subtle musical renderings are very much the same. As they should be. The personality adulterates or enhances these effects of course. One may not see this duplication factor to the degree that one is not fully grasping (non-intellectually) the music and is filling in the gaps of understanding with one's own conscious contrivances.
This may even apply to top performers and conductors. There are very different degrees in musical understanding and as stated, where inadequacies exist---such as wondering what to do with a particular passage---the musician will contrive a rendering based on conscious thinking, preferences, past knowledge etc. These might be called adulterations and they will sound artificial to a sensitive perception but nevertheless a few of these contrivances are achieved successfully. An example of this would be Cherkassky's renderings in which he clearly trained and directed himself to highlight the melody in some of his piano performances to a degree greater than other pianists. In pieces such as Chopin's Etude number 3 in which the melody is the upper note in continuous chord structures, advanced technique is required to bring out the melody and Cherkassky pulls this off very successfully. Also, further examples of this constructive control of performance qualities, where repeated short passages are encountered, are: to deliberately reduce the volume of the repeat group of notes to advantage, or in fact alter the overall speed in longer duplicated (repeated) passages---Cherkassky does both of these.
In the example of deliberately playing the melody much louder, say, with the right hand, than the left-hand accompaniment---but done aesthetically---one may ask how will one know it was contrived consciously rather than motivated by the musical ability spontaneously. One will know this when the performer overdoes this feature of performance, such as playing a left hand quietly when in fact it is aesthetically interesting and should be brought out more. This can't happen when the aesthetic sensibility, or musical understanding, is in control.
In making a comparison of the performance ability of concert pianists one finds it is much more complex than to simply judge the relative technical and artistic merits. One finds that most pianists have not developed a uniformity of technical aptitude amongst the different movements or muscle groups involved. One pianist may develop a higher standard of technique for the fingers, yet another may be superior in rapid chord passages, for example, octaves.
To complicate matters further the reaction time involved in repetitive movements, such as rapidly repeated octaves, varies from person to person and is not related to degree of practice or, in other words, technical standard. Of course, a certain level of technique is necessary to execute rapid octaves so that the reaction time is the limiting factor, and that it is not due to sluggish movements.
It is thus possible to have a superior pianist playing octave passages, such as in Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody number 6, a little slower than an inferior pianist. This reaction time limitation varies from about eight or nine to eleven or twelve repetitions per second. (For the non-pianist, try tapping rapidly on the table.)
We see that the musician may develop movement agility which varies within the ranges, finger dexterity to whole arm action, to wrist rotational ability, resulting in performances which have some dependence on the compositional requirements. For example, in the presto finale passage of Chopin's Ballade number 1, Horowitz is unsurpassed for speed where rotational wrist and chord actions, including whole arm work, is concerned. But Gavrilov will surpass Horowitz for speed in the fast Chopin's Etudes, requiring predominantly finger speed, by a significant margin.
Regarding musical ability, one might consider that comparing standards, say, even of concert pianists, would not be so difficult, on the basis of sufficient perception and understanding of the musical expression and aesthetics, since if the musical ability of one concert pianist is higher than another, then surely that pianist would play more or less all pieces of music better than the other. However, it is not so straight forward. The reason is---and this has positive and negative aspects---that professional pianists will, quite correctly, study under and be influenced by masters and, further, even if they are developing beyond the need for guidance, they will often copy or allow themselves to be influenced by musical interpretations from those they consider are, or might be, better than themselves. This is inevitable. Note, however, that a very high musical understanding or one involving a complete grasp of the musical context that the composer is expressing will not need to be influenced in this way.
The result of all this 'copying' is that certain well-established standards are associated with pieces of music causing greater similarities of performance than would be the case normally, where individuality dominates. Thus this is a further complication in the analysis of musical ability and performance. Owing to this merging of ideas as to how something should be played one finds concert pianist A may play one piece of music better than concert pianist B. But then with another piece, B plays better than A, and so on. Note that because of the general higher musical ability we are considering, the 'copying' can usually be done with sensitivity.
This standardisation process makes the music critic's difficult job easier, since it means the critic can learn these standards and make instant comparison. The academic mind builds strong contextual structures which are instantly and unconsciously 'fitted' to the item to be judged (see articles on education). A very few critics will have sufficient ability not to have to utilise this, quite acceptable, crutch or prop. Unfortunately the down side of this learned standard for evaluation of other pianists is that if they encounter any deviation from this standard, it will quite likely be considered deficient---even, in some cases, when the musical ability of the pianist being judged is higher.
An analysis of performance, then, is quite complex but we can ignore the idiosyncrasies, personal renderings, and isolate and perceive the extent to which the musician is eliciting the musical meaning of the composition; that is, the aesthetic concepts of the composer at the time of the creation. How well is the pianist rounding off the incomplete 'circle' (music score) to form the perfect 'circle' (the complete communication of the aesthetics of the composer's concept for this piece of music)? Thus performers are doing better than 'interpret' the music, they are recreating aesthetically and emotionally, that is, regenerating, the original musical concepts of the composer.
In spite of this rather rigid analysis we must, for the complex human world, give some validation to these significant and relative factors (mentioned), which some refer to as 'style' and from which the term 'interpretation' arises. The more absolute factors of this 'style', which work in phase with the music, may mould the duplication this way or that without detracting from, in fact, preferably enhancing, the musical effect inherent in the aesthetic concepts.
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