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.
Later this month, pianist Marisa Gupta, violinist Maria Włoszczowska, violist Rosalind Ventris, and cellist Jonathan Dormand will return to Yellow Barn for a second residency exploring playing styles heard on early recordings. The quartet will culminate their residency, entitled Faithful to the Spirit, with a concert on Monday, March 6 at 8:00pm at Next Stage in Putney.
In this post, Marisa reflects on last year’s residency and introduces the topics she hopes to explore this year.
There was controversy recently when Nigel Kennedy accused the music establishment of producing “factory lines” of pianists and violinists, emphasizing technical perfection at the expense of individuality. “You do hear some amazing talent, but [it] has been kind of fettered,” he told the Observer. “If you listen to one version of a Brahms concerto or Beethoven against another one, they’re unfortunately too similar.” It has been interesting to contemplate this as I prepare for our return to Yellow Barn and reflect upon our residency last season.
Though I think it is doubtful that music colleges and record companies have consciously colluded to produce perfect automatons, devoid of individual expression, Nigel Kennedy raises an important point that lies at the heart of our residency: the need to question the uniformity and rigidity of playing styles today.
Our residency at Yellow Barn has allowed us to examine some of the complex factors that unwittingly led to this conformity (see earlier blog posts for more). The sense of discovery, risk taking and creativity associated with Yellow Barn has made it a fruitful environment in which to experiment with more daring ways of playing - ever supported by Seth Knopp’s encouragement to expand these boundaries further and further.
Our time last season was transformative in ways we didn’t expect. The lightness, brisk tempi, and ‘swing’ of Grieg’s own playing compelled us to propel our performance of his Cello Sonata forward, beyond our natural inclinations.
Performing Three Pieces for Piano Trio, based on fragments by Elgar though not completed by him, was liberating because it was music we neither previously knew, nor viewed as hallowed (as the pieces were not completed by the composer). Thus, we were more adventurous in experimenting with different ways of capturing the spirit of Elgar’s music, particularly in regards to tempo fluctuations, rubato, and synchronicity - inspired by some of the early performers we heard. This led to extremes in performance that we perhaps wouldn’t have attempted in a more canonical work.
The Piano Quintet in c minor by Vaughan Williams was a revelation for us. It was performed during the composer’s life, but a ban was placed on its publication, as Vaughan Williams did not consider it a mature work. Luckily for us his wife lifted the ban after the composer’s death and the piece is now published. In it one finds a great and moving masterwork. Though it was not a piece we were overly familiar with, in the process of rehearsing, one of the questions posed by Rosie Ventris was, were our interpretative decisions truly ours, or did we play passages in a certain way because that was what we heard in the few modern recordings that did exist of the piece? It made me question more broadly - to what extent is my playing genuinely mine? Am I truly conscious of the degree to which I am influenced by recordings I hear?
In trying to work with a wider expressive palate, some things were effective, and others, not quite idiomatic (yet) within the expressive world we have been conditioned in. Some fingerings from the original performers simply did not work with our physicality, nor did they sound good to our ears. There were instances where the string players experimented with slides, and while they may have been historically correct our attempts at that stage sounded contrived.
Ultimately though, our goal was never to resurrect a dead style. Rather, our time at Yellow Barn has been about looking to the past to help us unlock richer ways of communicating the spirit of the music we perform, in a way that is modern, energetic and emotionally direct. We look forward to seeing where the second part of our residency leads us.
(Photo taken after last year's Faithful to the Spirit residency concert)
Scott Cantrell, special contributor and former classical music critic for the Dallas Morning News, reviews "Schulhoff, Reich and Wagner: Music from Yellow Barn" at the Nasher Sculpture Center's Soundings series:
The prize for the year's most inventive--indeed, provocative--classical concert goes to the one presented Thursday night in the Nasher Sculpture Center's Soundings series.
The first sounds we heard, from behind a scrim, were the yearning suspensions opening the third act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, played by pianist (and Soundings artistic director) Seth Knopp. In fact, this was the introduction to the third of Wagner's love-smitten Wesendonck Songs, an introduction Wagner subsequently expanded into the orchestral prelude. Together with two other songs from the cycle at the end of the concert, it was elegantly sung, with incandescent tone, by soprano Melanie Henley Heyn.
(Jeffrey McWhorter/Special Contributor)
Next came a lighthearted evocation of love, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's violin-and-piano arrangement of a waltzlike movement from his incidental music for Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. With silken tone, violinist Daniel Chong joined Knopp in a warmly expressive performance.
A wholly different aspect of love was portrayed in the Sonata erotica [sic] by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), a brilliant Czech composer whose Jewish heritage and later Soviet sympathies doomed him to death (of tuberculosis) in a Nazi concentration camp. For solo female voice, this "sonata" actually notates a crescendo and decrescendo of gasps, moans, screams and murmurs of a woman in, shall we say, physical ecstasy. It was quite convincingly realized by Liza Sadovy.
After these permutations of love, Steve Reich's 1988 Different Trains and Schulhoff's 1920-1924 String Sextet took us to very different places, although one could imagine connections. In the former, train trips before, during and after World War II are evoked in recordings of chugging, whistling trains and snippets of speaking voices; a string quartet supplies its own chuggings, but also anticipates, doubles and echoes the pitches and rhythms of the speaking voices. The Parker Quartet--violinists Chong and Ying Xue, violist Jessica Bodner and cellist Kee-Hyun Kim--collaborated in a gripping account.
(Jeffrey McWhorten/Special Contributor)
Right-wing governments are invariably hostile to artistic innovation, and Schulhoff's embrace of influences from the Dada movement as well as both musical and visual expressionism further doomed him during the Nazi occupation.
(Jeffrey McWhorter/Special Contributor)
After a roughhewn, atonal Allegro risoluto, the Sextet's following three movements are less confrontational, though hardly soothing. Free-range lines--not really melodies--are woven through various accompanimental textures. The third movement is an earthy quasi-folkdance à la Bartók. Adding violist Roger Tapping and cellist Natasha Brofsky, the Parker Quartet too readily sacrificed tuning to fury in the first movement, but thereafter the playing was impressively focused and compelling.
Alisa Dworsky, Fine Cord 60, 2010, 9" x 9" image on 19" x 15" paper, multiple registration intaglio print using softground technique; Courtesy the artist
My drawings and prints are constructed of lines that follow from movement but they also define points in space, hesitation, and mass. The prints in the Fine Cord Series are made from multiple registrations of various zinc plates which I prepared using a soft ground technique. A fine nylon cord was used to make marks in the soft ground prior to exposing the plate to acid. Many of the prints use ghost and offset impressions.
Alisa Dworsky creates sculpture, installations, buildings, drawings and prints; her work in one discipline influences her work in another. She is interested in how structure and force give shape to form and in the way human beings use geometric systems to order their environments. Her work is inspired by textiles, agricultural patterns, computer drawings, topographical maps, architecture and the principle of quantum physics that in all matter there is movement.
Dworsky has created installations for contemporary arts spaces around the country: the LAL in Lexington Kentucky, 516 Arts in Albuquerque New Mexico, Artspace in New Haven Connecticut, and in Vermont for the Bennington Museum, Burlington City Arts, the Burlington waterfront, the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont, the Brattleboro Museum, The Vermont College of Fine Arts, and the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Awards include a Yaddo residency fellowship, six grants from the Vermont Arts Council, four grants from the Vermont Community Foundation, and grants from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She has a master's degree in Architecture from Yale and a BA from Stanford in both Studio Art and International Relations. She is cofounder of the architectural design firm DS Architects (formerly Terra Firma inc). Dworsky has taught architecture and art at Norwich University, Stanford University, the Yale Graduate School of Architecture, Ball State University, and the Yestermorrow Design-Build School. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and two daughters.
You can see more of her work at www.alisadworsky.com.
Yellow Barn welcomes soprano Laura Strickling, pianist Liza Stepanova, and Venezuelan-American composer Reinaldo Moya for a residency of love songs honoring turn-of-the-century Spanish composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916). The residency explores two major works: Canciones amatorias, a collection of songs by Granados set to Renaissance Spanish love poems, and Ciudades del Porvenir (Cities from a Future to Come), a newly commissioned Spanish-language song cycle by Moya. On Sunday, December 18, Strickling and Stepanova will culminate their residency with a performance of Granados’ Canciones amatorias and the world premiere of Moya’s Ciudades del Porvenir at Next Stage.
Stepanova met Moya while they were both attending graduate school at Juilliard, and she has performed several of Moya’s works over the past few years.
When Laura and I were considering a commission in connection with the Granados project, his name immediately came to mind. His music is always beautiful and speaks directly to the audience. I recall hearing excerpts from his powerful opera "Generalissimo" at Symphony Space in New York and knew that he could write very effectively for voice. Additionally, I hardly know a more avid book reader than Reinaldo. He has wide-ranging literary tastes, and it was not surprising that he immediately got to work selecting love poetry to match the impact of the Granados verse. I am very much looking forward to working on the result: the songs are gorgeous and I am excited to discuss poetry with Reinaldo that was written in his native language.
Moya writes of his new work:
The song cycle Ciudades del Porvenir (Cities from a Future to Come) consists of a pair of settings of the poetry by the young Mexian poet Yaxkin Melchy. I was attracted to his whimsical, almost surrealistic writings. I could sense that underneath the often sharp contrasts on the surface, there was a real human and moving quality to his poetry. The two songs work as kinds of foils to one another with El Corazón Humano (The Human Heart) being the louder, darker sibling ot the more quietly expansive Ciudades del Porvenir (Cities from a Future to Come).
Last summer we welcomed audiences to the Big Barn with the following message in our season program book. We offer it today in solidarity and as an invitation to listen, thankful that music can speak effortlessly to unassailable truths, both personal and collective.
These are good walls. They are walls that embrace our humanity and resonate with devotion. Within them, worlds of sound are expressed, each one unique as a snowflake, and universal as snowfall. Each of these worlds will be more or less understood, or perhaps not at all, but listening, and wanting to understand, is what we will find here always.
This is the essence of the musician’s relationship with those who purposefully walk into a room for music and have the doors close behind them. With that act, a commitment to listen is made, to voices of unknown origin, religion, political leaning, gender, or sexual orientation. It is understating the case to say that this act is one of acceptance. After all, it is not who the voice belongs to that brings us together; it is what it might express, and what might be deepened in each of us by listening.
In welcoming you to Yellow Barn this season, it does not seem appropriate to comment here on the current wave of political sentiment that aspires to separation and nationalistic power, but that movement has made me acutely aware of how differently we live the evenings we share in this room. I am grateful that Yellow Barn is one of a constellation of places where another ideal is lived; where walls are not an escape or separation, but an invitation to listen far beneath the surface.
—Seth Knopp, Artistic Director