YellowBarnBlog

Yellow Barn mounts illuminating residency

Thursday, July 28, 2016

David Weininger writes for The Boston Globe:

To a degree unusual among high-caliber gatherings, Vermont’s Yellow Barn festival insists on the centrality of the contemporary in the summer music landscape. Of crucial significance is its annual composer residency, a part of the Yellow Barn tradition that has, in recent years, included Philippe Hersant, Brett Dean, and, most recently, Jörg Widmann.

The idea extends beyond simply programming a large fraction of one composer’s oeuvre. As important is the opportunity created to put more familiar repertoire in dialogue with something seemingly alien, thus throwing new light on both.

This year’s festival has upped the ante by bringing to Yellow Barn’s idyllic environs a composer both distinguished and largely unknown in this country. Stefano Gervasoni, 54, studied with several masters of European modernism, among them Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and György Ligeti. Yet though he holds academic positions at the prestigious Paris Conservatory and in his native Bergamo, Italy, his music is largely a cipher in the US. Yellow Barn’s Composer Portrait concert (Aug. 2) offers a rare opportunity to hear a full evening of his works. Further compositions will be distributed through the concerts that follow, in the company of pieces by Mozart, Schubert, Schoenberg, and Fauré, among others.

Knopp, speaking from the festival’s home in Putney, said that he’d heard about Gervasoni’s music from percussionist Eduardo Leandro, a Yellow Barn faculty member since 2010. Listening to a selection of his works piqued Knopp’s curiosity, though he wondered if it was just personal interest rather than something on which to base an entire residency. Then he discovered that while Gervasoni may not have established a huge profile in America, “many of the young participants revere him.”

How to begin talking about such unfamiliar fare? One could start with Gervasoni’s relationship to the traditions that he sees himself standing both within and outside of. Two works to be performed at Yellow Barn give some indication of this complex interaction: “descdesesasf,” a 1995 string trio, and “Luce ignota della sera,” a short piece for piano and electronics composed in 2015.

Both are homages to Schumann, bringing his music into a creative counterpoint with other artists. Material for the trio is derived from a motif in one of Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke.” At one point the music stops so that the three musicians can quietly recite “Aschenglorie,” a grimly un-nerving late poem by Paul Celan. “Luce ignota” integrates a four-hand piece by Schumann with an excerpt from Gervasoni’s “Prédicatif,” itself a homage to Nono. The electronics confer on this strange meeting a halo both enticing and unsettling, as if the encounter were recalibrating the internal vibrations of Gervasoni’s musical sources, producing what note the composer in a program note calls “scraps of sound that unite and become confused, in a world heard microscopically, ideally beyond reality.”

Those words, though intended to describe “Luce ignota,” could also describe the artistic permeation that occurs in “descdesesasf.” They also point, albeit in an indirect way, to an important characteristic of Gervasoni’s work more generally. The sounds he uses bear at least a family resemblance to those of other composers, especially Lachenmann. Yet his works also have an airiness, a sense of breath and even light, that sets them apart from his mentors’ more frictional creations.

“There’s a kind of density to Gervasoni’s music,” Knopp put it. “Not so much texturally, but it gives me the feeling of very dense music that has experienced the big bang. You have things that are floating away from each other that once belonged together. And he has a way about writing where you feel there’s a cohesion, always, in spite of that.

“There is a lyricism that’s there, even in a single sound,” he said elsewhere. “The difficulty in realizing what he wants is the separation, the space between things, and you have to be able to hear from very high up. It’s like looking at the earth from outer space.”

At one point during the conversation Knopp mentioned that he had been “talking around” Gervasoni’s music, and that he looked forward to his residency in large part because that, and that alone, would be his chance to truly know it.

“I wish I could tell you more about it,” he said. “But I kind of feel like to know him, you have to hear more of it in person. There are other composers where you can tell about the piece through a performance that may or may not be doing it justice. But his music is very much performance dependent. It’s so refined and difficult enough that it really depends on us to do well by it.”

An artist at Yellow Barn

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Yellow Barn welcomes Peter Bruun, artist, educator, curator, and community activist, as a resident artist on Yellow Barn's campus at the Greenwood School. Since 2014 Peter has devoted his life to creating and launching New Day Campaign. This summer his four weeks on campus provide a framework for new pathways, both revisiting and creating pieces, linked by the shared, palpable urgency to create that permeates Yellow Barn.

A full-time member of the community, Peter has been visiting rehearsals and attending performances, sketching and recording his thoughts at his blog https://bruunatyellowbarn.wordpress.com/. Below is his entry "Introduction". We invite you to share in his process, leave a comment, and come to the Big Barn to hear the works that he is exploring in his blog.

I do not know the name of the piece I was listening to in an instructional class with pianists when I began this sketch — a composition with pianos, bells, and whistling. But I want to share something of my artistic and thematic interest in this post:

Most of the images in this blog (if not all) are from a sketchbook I have brought with me to Yellow Barn — a sketchbook to initiate whatever my next project is to be. While ostensibly inspired by the music and musicians here at Yellow Barn, it is perhaps more accurate to say my time here is an excuse and milieu to get me started. A fine setting, for musical relationship is key to Yellow Barn, and for months I’ve been wanting to explore relationship in my work.

For many years, my abiding fascination has been singular identity — my own and others. The work I’ve made has derived from self-portraiture — the key words here being “derived from,” for my self is largely absent from any end product; self-portraiture has been a way in to the more universal subject of “self” overall.

But that focus on identity has changed, and I am now intent in relationships, as my own personal relationships become less definable and more… confusing. I more and more experience pain and love as flip-sides of the same coin, and in my work am trying to come to terms not only with this, but also with the ambiguity of relationship period. I’m not sure how exactly my drawings are doing that, but it feels as thought that’s the terrain I’m just beginning to mine.

Significant is the figurative basis of these new sketches (no longer am I looking at my head in the mirror as the jumping point) — figures I sketch while sitting in rehearsals here at Yellow Barn. What more intense a relationship to have as a spring board than that between musicians, jointly sharing in interpretation of beautiful and melancholic and mysterious music?

So this sketch — in ways I’ve yet to fathom — drives into this space of relationship. The work has both a private and public life, of course, and meaning for me may not be meaning for you, and that’s fine. So — please accept the above sketch and all others in these posts as an offering for consideration, and my words an invitation to connecting.

—Peter Bruun

Jörg Widmann at Yellow Barn

Monday, May 30, 2016

Since the 1970s, composers of all nationalities have enriched Yellow Barn's summer season with their music, the work they do with musicians, and interactions with audiences. In 2015, Yellow Barn welcomed renowned German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann. His residency week offered multiple performances of his music, including performances by the composer, and opened the door for ongoing friendship and collaboration.

In April 2016, Jörg will return to Yellow Barn to develop the North American premiere of his song cycle Das Heisse Herz with baritone William Sharp and pianist Seth Knopp in advance of a three-day residency with Yellow Barn's Dallas partner, the Nasher Sculpture Center, for the concert series Soundings: New Music at the Nasher.

Read the Boston Globe's profile of Jörg Widmann's residency week at Yellow Barn

The Cult of the Work

Saturday, May 14, 2016

This post is the first of two, reflecting on our residency, Faithful to the Spirit. I want to preface this by thanking the boys and faculty of the Greenwood School. There is a quote attributed to Einstein: "If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough." Preparing the talk for Greenwood helped crystallise a number of complex ideas. The boys at Greenwood were so perceptive in their comments during our visit there. In particular there was one boy, with longish blond hair whom, after 30 minutes or so of discussion, astonished all of us musicians with his eloquence at articulating what our residency was about – far better than what we could muster.

Marisa Gupta

The Cult of the Work

During our talks in Putney (at the Greenwood School and for the general audience) we framed the discussion in terms of an issue raised by various commentators: whether music is an object or an activity. It is, of course, an activity. However we have, in certain ways, taken steps towards turning it into an object (through musical scores and recordings). In doing so all kinds of "rules" have been created – many of which we are unaware of; our residency was about becoming aware of and re-thinking these "rules".

Our residency was not centered around the study of period recordings, but on the questioning of a philosophical view in which music is thought of as a body of work. Recordings provide us with an historical record through which we can attempt to understand this. This concept informs most aspects of how we interact with mainstream western classical music, and has been much debated by scholars and other commentators, but I am uncertain how aware most mainstream performers are that this is the view we largely adopt (I only came across this in reading works of Lydia Goehr whose Imaginary Museum of Musical Works forms much of the basis of this post), Kenneth Hamilton, and others. Thinking of music in terms of works gives us an objective measure through which to judge auditions and competitions, assess conservatory exams, and write CD reviews. It influences our presentation of music in concert and how performers view their role in relation to a composer’s score. It plays no small part in how record producers carry out their jobs, and how composers conceive of notation. It impacts the language we use to discuss music. The list goes on.

Why is this important? The idea of being true or faithful to a work (Werktreue), and viewing music in terms of works in general likely contributes in large part to what some critics deem as the standardization and sacralisation of western classical music. It is probable that our current interpretation of this ideal is far from what many canonic composers would have expected. It has unintentionally caused us to limit ourselves to a narrow range of expressive possibilities in performing works, and adhere to rigid notions of the acceptable manner in which to present music in concert.

During earlier eras, interest in music revolved around music of the present. By around 1800, interest in music from the past began to grow in conjunction with the development of a canon of transcendent masterpieces. The result was a shift in emphasis from performance to the idea of musical works. Works soon were viewed as fixed objects of fine art. The result was an increasing notational precision as composers conceived of their music as being “preservable in fixed and lasting works,” a view that also impacted performances. Within the field of musicology, there was a view that strict methodology and research could enable musicologists to determine what a composer had intended to say, and this could be communicated in musical scores; thus it became increasingly the case that the performer’s duty was to reproduce the composer’s text. The advent of recordings further enhanced the notion of music as an object, as the ephemeral nature of performance now became something fixed and repeatable.

What does this mean in terms of how we perform music today? To understand this more clearly, it is helpful to look more closely at earlier views of music.

Occasional music

When musicians worked for the court or church, composers wrote occasional music and borrowed freely from other compositions and composers. Music wasn’t necessarily composed to outlast one or a few performances. Music was appreciated because it served an occasion. Its longevity was not a concern. (This likely included the music of Bach.)

Notation

In earlier centuries, a figured bass and melodic outline sufficed, which was embellished by performers. Musicians did not perform with the idea of realising every facet of a pre-conceived work. Music was treated more pragmatically. Composers gave varying degrees of instruction, filled in by performers depending on the type of musical expression required. There were ways of performing which were considered unacceptable, but great variety amongst that which was considered admissible.

A lack of precision in notation did cause concern (there are records of Couperin complaining of this), but by 1800, notation became sufficiently well specified to differentiate composing through performance and composing prior performance. Despite this, composers in the 18th century did want performers to try to comply with their scores, but as long as scores were not sufficiently detailed, it was difficult to achieve this.

Virtuosity

In addition to different views of the role of notation, the concept of a virtuoso was very different too. Bach was just as appreciated for improvising as he was for his other skills. Mozart and Clementi took part in an extemporization competition in 1781. In the 18th century, respect was given as much to composer performers who could improvise. The term virtuoso was used as much in reference to improvisations as it was to the performance of pre-meditated compositions. Even in the Romantic era, when the shift in view was underway, Kenneth Hamilton describes the fundamental facet of the Romantic attitude towards interpretation, in which nearly all pianists were composers as well as performers and their personalities as composers tended to seep into their playing and often turned what we would imagine now as acts of interpretation into acts of free recreation. He cites Busoni as one extreme example of the towering virtuoso and questing composer, for whom few pieces he played were unaffected by his sometimes extreme interventions. Later in the 19th century there were signs of increasing specialization and this tradition has been largely abandoned.

Differences in the culture of performances

Performances took place with several interruptions. This may have been because performers made mistakes, or had "false starts". Audiences might have been bored so music wasn’t played to the end. There were breaks or intervals in long pieces. Individual movements were performed, and pieces were rarely played from start to finish.

Rehearsing

Musicians didn’t rehearse in the same way. The term rehearsal was often used interchangeably with the term for performance. Only later did the concept of rehearsal become distinguished from performances and viewed as necessary for adequate performance. Rehearsals were also uncommon because professional orchestras hardly existed.

Music of the Past

In the 1800’s there was an increasing interest in music of the past though the prevailing view was still that music of the present was the only music worth listening to. However, attitudes started to shift in 1850. Prominent musicians performed music of past masters. Liszt began a trend by including "historical pieces" in his concert programs. According to the tenets of Romanticism, there was a new sort of academic interest in music history; reconstructing the past was influenced by this. Past music was seen through the Romantic ideal of works, leading to the canonization of dead composers and formation of a musical repertoire of transcendent masterpieces. The former curator of the British Library Sound Archive Timothy Day writes that “…the Romantic, nineteenth-century metaphor of the composer as an agent who simply materializes a perfectly imagined, finished form born in a visionary moment has remained enormously influential throughout the twentieth century. It has remained a fundamental component of the way a great many people think about music…”

Thus, early music was reintroduced into modern repertoire as “timeless masterpieces”, meaning that composers and music now had precise notation, multiple performances, and lasting fame. This repertoire of Classics spread fast and music of the classical era was viewed in Romantic terms – as perfect works of absolute music.

Today

By the 20th century and into the 21st, the Werktreue (the concept of being true or faithful to a work) became an idea which assumed a dominant role in classical music life.

When we compare early recordings to modern ones, one can observe the extremes to which the notion of accurate notation and compliant performance has been taken. Many people today deem performances on early recordings as more reflective of the individual performer and less of the composer’s intentions, but bear in mind those recordings were made at a time when the shift in terms of viewing music as “works” was well underway. Earlier performances might have been even more surprising to our sensibilities; they may have been what most of the composers we perform today would have expected.

Many commentators unfairly malign modern performances for being homogenized without fully addressing the underlying philosophical view responsible for our current performing culture. There are of course many other contributing factors (the disappearance of national schools of playing, the standardization of instruments, and more).

This discussion is fruitful because many musicians (myself until recently included) view perfect compliance with a fully specifying score as an unquestionable universal ideal, rather than just one view of music we have chosen to adopt. It is perhaps the case that the nature and degree of compliance is much more nuanced and varied than the current norms we adhere to, which could in turn lead to performances marked by a greater sense of freedom, variety and creativity. As Goehr eloquently asserts, “...without a doubt, the most important fact is that being true to music or a particular type of music does not necessarily mean being true to a work. This lesson by itself is of substantial philosophical and musical significance.”

Ultimately what early recordings (particularly those made by composers or musicians closely associated with them) can help us understand is that “the music” exists beyond what is suggested in notated scores – a plethora of instances of un-notated expressive devices (as well as notated instructions not observed) – far greater than what current norms allow. This ultimately challenges the notion of “the work” which is held by many today, is adopted by interpreters and producers of music of all sorts, and is dependent upon ideals of compliant performance.

Playing styles in the age of recording

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Photo courtesy of Beverly & Pack

(Photo courtesy of Beverly & Pack)

Marisa Gupta arrives in Putney next week with violinist Maria Włoszczowska, violist Rosalind Ventris, cellist Jonathan Dormand, and double bassist Lizzie Burns, Marisa will culminate her residency, entitled Faithful to the Spirit, with a concert on Sunday, May 1 at 3:00pm at Next Stage in Putney.

Below Marisa discusses playing styles during the age of recording. We encourage you to respond with any questions or comments you may have!


'The biggest problem with today's playing is that people want to sound smooth and nice; everything is ironed out flat,' Raphael Wallfisch. Strad, 23 February 2016

Judging from reactions to this online, these words seemed to resonate with and provoke musicians in equal measure, suggesting an opportune moment to examine these sentiments more closely.  Though the focus of our upcoming residency is not necessarily performance practice, it is impossible to deny the differences between the seemingly (by modern standards) eccentric performances heard on early recordings and today’s smoother approach. Scholarly studies of early recordings attest to the fact that attributes we might today view as idiosyncrasies were integral aspects of performance styles of the time; characteristics not just of performers, but of composers’ own views and performances. Whether we choose to adopt the playing styles or not, before dismissing them outright as distasteful or self indulgent, it is worth giving these stylistic habits due consideration, in the same manner afforded to written treatises in earlier music.

In the early days of recording, whilst there was great individuality and a range of playing styles, there were (as is the case now) certain commonalities that defined the epoch. One of the pioneering scholars in the study of early recordings Robert Philip describes a drastic change in rhythmic habits over the course of the twentieth century:

'To a late twentieth-century listener, recordings from the early part of the century at first sound rhythmically strange in a number of ways. They seem hasty, slapdash and uncontrolled, in a manner which now sounds incompetent. But this impression is to do with style as well as competence. The impression of haste is caused partly by fast tempos, partly by a tendency to underemphasize rhythmic detail compared with modern performance. A slapdash impression is given by a more casual approach to note lengths and a more relaxed relationship between a melody and its accompaniment. Lack of control is suggested by flexibility of tempo, particularly a tendency to hurry in loud or energetic passages. All of these habits are generally avoided in modern performance, and rhythmic competence is now measured by the extent to which they have been successfully controlled'. (Philip, Early Recordings and Musical Style, p.6)

Earlier performers often used significant shifts in tempo within a piece/movement to bring out changes in mood or character (including differences in tempos between first and second themes in sonatas). Maximum tempos tended to be faster. Notated rhythms were often altered. Slides were used more frequently, vibrato less so. In keyboard playing there was the un-notated separation of melody and accompaniment, and unmarked rolling of chords, octaves, etc. There was also a type of rubato in which the melody was played freely, while the accompaniment maintained regularity. In piano playing, many of these devices probably came from earlier keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord. Whilst the use of these practices was widespread, it was not always accounted for in written documents from the time. These practices were still heard on recordings in the first part of the 20th century, although they gradually fell out of favour.  

Though the reasons for this are not fully understood, the scholar Daniel Leech-Wilkinson writes that WWII cut off this view of musical performance, making it seem obsolete.  Certain expressive techniques that had been declining gradually came more or less to an end by 1939. These interpretative devices seemed charming during an earlier time. Faced with the horrors of the War, it is possible that they now seemed naïve and self-indulgent. Timothy Day, former curator of the British Library Sound Archive, also hypothesized that the less exaggerated rhetorical emphasis found in musical performance seemed to have had counterparts in other kinds of public speaking and in the less overblown gestures of film and television acting.

The more restrained style of the post-war era lasted for many decades and still exists to an extent now. Today, it is not common to alter notated rhythms. Most music is played in a synchronized fashion. Portamento is used less frequently; vibrato is more constant. We often strive to unify tempos within a movement or piece, unless otherwise indicated by the composer. Notated rhythms are interpreted more literally and deviating from them (and notation in general) is considered a shortcoming or a sign of poor taste (though it is common in early music, jazz, popular and folk music). Rubato today tends to relate more to slowing down than it does to rushing.

Before dismissing this earlier musical approach as uninformed and disrespectful of composers’ intentions, it is worth bearing in mind that before 1945, most composers assumed no one would perform an entire movement in strict tempo. In a 1915 letter to Durand, Debussy wrote, ‘You know what I think about metronome marks: they’re right for a single bar, like “roses, with a morning’s life.” Only there are “those” who don’t hear music and take these marks as an authority to hear it still less! But do what you please.’ Though Rachmaninoff and Grieg did not desynchronize to the same degree as many of their contemporaries, they both used fast maximum tempos and a great deal of un-notated tempo modifications and rubato. András Schiff describes Bartók’s own performances as ‘unbelievably lyrical and romantic, tender and rhythmically subtle…the style is rooted in nineteenth-century rubato with chords that are notated together. The way he arpeggiates them is very distinctive; he seldom plays chords together.’

Writing in The Times in 1929, the critic H.C. Colles urged record companies to make discs of Elgar conducting his own works, observing that despite his meticulous markings in the score, his intentions were

‘…written in his head, and only there. Such things as the pauses and accents, directions for rubato… and such indeterminate suggestions of mood as his favourite Nobilmente, acquire their authoritative interpretation only from him. He knows where to throw the emphasis in each phrase, so as to give it eloquence…His mind, especially in the oratorios, moves in a region for which notation offers no precise record’.

Indeed, as Timothy Day writes, recordings show instances where  ‘…composers themselves appear cheerfully to ignore what they have painstakingly notated in the score.’

This is too vast a topic for the scope of this forum (there were individuals, such as Stravinsky, who did not adhere to the attributes above and I have not broached the subject of national schools of playing). The broad summary I have provided of various authorities in the field (which I have listed below for further reading) should still be sufficient food for thought, relevant to most performers today.

Understanding that our current musical preferences are not necessarily absolute, and that our expressive framework is wider than what we allow ourselves, is liberating. How this translates into performances today is more complex. Contrary to the energy I have devoted to this topic, I do not necessarily view old recordings as superior or inferior to modern ones. I see recordings often as snapshots, reflecting where a work might exist at a given moment in history – thus making a piece of music something dynamic, a live entity that evolves over time.

I’ll close this with one last thought from Robert Philip whose words, though written over 20 years before Raphael Wallfisch’s, seem a most apt and eloquent response:

‘Old-fashioned playing uses rubato to create a sort of relief, in which significant details are made to stand out. By comparison, a modern performance is much smoother and more regular. Any points of emphasis are carefully incorporated into the whole, nothing is allowed to sound out of place; the relief has been, so to speak, flattened out. If we now find some old-fashioned rubato clumsy and eccentric, perhaps a musician from the early twentieth century would find modern playing lacking that life and rhetorical eloquence which rubato was supposed to create’. (Philip, Early Recordings and Musical Style, p. 69).

—Marisa Gupta

Sources, and for further exploration:

Composers in Person, various composers (including Julian Anderson’s excellent liner notes), (EMI Classics 50999 2 17575 2 5, 2008).

Timothy Day, A Century of Recorded Music (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical Performance (London: CHARM, 2009)
<http://www.charm.rhul.ac.uk/studies/chapters/intro.html >

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson ‘Recordings and Histories of Performance Style’ in The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music, ed. by Eric Clarke, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, and John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Neal Peres da Costa, Off the Record (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Robert Philip, Early Recordings and Musical Style (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Robert Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording (New Haven and London: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Faithful to the Letter or the Spirit?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Yellow Barn is thrilled to welcome pianist Marisa Gupta for a week-long residency exploring the ways in which recordings have shaped playing styles and the culture of performance. This Yellow Barn Artist Residency, entitled Faithful to the Spirit, continues Marisa’s study of recordings held in the British National Sound Archives. Her project is made possible by a British Library Edison Fellowship and a grant from the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Alongside violinists Philippe Graffin and Maria Włoszczowska, violist Rosalind Ventris, cellist Jonathan Dormand, and double bassist Lizzie Burns, Marisa will culminate her residency with a concert at Next Stage in Putney on Sunday, May 1 at 3pm.  

We invite you to read Marisa’s initial thoughts on her project, post your own comments, and look for future postings from Marisa as her residency progresses.

Having learned Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 109 during my studies at the Royal Academy of Music, I played the piece at the time for a fellow student. Upon finishing, she marveled at my meticulous adherence to Beethoven’s detailed and sometimes perplexing indications. ‘You observe every indication in the score!’ she exclaimed. I feigned modesty but was, in fact, self-satisfied, having put the music first; above all capturing, as best as I could, Beethoven’s desires, passed down to us through his hallowed score. In hindsight I look back on the incident with amusement and slight chagrin at my deferential naivety and complacence, having misconstrued a faithful reading of the score for artistry and a historical respect for Beethoven’s music.

Over the past few years, I have been immersed in the music of a composer much less revered than Beethoven, but whose understated music has, nevertheless, enchanted some of the greatest artists of our day: the Catalan composer Frederic Mompou. Whilst studying and performing over 2 hours of previously unpublished music by the composer, I came across rare recordings of Mompou playing his own music (dating from 1929 to 1974). In doing so, I accidently stumbled into the world of early recordings, changes in playing styles during the age of recording and the debates surrounding the topic. To what degree this has impacted my own performances is difficult to measure. But, it has profoundly changed how I think about music. I have come to a better understanding, not necessarily of historical performing styles of the era, but of something of greater importance: how we interact with music today, and some of the conditions responsible for our modern perspective.

I have decided to expand this exploration into the realm of chamber music (in conjunction with the British Library and Yellow Barn). The starting point for this project is a little known enterprise called the National Gramophonic Society, created not long after Gramophone magazine in 1924 by the publication’s founder Compton Mackenzie. 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. It folded in the 1930s and has been largely forgotten, though its sister publication Gramophone still thrives. The NGS gives us a glimpse of musical life before the influence of recordings took hold, and its little known performances tell us something about the spirit of music making that words and notated scores cannot.

In writing Miroirs, Ravel was inspired by a quote from Julius Caesar: ‘the eye sees not itself/But by reflection, by some other things’. This encapsulates the raison d’être of this project. Through ‘some other things’ (in this case early recordings, the surrounding musical culture and philosophical debates) can we make sense of our current culture of music making.

By transforming the ephemeral into a lasting object, the evolution of recordings has contributed to a strict musical orthodoxy, though we are hardly aware of it. If we can re-discover what used to be (and by proxy, understand what is now) we can possibly breathe new life into music making and the experience of listening to classical music today. It is helpful to understand some of the transformations that occurred because of recordings. Some shifts were already in the process of taking place, but it is likely that recordings accelerated the pace of these transformations towards extremes that define much of mainstream classical music making and listening today.

Before recordings, concerts were rowdy, exuberant, riotous affairs. This contrasts with today’s mostly somber presentations of predictable pieces, performed in their entirety, and experienced in reverential silence.

There has also been a shift in attitudes towards performance. Prior to recordings, performances could be improvisations, adaptations – even approximations of composers’ written works. This has evolved to what the music journalist Alex Ross labels the ‘cult of precision’: clean, literal and an often un-historical respect for the score that characterizes performances today.

Many of these shifts and their philosophical underpinnings have been well documented and much debated by scholars and other commentators. In spite of this, these debates have had little impact on the world of mainstream professional performance and audiences. So whilst this project encompasses a number of complex topics, beyond the scope of a humble blog, I (along with the other musicians taking part and guests) will endeavor to bring the dialogue out of the scholarly world into the awareness of mainstream performers and listeners. We will also share live performances from Yellow Barn. The hope is to instigate a re-thinking of certain aspects of music making that have become too rigid for performers and audiences alike, and that are far from what earlier composers and audiences would have expected.

—Marisa Gupta

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