29 August 2014

Composer Interpreters

On one occasion I attended one of those Book Club/Meet the Author sessions where everyone reads a particular book in advance and then meets up to discuss it with the author, who also reads extracts from it.  It taught me two things.  The first was that, even where we all share a common language and come from largely similar cultural backgrounds, our responses to what we read are remarkably diverse.  A book I had read as a joyful celebration of the fundamental goodness of humanity, others saw as a commentary on the oppression of women, on the failure of Christianity to engage in modern society and as an indictment on the entire democratic system.  Characters I had seen as peripheral to the basic thrust of the story were regarded by others as significant, plot lines which I had felt drove the book along were regarded by others as distractions to the main thrust of the author’s argument and references to time and place which I had felt to be irrelevant clouded the entire perception of others.  The author, sometimes puzzled by lines of questioning and at other times apparently taken aback by the perceptiveness of his readers, gave every impression of accepting different opinions of his motives while acknowledging more than once that he “had not thought of it in that light”.

The second thing this meeting taught me was that authors are not always the best readers of their own work.  Beyond this occasion, I have heard poets on the radio deliver their lines in a totally impersonal and unconvincing manner, as well as authors stumble awkwardly over their own syntax.
Simply put, once the job of creation is done, the author’s involvement in the work is finished and the work is only enriched by subsequent interpretations made from a range of personal standpoints.  From what I can gather, that seems a pretty widespread view in the literary arts.  So why is it not the same in music?

There is, of course, one basic difference.  Unlike in literature, where the consumer (in this case the reader) is the interpreter, in music, because the language is inaccessible to the majority of consumers, the interpreter effectively adds a middle layer to the process.  Perhaps we can best see the role of the interpreter in music (the performer) as akin to that of a translator, bound by the original text, but free to communicate it in a way perceived to be most readily accessible to the consumer.  Certainly there is no parallel in the arts for the creator to be the ideal interpreter?  It is historically interesting to hear old recordings of, say, Rachmaninov performing his own music or Elgar directing his own scores, but does it in any way help us understand the music better?  I fervently believe that one of the things which makes art (or classical) music so infinitely rewarding to the listener is the very multi-layered path between creation and consumption.  By allowing the composer to perform his own music, we are missing out on a whole world of nuances introduced by the various interpreters of the original truth.
Which begs the question; Is there any artistic value in a composer performing his own music on disc?  A lot of them do it and, I have to admit, in many cases if the composer were not to record his own music, nobody else would.  There are instances where composers perform music which is neither published nor available to any other performer, while some use the CD to promote their music by suggesting that, if we like what we hear, we can purchase a download of the music from the composer’s own website.  Beyond that, however, some established composers devote much of their life to performing their own music on disc. Sent for review this week has been just such a disc, bearing the title “Hakim plays Hakim” and featuring some seven recent works by the Lebanese/Parisian organist/composer Naji Hakim. (Strangely, this is the third disc released on the Signum Classics label so entitled, yet this third one bears the suffix “Vol.1”.  Never mind; I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.)  My personal collection includes 14 CDs containing music by Hakim and performed by different organists, and I doubt there is anyone even loosely connected with the world of organ music who would argue that Hakim’s music is not of the very finest quality and deserving of interpretation by a wide variety of organists.

Naji Hakim is a brilliant organist, and his performances of music by others reveal an intense and searching interpretative mind supported by a superb technique.  But when it comes to his own music, I find his performances create a barrier rather than open a door to his musical intentions.  That barrier is part psychological; does he record it so much because he feels he cannot trust others to interpret it?  If so, surely that diminishes the artistic value of his music.  But it is also part physical; he is such a brilliant player that it is difficult to imagine anyone else performing his music so well, which rather negates the value of those who do.

I am very exercised in these thoughts because, were it anyone else playing these works, I would find fault in what sounds often like poorly controlled articulation and a tendency to let speed override technical constraints.  In some of the passagework, I detect uneven rhythmic articulation and smudgy detail; and were it any other player I would not be afraid to suggest this.  But because it is the composer, we tend to assume this is what he intended and, therefore, we cannot criticise the performance without implicitly criticising the music which, despite the fact that this disc inhabits an undiluted territory of fast and jolly music, I would not wish to do.  How better it would have been to hear someone else play this music so that we could the more easily distinguish between compositional weakness and performance weakness.  It strikes me Hakim is in danger of over-exposing himself on two fronts, and the result might be to diminish his stature on both.

Among my favourite historical recordings are several of Rachmaninov performing his own music.  But when I heard a young player attempt to emulate the lurching rubato and heart-stopping pauses the composer added to his playing (but not to his written-out scores), I was horrified and said so; to which the young pianist replied; “I was only doing what the composer himself did, and surely he knows what he wanted and we cannot argue with that?”  We can argue with it.  When it comes to performing their own music, composers no longer have exclusive interpretative rights and we should regard their performances as no more legitimate than anyone else’s.  

22 August 2014

Pointless Promotions

At what point should we draw the line when describing somebody as “one of the finest” ?  There has to be a finite number of people whose skills exceed the average sufficiently to place them in the implied elite group of “the finest”.  Is that panoply of “finest” measured in the tens, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands?  Is it a percentage of all those who claim to possess that skill, and if so, what is a realistic percentage; 5%, 10%, 20%, 50%?  Judging from musicians’ biographies, it seems as if just about anyone who can touch a musical instrument can join the ranks of “finest”, and when I read in a new disc sent to me for review that the performer is “one of the finest organists of our time”, while among his repertoire he performs music by “one of Britain’s leading composers”, I recoil in horror.  The sad fact is that, not entirely unacquainted as I am with the names of the great and the good in the organ and composition worlds, I had never heard of either.  I’ll keep you guessing, but warn you that if you are thinking Olivier Latry, Cameron Carpenter, Thomas Trotter, Naji Hakim or even Gillian Weir as the former, or Peter Maxwell Davies, Oliver Knussen, John Rutter, James MacMillan or even Judith Weir as the latter, you are not so much barking up the wrong tree as in entirely the wrong forest.
The sad fact is that, when it comes to promoting musicians, agents (and, increasingly, the musicians themselves) seem terrified of standing out from the crowd. As soon as one of them pops their head over the parapet and declare unequivocally that “x is the finest”, they lay themselves open to all and sundry to take pot shots, rubbishing the claim and putting up their own contenders.  Of course, “finest”, “best”, “most outstanding” and the like are subjective assessments and, correspondingly, open to debate.  To describe in a biography a musician as any of these seems a daft thing to do, and watering it down to the utterly meaningless “one of the…” simply diminishes the artist’s stature.  What no artist or agent seems prepared to do when promoting a musician is to find and promote a Unique Selling Point.  For a reason which defies all logic, their intention seems to be to show that said musician is just like everyone else.  Why otherwise lump them together in the vast heard of “one of the…”?  And certainly the vast swathes of standard repertoire, concert venues and other comparable or better artists listed in biographies seems only to reinforce the notion that the musician is one of the crowd rather than an individual artist with something special to offer.
Read this real biography from a singer.  The sad thing is, I have expunged his name but left the entire biography intact.  I bet you nobody can guess who he is.  Worse than that, I wonder whether if he were to read it himself he might not be too sure whether it refers to him or someone else, so totally anonymous is it with its long lists of standard repertoire and famous concert halls/conductors added to legitimise an artist who would seem to be, on the strength of his biography, nothing very special:
“Xx has appeared at many of the world’s leading international opera houses including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Glyndebourne Festival, Opera Bastille Paris, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Monnaie Brussels, Teatro Comunale Florence, Theatre du Capitole Toulouse, Staatstheater Stuttgart, Teatro Real de Madrid and Teatro La Fenice. He has also sung leading roles with all the British companies including ENO, Scottish Opera, WNO and Opera North. Operatic roles have included Alberich Der Ring des Nibelungen, Scarpia Tosca and Paolo Simon Boccanegra for Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Falstaff and Pizarro Fidelio for Scottish Opera, The Traveller Death in Venice in Lyon, Bregenz and Aldeburgh, Klingsor Parsifal in Nice, Faninal Der Rosenkavalier in San Francisco and Chicago and Balstrode Peter Grimes at the Bastille and in Geneva. Equally at home on the concert platform, he has appeared in all the major UK concert halls and appears frequently at the BBC Proms. Conductors he has worked with include Richard Armstrong, David Atherton, Martyn Brabbins, Paul Daniel, Andrew Davis, Christoph von Dohnányi, Mark Elder, Bernard Haitink, Richard Hickox, Oliver Knussen, Sir Charles Mackerras, Antonio Pappano, Carlo Rizzi and Edo de Waart.”
Each year I set my performance students the task of creating their own biography to promote themselves to concert promoters.  They are told to confine it to 200 words and to make it read as if they have something special to offer; to make them stand out from the crowd.  Almost without exception, far from trying to stand out from the crowd, they seem intent on burying themselves in it with the customary lists of repertoire and associated artists and the inevitable “one of the finest…” assessments.  Only once has one of my students come up with a biography which would make me think about hiring him.  An otherwise inoffensive young Indian student added a photograph of him as a baby and began the biography, “Since screaming louder than any of the other kids in his nursery, xxx has been set on a career as a rock drummer”.  I’d book him for a gig on that alone; irrespective of his true musical talents.
I am drawn to ponder on all these matters after a week spending revising, checking and editing artists’ biographies for the forthcoming concert season.  With the demand to keep all artist biographies to under 250 words, I find myself expunging pages of lists of “orchestras he has performed alongside include”, “prestigious venues she has graced with her playing include”, “conductors with whom he has appeared include” or, worst of all, “her repertoire includes such concertos as” (as if music was just one homogenous lump and none of it has any distinguishing features).  But I have also tried to farm out the ubiquitous “one of the finest”, be it “in the world”, “of today’s” or “of their generation”.  Too often several thousand words boil down to less than 10 when I do this, so thin are the unique selling points in any artist biography.  And worse still, so intent is the artist on listing one-off achievements that they forget all about telling us what they do.  How about this:
“XXX has won numerous prizes and awards in international piano competitions including the ‘ 28th Alessandro Casagrande International Piano Competition’ in Italy in 2008; the Fifth Prize at the ‘16th Leeds International Piano Competition’; a semi-finalist at the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, and the Georges Leibenson Prize in the 67th Geneva International Piano Competition.  She was awarded numerous scholarships including ‘The Robert H.N.Ho Family Foundation Scholarship’, ‘The Coutts Bank Scholarship’, ‘Lee Shuk Chee Memorial Scholarship’ , ‘Hong Kong Music Scholarship’ and was sponsored by the ‘Simon K.Y. Lee Foundation’ . In 2011, she was awarded the ‘ Hong Kong Jockey Club Music and Dance Fund Scholarship’, ‘Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation Scholarship’, ‘Bernard van Zuidan Music Fund Scholarship’ and ‘School of Music Staff Prize Scholarship’. As a recognition for making outstanding achievements in the promotion of arts and culture in Hong Kong, she was awarded the ‘Certificate of Commendation’ by the Hong Kong Government in 2004. In May 2010, she received the ‘Award for Young Artist 2009’ presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. She was also invited to take part in many prestigious international music festivals including the 9th Musical Olympus International Festival in Russia ,The International Chopin Festival in Duszniki, Poland, Virtuosos of Planet 2006 in Kiev, Ukraine, The Festival Transeuropéennes in Rouen, France, Miami International Piano Festival and the Golandsky Institute International Piano Festival”.  Does this performer do anything other than enter for competitions and win scholarships.  Is there any evidence here that she has given a public performance before a ticket-buying audience?.
Would any self-respecting advertising agency survive in the commercial world spouting such drivel.  Imagine a similar sort of promotion for a chocolate bar:
“Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is one of the finest chocolate bars currently available in the market place.  It can be found in shops such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s, W H Smith’s, John Menzies, Waitrose, Cold Storage, Jason’s, Giant, Fairprice, Carrefour, Woolworths and Coles, and on shelves alongside Belgian, Swiss, American, Australian and Malaysian chocolate bars.  It can be found at airports where flights take off and land to such places as Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas, and has been bought by members of the governments of the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore and by CEOs of the such companies as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, the Boeing Aircraft Corporation, Ninja Plastics and China Waste Management and the like.”  Is there anything in that which would make you prefer it over, say, a similar bar of Hershey’s?  I cannot imagine that any advertising agency presenting that to Cadbury’s would keep their contract; yet this is exactly the kind of mediocre drivel we use to sell musicians. 
So when I read of the organist who “is renowned in the UK and abroad for virtuosic, intelligent and engaging repertoire from the 14th to the 21st centuries” and stands as “one of the finest organists of our time”, I am profoundly unimpressed.  I am even less impressed by the fact that he “performs throughout the UK, Europe, Australia and Singapore” (how can any organist “perform throughout Singapore”? – but that’s by the by).  Which is all a bit of a shame since, on the evidence of his CD, Daniel Moult is quite a good player and, ironically, far better than his over-inflated biography suggests.  I do, however, remain unconvinced that there is any substantial cohort of composers who would happily feel led by Graham Fitkin, despite his claim to be “one of Britain’s leading composers”.  His six-minute organ piece Wedding despite claiming to be “frequently complex” rehearses so much familiar territory that it loses all sense of identity (the composer categorises himself as “post-minimalist”, which I take to assume he studied composition by means of a very short mail-order correspondence course).
While I wish all musicians and their agents would spend a few months learning the real art of writing promotional literature in a proper advertising agency, it can go a bit too far.  I wonder if anyone could ever take this psycho-babble seriously?:
“If one word applies to Lang Lang, to the musician, to the man, to his worldview, to those who come into contact with him, it is “inspiration”. It resounds like a musical motif through his life and career. He inspires millions with open-hearted, emotive playing, whether it be in intimate recitals or on the grandest of stages –such as the 2014 World Cup concert in Rio, with Placido Domingo, to celebrate the final game; the 56thGRAMMY Award, where he played with Metallica; the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where more than four billion people around the world viewed his performance, the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall, or the Liszt 200thbirthday concert broadcast live to more than 500 cinemas around the US and Europe. He forms enduring musical partnerships with the world’s greatest artists, from conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel and Sir Simon Rattle, to artists from outside of classical music –among them dubstep dancer Marquese “nonstop” Scott and jazz titan Herbie Hancock. As he inspires, he is inspired. As he is inspired, he inspires others. It is this quality, perhaps, that led the New Yorker to call him “the world’s ambassador of the keyboard”.  And the child Lang Lang was and who, perhaps, is always with him, would surely have approved of the way he gives back to youth.”  As a famous editor of the Sunday Express newspaper used to be so fond of writing; “Pass the sick bag, Alice”.