Wednesday, December 23, 2009

performance practice

This post on eighth blackbird's blog is fascinating. It details some of the collaborative process between the ensemble and Steve Reich on his Pulizer Prize-winning Double Sextet. It gives a lot of insight into Reich's style of composing and the ensemble's style of rehearsing, but is also interesting to me as a musicologist-in-training.

Performance practice is not something that figures into much new music academia, an issue that was brought up by Neely Bruce at the minimalism conference I attended in September. That Steve Reich & Musicians would have a "house style" is obvious but not often talked about; the Philip Glass Ensemble had the same thing. Here's Glass on his relationship to his ensemble in the '70s:

"By that point the group had been together over ten years, and they had become the best performers of the music. So I had a more important reason for keeping the ensemble together than my initial one. At first, they were the only people who would play it; then they became the best people who could play it…We really came back to the idea that the composer is the performer, and that’s very, very valuable."*

This necessary development of performer as composer during the Downtown scene of the '60s-'80s is no longer always the case, as ensembles like eighth blackbird and Alarm Will Sound take up works of classic minimalism and commission new postminimalist music. Of course they have the recordings of Glass and Reich to determine how to perform aspects of the works, and also can communicate with the composers themselves. Robert Carl's book on In C details the evolving performance practice of the work. For that piece, I consider Bang on a Can's recording to be definitive; but is a very, very different creature from the original 1968 Riley recording.

Communicating with living composers, whether as a performer or academic, can be tricky business. A musicologist will usually take the written letters of a dead composer at his or her word; as primary sources, they (theoretically) represent concrete knowledge and opinion. Obviously we don't always have access to a wealth of written information for someone who is alive. There are upsides and downsides to this. If Brahms writes in his letters that Gypsy performance influenced his chamber music, that's more or less fact. When interviewing a living composer about how he views his music, everything can be infinitely clarified. As a musicologist it's easy to try to seek out hidden truths in the music and then get them happily confirmed by the composer--I see a repeated bass pattern in Nico's Keep in Touch and hope he will tell me that he was referencing Dido and Aeneas. But, in the case of my interviews with Nico regarding his music, I had to be careful that I wasn't steering him towards my own conclusions, asking a longwinded question and getting him to say yes. Often I would just ask short questions and hope that his expansions yielded the information I wanted to hear without guiding him towards it.

I'm not sure if there's a "right way" for performers and academics to work with living composers--maybe someone should write an etiquette book? In the case of eighth blackbird, it certainly helps to be incredibly talented and hard-working.

*from William Duckworth's Talking Music, p. 337

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