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A little more friction, please.

August 3, 2011

It seems that talk of innovations in classical music and the production of dynamic new performances is a frequent theme in my blogging. It seems that more often these days, I am writing about interesting things other people are doing that work, interesting things people are doing that don’t work as well but still have plenty of value, or even things that I am trying to do to engage the audience a little bit better.

And these are all questions that are definitely fascinating and useful to think about, especially if you’re a young musician trying to scratch out some sort of impression on the classical music scene. Ultimately, we don’t want to do something that is just the same as everything else — we want our art to stand out in some way, make some statement that the public can understand and appreciate, and forge a lasting emotional connection or impression with the listener.

That’s why I was excited when Bruce Brubaker, chair of the piano department at New England Conservatory and piano faculty for the Atlantic Music Festival’s Piano Institute and Seminar, offered to host a classical music forum here at the festival. Mr. Brubaker is somewhat known for his interpretations of 20th-21st century music, especially music by Philip Glass, and has premiered works by Glass, Nico Muhly, and John Cage. An avid writer and researcher, Mr. Brubaker is also preoccupied with thoughts about classical music’s future, and its relevancy in society, as evidenced by his Artsjournal.com blog, “Pianomorphosis.”

The classical music forum was held on July 27, 2011. This event, held in a intimate classroom setting, was open to the general public as well as musicians from AMF. Both upcoming as well as established artists would discuss the current state of affairs in the classical music world, as well as talk about the innovative means of expression in artists’ presentation of classical music today.

To open the forum, Mr. Brubaker explained some of his thoughts on the state of classical music today. He brought up some interesting points: what if this traditional repertoire (Mozart, Beethoven, etc) that we pianists struggle to interpret and perform isn’t all that is? To clarify, he explained that in his professional life, his concentration is in music written in the past few years. It’s “artistically useful,” he explained, because it’s something that no one else does.

Mr. Brubaker proposed that concentrating in Beethoven is not bad, but ultimately not “useful,” a statement which is perhaps controversial, and perhaps worrying to the Piano Institute and Seminar students and fellows.

This definition of usefulness did not get clarified very well throughout the course of the discussion, though it came up many times. It seems that one of the main purposes of art is to communicate something, whether it be a solid idea or simply an impression. This act of communication is between the musician and the listener, and perhaps “usefulness” is measured by how well the musician communicates something. Is “usefulness” in art defined by how well we as artists communicate something, rather than on the merits of the piece itself? That’s another debate for another day.

But controversy and all, I can definitely agree with where this is coming from. If usefulness has something to do with communication, what we tend to do a lot is simply immerse ourselves in it and forget about the listeners. This can be seen in our recording of Beethoven of Mozart. In some senses, I do believe that Beethoven’s music or Mozart’s music is music that can never get old. It’s fantastic music. However, I do agree with him that specializing in music of Beethoven or Mozart or Liszt is something that’s already been done. If you do a simple search for Beethoven’s piano sonatas, you’ll find dozens and dozens of records of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Fantastic recordings, of course, performed by fantastic pianists.

Each recording purports to present highly nuanced recordings of the sonatas. We’d like to talk about the subtle nuances of the pedaling that such artist brings to the work, and the gentle and artistic slurring. At the same time, what it really is seen as is just “another” recording of Beethoven. Perhaps classical music critics can really appreciate the nuances, but at the same time, what about the mainstream? They see that the great masters such as Horowitz or Rubinstein have already recorded the sonatas by Beethoven, so why is there another “need” for more recordings of the same things, with nuances barely perceptible from the next recording? It is here that the people receiving the information are not participating.

Mr. Brubaker noted that it’s true that in terms of artistry, what these pianists doing could be better than what’s been done before. But where it falls short is in a failure to communicate.

To fix this failure in communication, Mr. Brubaker proposed that we do something new and interesting and innovative; find something fresh that hasn’t really been done. In an interesting analogy, Mr. Brubaker compared music to a scientific experiment: scientists nowadays don’t recreate the same experiments to see if we get something new out of it. It’s the same about making music. It’s not about hearing music the same way over and over. It’s about trying to make something new out of each experience.

It’s an interesting analogy, and one that may not totally hold true for all cases. However, Mr. Brubaker makes a good point. We do need to find something new. A lot of musicians now, he said, impersonate or regurgitate. It’s like the Glenn Gould impersonators, or the Elvis impersonators, or even cover bands in rock music. As musicians, we have to move beyond regurgitation to finding and making something new.

However, it’s easier said than done to make something “new” out of everything.

And that’s the struggle of the musician today. How to make something that doesn’t merely repeat or regurgitates, but does something that hasn’t happened before? It is in this sense that even though classical music is something that has existed for years and years and years,  we as musicians are just figuring things out right now. How do we present our music so that we form emotional connections with listeners that is so desperately needed?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2011 9:38 pm

    The toughest question for all artists, whether in music, visual arts, or poetry, is how to build on what’s been done before and refine it, but at the same time make it new! As a realist painter (like a classical musician) I find myself struggling with the questions you discuss in your blog – how to paint a familiar subject while finding something new in it…how to “frame” my perceptions so that the subject will be seen in a new way. Treading the line between abstraction and realism is one way…I like to focus closely or crop creatively. The paintng techniques are old, but the immediacy pushes the viewer in – makes it (a little bit) new.

  2. August 4, 2011 3:24 pm

    Those subtle nuances you refer to really take hold during performances in the form of effective emotional communication. Recordings really do no justice.

    To an extent, I can understand the idea of playing old music as being “ineffective” depending on who you are playing to. If you prove that the connection between the artist and the music is paramount to the emotional result of the audience then perhaps it does make more sense to find music that we can relate to as a generation or even as a culture. It could be the reason why Russians like hearing Horowitz or Rubinstein play Rachmaninoff. There is some cultural connection there that is untouchable.

  3. August 6, 2011 8:32 am

    Our challenge to make something new out of everything entails a little more effort and commitment until we get the desired results.

    I agree, it’s easier said than done but it can be done. All the best to your good intentions and great endeavors, Dr. Kang! 🙂

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