Monday, October 09, 2017

Signs o' the times

Last week, this CD arrived in the mail:

Krystian Zimerman, artistic research, DGG recording, Schubert sonatas D595 D960,

It can be seen as symbolic of today's status of the performer: the pianist's name printed more prominently than the traditionally perceived "owner" of the "works" recorded (who and which seem to have receded into the background), the three half- to full-page photographs of the musician inside the booklet (plus a full page with images of four others of his CDs, which themselves include pictures of Zimerman, and the CD cover copied onto the front page of the booklet), and two more portraits from the same black-and-white shoot included inside the cardboard CD case. Indeed, such a personal visual focus is already more extensive than what, e.g., Herbert von Karajan enjoyed decades ago, as without a doubt the most self-absorbed musician of that time, when this type of marketing started to become part of the professional profiling business of any high-end performer. (Incidentally, Zimerman's Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Grieg and Schumann concertos with the Berlin Philharmonic 'under' Karajan in 1982 had the 'accompanying' soloist, i.e. the conductor, photoshopped in such a way as to keep the pianist in the background. I have always wondered how Zimerman, then still young but more than up-and-coming, had felt about that decision, no doubt taken, or forced, by Karajan himself.) 

In the Schubert CD booklet, the composer's signature is the only image related to the man who originally made the sonatas. The two-page interview with the pianist, which replaces the programme notes traditionally written by a musicologist, features a mere six questions, one about Schubert ("He had syphilis, but was he really expecting to die soon?") and the rest about the pianist: why he waited so long with a new solo recording and why he chose these sonatas, why he prefers to use the self-made keyboard, and what particular qualities does the recording hall in Japan offer, and, lastly, "How would you characterize these sonatas?" 

This CD is all about Zimerman, and it seems as if it was decided that he, and not Schubert or the two sonatas, would be selling it. It is in the same vein as the apparently unavoidable focus on Yuja Wang's dresses in photographs and interviews. But at least Ms. Wang is an expert on the choice of her clothing; judging his interview, Zimerman could hardly be recognized as an expert on the historical or music theoretical value of Schubert and his compositions, unless he read it somewhere (hopefully written by an expert historian or theorist). Idem for the acoustics of the recording hall - personally, I would have found it interesting to hear from the recording engineer how he managed the sometimes peculiar sound of the CD - and the suggestion that Zimerman designed, manufactured and assembled the keyboard and the hammer action himself. The glaring lack of detail emphasizes the superficiality of the entire interview. Whoever was in power must have deemed it absolutely fine to invest in expensive glossy paper filled with romantically impressionistic pictures rather than enlightening information. Perhaps the DGG offices are still motivated by - as I remember - the unexpected US sales success of Ivo Pogorelich's solo Beethoven-Schumann record in 1982, which was reportedly due to the cover photograph of the pianist being favored especially by female customers (see here for a type of confirmation of this). 

Excepting the answers Zimerman gave in the interview, the above criticism may not have much to do with his range of influence in the production. His playing, on the other hand, is actually often very much to my liking. Beyond his technical abilities, which allow him to devise interpretations based solely on their musical merit, it strikes me how he appears to systematically look for pieces in which he can innovate traditional interpretations from a purely pianistic perspective. It was both eye-opening and musically satisfying to hear him play the huge sweep with which the piano part opens the finale of the Rachmaninov's second piano concerto at a speed which is audibly most consistent with the tempo of the movement (at 24'06" in here). Yuja Wang aligns the passage with the orchestra as well, though at a slower metrical ratio (three instead of two bars' worth to arrive back in the bass, see 22'44" in here); Rachmaninov himself (at 21'03" in here) applies an opening rubato to the effect that the sweep takes about four bars. I find Zimerman's entrance to be the most striking one, not because it is the only one I know that follows the composer's notation (though not his recorded performance), and not because of the breathtaking speed (which does not make it sound more "quasi glissando" than Rachmaninov's), but for the way it continues the momentum that the orchestral material created. 

Rachmaninov Concerto 2 movement 3 Krystian Zimerman artistic research,

Rachmaninov Concerto 2 movement 3 Krystian Zimerman artistic research,
Rachmaninov Concerto 2, 3rd movement, bars 16-24

In Liszt's Funérailles, the distinction between producing the famous left-hand ostinato with and without the damper pedal is managed by Zimerman with notable consistency(Listen here, starting at 8'04".) The score prescribes the pedal from bar 115 onwards for an entire bar, or more, at a time - regardless of harmonic changes. The less muddy sound and the lighter action of pianos in Liszt's day allowed for this with more aesthetic comfort than the present-day instruments. The advantage of the damper pedal on a modern piano is that it can disguise the difficulty of clearly and evenly articulating all the notes in the right-hand triplet chords in bar 116 and 118, and that its building up of sound requires less force, and thus less exhaustion, in playing the octaves from bar 133 onwards. The price to pay is that, with lots of pedal, it becomes impossible to distinguish the metrical layers (left-hand triplets, left-hand 'drums' per half note, right-hand quarter note march), to maintain clarity and lightness in the galloping bass triplets and octaves, and to avoid the confusion of having legato and non-legato sounding chords. The ramifications of this are audible in many performances, even of great virtuosos like Martha Argerich (from 6'16" in this video).

Liszt Funérailles Krystian Zimerman artistic research,
Liszt Funérailles, bars 111-119

Not so in Zimerman's version. Until the Allegro energico assai section at bar 143, where no metrical layer or left-hand articulation is endangered, his use of the damper pedal is extremely limited, so that all of the above mentioned details come to the surface. Most excitingly, the rests in the dotted rhythms are now audible (see e.g. bars 141-142), driving the music forward to great effect.    

Liszt Funérailles Krystian Zimerman artistic research,
Liszt Funérailles, bars 141-146

This is an elegant solution to the problem that using the damper pedal to compensate for technical difficulties can distract from, or even disrupt, the perception of the musical flow when that is composed on the basis of musical structures rather than technical prowess. However, the pianist must be able to pull it off. While Zimerman does so in Funérailles, his approach is less consistent in the two Schubert sonatas he just recorded, where there are comparable pedal vs. no pedal decisions to be taken.

Schubert Sonata D959 Krystian Zimerman artistic research,
Schubert Sonata D. 959, opening second movement

Schubert Sonata D960 Krystian Zimerman artistic research,
Schubert Sonata D. 960, opening second movement

There is more to say about that, but I would prefer to return to it in one of my next posts. More interesting for the argument, here, are the fp octaves that characterize the final movement of D.960, for which Zimerman uses the resonance of a staccato articulation captured with the damper pedal.

Schubert Sonata D960 finale Krystian Zimerman artistic research,
Schubert Sonata D. 960, opening final movement

It is ironic that this CD highlights the extent to which marketing efforts can take the professional dissemination of musical performance into the foggy field of amateurism, where the means are indistinguishable from the ends, while the experimental nature of the recorded artist's practice, exemplary of the value of the scholarly paradigm shift towards including the study of performance, is blatantly neglected. The trajectory that led from Janet Schmalfeldt's 1985 article, On the Relation of Analysis to Performance, to the present day legitimation of musicians as researchers in-and-through their practice, has run parallel to the recording sector's continuous zooming in on the marketability of performers. These roads would offer more interesting directions if they would intersect more often. Why not ask a musicologist to write a few pages about Schubert and his sonatas, and - leaving out some of the pictures - add a text by (or an interview by another pianist with) Zimmerman on what he was looking for when working out his interpretations? It may not always be easy to cater to layman audiences, who may have less of an interest perhaps in the type of issues discussed above, but there is rather exciting terrain to be cultivated. 

As it happens, another new CD arrived on my desk, this week. Again, with some famous early 19th-century solo keyboard sonatas written during a famous composer's late compositional period. 

Tom Beghin, artistic research, Beethoven, late sonatas, Inside the Hearing Machine,

Beethoven's three last piano sonatas are performed on a replica of the composer's  Broadwood piano, made by Chris Maene and "outfitted with a modern-day interpretation of Beethoven’s hearing machine". The pianist is Tom Beghin, also a musician with projects that I always eagerly await, ever since I discovered him on the box with all 32 Beethoven sonatas played on period instruments (see here). As with Zimerman, I don't agree with everything, or I wouldn't play/record all of it in the same way, but, to name just one aspect of Tom's recording, his improvised ornamentation is nothing short of delicious. Some pictures of his adorn the cover and the inside of the booklet, but there is so much more. Four essays deal with the perspectives of those involved in the project: "Beethoven’s Broadwood, Stein’s Hearing Machine, and a Trilogy of Sonatas", "The Deaf Composer and His Broadwood: A Working Relationship", "The Acoustics of Beethoven’s Hearing Machine", "Recording Beethoven’s Broadwood: A Tonmeister’s Perspective"; bonus materials include "Building the Stein/Broadwood Hearing Machine: A First-hand Report from Beethoven’s Conversation Books" and videos that are available on an accompanying website. All was clearly devised to be enjoyed by experts and laymen alike, and a fine balance was found between the diverse elements of the project as well as between the various demands of marketing a CD and demonstrating artistic creativity.

Friday, April 07, 2017

New professorship

The University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz (KUG) is offering a fulltime professorship in Artistic Research, beginning with the winter semester 2017/18. Minimal monthly salary is €4891,10 brutto.

The call can be found on the university’s Career Service Center website (download the bilingual "Universitätsprofessur für künstlerische Forschung in Musik" PDF here). Details with regards to tasks include management of their artistic doctoral school (currently 11 students), independent research, teaching, setting up an artistic research center, acquiring third party funding, supervision of doctoral and master students, international networking, and admin. A doctoral degree is prerequisite, as is artistic status. Women and persons with special needs will be given preference in the case of equal qualification. Written applications need to be submitted before May 31, 2017.  

This is very exciting, as such openings are still extremely rare. Slowly, EU conservatoires have begun to appoint AR doctores to head their bachelor and master curricula, but at the university level a professorship is still almost exclusively the prerogative of musicologists. Their lack of artistic on-stage expertise – visible in the type of research their departments engage in, as well as in the way their doctoral students approach their topics – is mostly (though not always successfully) compensated for by including an artist in the doctoral supervising team. Moreover, a post-doc problem lies in the fact that without a university position the researchers' options for securing external funding can be severely limited. Between the very large EU grants and the small private trusts there is a huge gap that is best addressed by appealing to national funding agencies, for which typically a university affiliation is required. In terms of output, this problem can be felt in an imbalance of project size.

Kudos to the KUG – may many more such initiatives follow!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Florence Principles

At their latest conference, in a Northern Italian city not far from where the oldest university has seen the start of a process leading to the third third cycle degree in Europe, the European League of the Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) presented their position paper on the doctorate in the arts: The Florence Pinciples. It follows a string of reference documents issued in recent years, each marking an ever firmer grip on doctoral training and therefore AR in  the approximately 280 European institutions that offer research degrees in the arts. With the European University Association's 2005 Salzburg Recommendations on Doctoral Education (and their 2010 and 2016 follow-ups Salzburg II Recommendations and Taking Salzburg Forward), the 2011 European Commission’s Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training, the 2013 European Association for Architectural Education's Charter for Architectural Research, and the AEC's 2015 White Paper on AR (see also here), the institutional community have come full circle in bringing together both matters and formulating their views on them collectively after  years of tentatively coming to terms with the challenges from individual perspectives. 

Besides the typical points of interest, such as appropriate funding, embedding in institutional policy, critical mass, etc., especially noteworthy have been the Salzburg Recomendations' confirmation of advancement of knowledge through original research, the aim at diversity, and recognising pre-docs as early stage researchers; Salzburg II wanting to steer away from the traditional one-on-one supervision model; the European commission adding exposure to industry & other relevant employment sectors; the third Salzburg position's interest in engagement with non-academics; the EAAE expressing the need for specific and inclusive types of communicating knowledge within research and spanning artistic and scholarly projects. Worthwhile adding in this respect is SHARE's Handbook for Artistic Research Education, identifying examples of best practice and offered a Toolkit for curriculum building.

ELIA, Florence Principles, artistic research

According to the Florence Principles, the strategic areas in the international debate include formats for presenting and disseminating output, best practices, supervisors, doctoral programmes, and career perspectives. Some of their "seven points of attention" are deserving of specific attention, indeed. Already in the preamble to the Seven Points, it is striking how artistic aspects seem dominant. To "make an original contribution in their discipline" [my emphasis], "develop artistic competence", "extend artistic competence", "create and share new insights by applying innovative artistic methods" during the doctoral studies leaves plenty of room for the candidates to allow for e.g. a new painting or composition to be the knowledge contribution. What "innovative artistic methods" might be is a mystery to me - they may not be intended to be musical. 

For Career Perspectives, it is envisaged that holders of doctoral degrees in the arts can "enter (or continue) an academic career at a higher education institution and/or enter/continue their careers as artists." In its simplest meaning, this may be taken as the wish for doctores in the arts to continue to do research rather than returning to the stage and the classroom. As valuable as an objective that is, it would be even more exciting if academic positions (i.e. university professorships) become available to artistic researchers so that they may join the pool of researchers that can apply for grants that are limited to university employees.

Under Doctoral Work, it is stated that the project "uses artistic methods and techniques" and that it "consists of original work(s) of art and contains a "discursive component" (note the hesitance to put "written component" in writing) that critically reflects upon the project and documents the research process". Again, this can easily be understood as performing a number of recitals or handing in a newly composed opera, accompanied by an ultimately negligeable written analysis or logbook. More cryptically, it is stated that internationalism, interdisciplinarity and interculturality "can benefit from doc programmes in the arts".

Research Environment with a critical mass of faculty and doctoral researchers, all of them artistic researchers, is rightfully commended. 

As for Supervision, "at least two supervisors are recommended". It is not explained why and how that function is split, but my guess is that the shortage of artistic researchers with the ius promovendi causes the supervising teams to necessarily consist of a university professor and an artist in order to attain an equilibrium of academic and artistic expertise. 

Finally, the attention point of Dissemination mentions - of course - the need for appropriate channels and peer-review. More interesting, though also not further elaborated upon, is the effort that is stated to be needed in order to "create adequate archives for results of doc work". It is also good to see open access claimed as a guiding principle.

All in all, the historical weight of the visual arts in this discourse is again noticeable, as it has been in the SHARE handbook and elsewhere. Whether the developing committee of the Florence Principles, with one musician among four visual artists, effectively represents the current balance of involved institutional parties is a question that I look forward to seeing treated on its own. Also curious: the European University Association - representing the institutions with the actual degree-awarding power - is not among the interest groups listed as supporting and endorsing this document, even if it takes their own recommendations as a point of departure. Anyhow, it is stimulating to see how the grey literature evolves steadily towards ever more nuanced positions, with ever clearer vision and purpose.


Monday, March 13, 2017

When Brahms met Debussy

I once had a teacher, Claude Coppens, who had meticulously looked for statistical information among the dynamics in the complete known works of Johannes Brahms. His exercise revealed an extraordinarily high number of “mezzo”-dynamics (mpmf), leading him to conclude that Brahms was to be seen as a representative of German Impressionism.

Other evidence of a deep-seated link between Brahms and Impressionism, this time with one of its more readily known proponents, Claude Debussy, is now available and provides me with an excellent and long awaited opportunity to introduce two of my favorite colleagues: pianist Anna Scott and tenor Valentin Gloor. They collaborated in a unprecedented investigation of two meetings that the older Brahms had with the much younger Debussy in Vienna in 1887. Apart from the regular type of decorative Auseinandersetzung, Anna and Valentin strikingly complete the picture with a stylistic exploration into an alternate version of one of Debussy’s songs and a posthumously reconstructed Brahms fragment, both dedicated to each other. See and listen for Anna’s and Valentin’s findings in this video recording of a remarkable presentation:  

Anna Scott, Brahms, Debussy, artistic research

Anna Scott rose to AR fame with her doctoral work on how to perform Brahms at the piano in a style that is now lost (see here for downloading her dissertation). I found epiphanic pleasure in experiencing the consequences of Anna's research during one of the workshops she has been conducting, when I physically felt the difficulties in learning to adapt my performance style to the discoveries that characterise her project.

Valentin Gloor, Debussy, artistic research

Valentin Gloor is among the Orpheus Institute's best kept secrets. Not only is he one of the very few artistic researchers active in matters of the voice, he also developed his own brand of taking a theatrical angle from which to present his work. It is a real shame that so few videos of his projects are to be found - see here for one more.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Dead or alive

Any performer active in new music has experienced it when working with living composers: they aren't necessarily the Holy Grail of answers to the questions we may have about their pieces. The previous sentence sounds perhaps odd, as if it is a choice not to work with a dead composer. But we all do want to communicate with the composers of the music we want to play, whether we interpret what they wrote in letters two centuries ago or what they are going to say to us during the dress rehearsal for tomorrow's world première. In other words: it can be as difficult to get the information you want from a living composer as from a dead composer.

This may be one of the reasons that musicology has been mostly interested in the deceased. Other reasons are of course the convenience of a closed oeuvre and of an extensive literature to build upon, but these should be outweighed easily by the advantages of investigating living beings and their actions, one would think. Besides the fundamental urge to assess the act of (co-)creation without the distorting prism of the score, there is the prospect of insights unique to dialogue and common context (e.g. contemporaneity of language, research focus and perspective, knowledge,...). Nevertheless, research into living composers is often not much more than a way to propagate those composers’ ideas. In this regard, Ian Pace’s thorough critique on such spokesman-musicology is certainly valid for quite a few more cases than the one involving Brian Ferneyhough. I remember vividly the awkwardness of seeing David Osmond-Smith read a paper on Berio with the composer sitting next to him, and how nobody knew who to address with a question during the Q&A session. Or how Kagel visibly – dare I say “theatrically” – nodded or shook his head (dis)approvingly during each consecutive presentation at a conference in his honor.

Henry Cowell, artistic research, writing about contemporary artists

It is none the less good to see that recent music is the object of study. It is not a very recent evolution, but there seems to always have been a kind of schism between those who scrutinize long bygone eras and those who look around themselves. The moving wall between them, gradually shifting with time at the speed of about a generation, represents defining lines between interests as well as methods. Already in 1933 Henry Cowell published a book “to present the composer’s own point of view”.* Some of the rationale behind the “experiment unprecedented in musical history” demonstrates a sense of critical perspective, such as the urge to display diversity (“Special consideration was given to composers who are developing indigenous types of music”), or the doing away with any "pretense of being complete”. (Cowell 1933, v) Other aspects betray a level of superficiality, however: while ostentatiously called “a symposium”, there was never a conference and it is reasonable to assume that Cowell oversaw and controlled the whole enterprise himself rather than organize a peer process to work out the content; contributions were sought, and when it was impossible to obtain original ones, articles were reprinted from “various periodicals”. From an academic point of view, there is a thin line between amateurism and journalism.

Interviews are similarly dubious. Since 1969, the Oral History of American Music has been collecting thousands of “voices of the major musical figures of our time” in audio and video interviews. As tempting as these look (and I have not been able to resist them, myself), there is only limited use for them, e.g. to corroborate, negate, or contextualize insights found elsewhere. Investigative journalism never depends on letting the investigated do most of the talking – the interviewer is just another prism. And then there are the multiple issues on the side of the interviewee, not least with regards to purposefully remembering one's own past. (When it comes to wilfully constructing false memories, Cowell has shown himself to be quite skillful.) 

As long as we revere the writings of artists as a product of an oracle, as we so often do their compositions, critical assessment stands little chance. Such issues of “the work” are accompanied by those of power. It is not a coincidence that I added the names of two dead composers to the second paragraph of this text. I could list others – and not just of composers – but I could also name projects of which I had to see the potential vanish into thin air because it became too dangerous to mine the field of knowledge embodied in the mind of the living being who was the object of the study. If I thought myself strong enough to put aside my own ego, that of the other was not so easy to take out of the equation.

Nevertheless, AR can mitigate some of the above concerns. From that perspective, Cowell’s book deserves to be quoted some more, even if his rationale did not include letting composers discuss their own works:

...critical estimates from composers who may not always have a polished literary style but who know their subject, instead of from reviewers who are clever with words but do not know the principles of composition. (Cowell 1933, iii) obtain a synthetic and sympathetic understanding of the aims of any particular composer, why not ask him to relate them himself? He knows more about his aims than anyone else! (Cowell 1933, iii)
Composers who were included had to be persons who could write intelligibly. While literary style is not here the paramount consideration, it must be admitted that some very talented composers have absolutely no ability to set down their ideas in words. (Cowell 1933, iv) was expected from the beginning to reveal as much about its authors as it did about their subjects…(Cowell 1933/62, ix)

To be fair, Cowells aims and ideas need to be seen in their historical context (i.e. reacting against a perceived bias in the reception of "modern" music), all the while taking into account his penchant for combining instruction with provocation. Yet, some of it anticipates ideals and conundrums of AR: today, we still recognize the added value in and the issues with an artist contemplating his/her own practice. But the problems of auto-ethnography overlap with those mentioned above, and the intentionality and poetic fallacies are treacherous at any distance between subject and object.

University of Surrey, Conference, Writing about contemporary artists, artistic research

Institute of Advanced Studies, Conference, Writing about contemporary artists, artistic research

These challenges are very typical of AR, as the researcher necessarily involves his/her artistic practice. Through regular such confrontations in my own research, I am thus simultaneously researching (in-and-through that practice, so to speak) possible ways around the pitfalls, whether investigating living composers or performers. And although I am convinced that enough safeguards can be put in place to make scrutiny of living beings’ actions worth its while, I don’t have all the answers to all of the issues. It is therefore very fortunate that an international, multi-disciplinary three-day conference (with Ian Pace on the board of conveners) is planned to discuss just these matters. Writing About Contemporary Artists: Challenges,Practices and Complexities will be held at Surrey University's Institute for Advanced Studies on October 20-22, 2017. The closing date for sending in abstracts is May 29th, 2017.

The proposals are expected to cover a range of different artistic fields, disciplines, musical genres, methodological perspectives, and types of discourse and artist; to focus upon all forms of writing as well as its conventions and boundaries; and – naturally – to focus on living (or recently deceased) artists. A roundtable proposal is encouraged, “exploring questions around the status of creative practice as a form of research in different arts disciplines.”

Many important reasons to be in Surrey in October!

* Cowell, Henry. American Composers on American Music. A Symposium. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc. 1962 edition. xiv + 226 p.