Friday, April 28, 2023

Sei Solo per due


In 1982, Karlheinz Stockhausen gave a speech to introduce his month-long residency at the conservatoire in The Hague, in which he stated:

I believe in a master, a teacher, only if he is able to play himself – if he cannot play he should not teach – and this explains why I asked to be allowed to bring with me to The Hague the singers, dancers and instrumentalists with whom I have worked for many years so that the young people can see and hear how they work. (Cf. here.) 

The argument is somewhat crooked: clearly, the teaching to be done in The Hague was going to be that of aligning the performance practice of Stockhausen’s works with his compositional intentions. This approach is common in new music, especially with composers who don’t have time to work with musicians on pieces that have already been premiered. When I contacted Kagel to engage with him with regards to his music for the piano, he initially referred me to his trusted Aloys Kontarsky.

For early music practitioners, this exact composer-performer collaboration is obviously not possible, but, inversely, their repertoire benefits from being the object of interest to countless more historians than what recently composed music habitually enjoys. Long before artistic research was formally imagined, musicians who initiated and developed HIP had their noses in period treatises, often with a degree in musicology in their pocket. No wonder that many artistic research PhD candidates are situated in the early music sector, aiming to tailor their performance practice to insights drawn from historiographical research that they carry out themselves.

All the more surprising, then, to see this CD that came out a year ago, featuring both violinist Daniel Auer and musicologist Dagmar Glüxam on its cover, indicating an in-depth collaboration in a project on Affektenlehr and Bach’s works for the solo violin.

According to her CV in the booklet, Dr. Glüxam can be considered an "internationally active" violinist, and her website lists professional concerts as well as having founded her own ensemble with period instruments. For this project, however, she appears  to have preferred to leave the performance of Bach's music to someone else, even if the latter, as heard on a video introducing the project (cf. here), had some initial difficulties identifying with the musicological findings of Dr. Glüxam.

The video promises that the booklet accompanying the CD is "more than a hundred pages", but that is only technically 82, and taking away translations, photographs and bios, we are left with a 32-page German essay. This text starts with the "justification" for this recording, which is stated as (with my highlighting) "[t]his is probably the first one made of an interpretation achieved through consistent application of the principles of affect theory and musical rhetoric." This reads like an odd marketing disclaimer, as if to make sure the project wouldn’t be dismissed as failing to introduce new knowledge other than through the consistency of the application, but claiming it without conviction. An artistic researcher would be expected to know not only the traditional literature on a given topic, i.e. peer-reviewed monographs and articles, but just as well the relevant performance practice, i.e. the recordings of the violinist-peers. In this case, that would have meant that the Sei Solo research were to have been based on the fact that there is, for sure, no such recording yet made, and include a study of what was (not) achieved in those comparable efforts.

I practiced the violin myself, but only for some five years, so I don’t consider myself expert enough to comment on any previous recordings of these Bach pieces, nor on the performance by Auner in this particular CD. I will remark, though, that he states to have used a modern bow and modern tuning. His strings are the Dominant Pro type by Thomastik Infeld (who have "generously supported" the violinist), but on Auner’s personal website, we read (here) that he used "besonderen Barock-Saiten" developed by that company. (On the company’s website, neither I nor a professional violinist-colleague of mine found any mentioning of such special strings.) The explanation for the non-period tuning and bow is limited to claiming that the project’s concepts “need not be restricted to specialists on period instruments”. While I certainly see value in attempting to reach out with the affect theory to violinists who play in otherwise non-HIP ways, it would have been impossible for an artistic researcher to leave the consequences unaddressed. In fact, whereas the essay includes the discussion of "interpretive consequences", of translating an understanding "accurately into sound", and criticizes modern performances of lacking an adequate distinction between "light" and "heavy" playing, it is hard not to wonder why no wider framework of HIP and related in-depth concerns have been looked into.

I do have extensive experiences as recording supervisor, and to read about how

On a harmonic level, the severity of a dissonance (as well as the length of the tone in question) dictates the performer’s dynamic approach: the "harsher" the chord and the longer the notes, the more emphatic or even more aggressive the dynamic needed to evoke the intended affect.

makes me notice even more how sharp and crisp the violin sounds in all of the sonatas and partitas, and not just when a tritone takes centre stage. It also leaves the impression that at least some of the types of "pronunciation" have not solely been a matter of playing, but also of capturing the sound in the studio. But how to appreciate the differences, then?

All in all, I really enjoyed listening to and reading about this project. But as it is of little relevance to my expertise, I have refrained from buying Glüxam’s book Aus der Seele muβ man spielen. While the volume promisingly contains almost 1000 pages, filled with what looks like an exceedingly detailed treatment of the affect theory, it is prohibitively priced at 198€, with a discount of one cent for the pdf.

This is certainly not the first project for which a musician takes into account the work of a musicologist. To my knowledge, though, it is the first time that the scholar gets equal representation on the promotional level. Glüxam may have demanded to visualize her involvement, given the fact that the project was funded (cf. here). Strange, then, that her personal website has no mentioning of this particular output of the collaboration, other than listing the monograph and the Wiener Urtext Edition. On the other hand, and thinking back to what I noticed in a new DGG recording with Zimmerman playing Schubert (see here), this Bach CD may be yet another way in which a label searches for new power in attracting the attention of potential buyers.

In any case, this effort may be the first in a new tradition of giving musicologists more credit for their work, helping them in turn to valorize their efforts in establishing social relevance. It may also point to a possible change in attitude: in a conversation I had with a music theorist, a decade ago, about the potential for music theory to develop insights that could be of use to performers, he argued that scholars should be left to decide for themselves what they wanted to research. Of course, with my nose deep into matters of artistic research, my most pressing feeling is that of looking forward to this project, itself, being investigated from an artistic research perspective. We could then learn more about what things are like when the master is doing the playing.