Individualism in performance

A couple of months ago, the great american pianist Leon Fleisher gave two masterclasses at the Eastman school of music. Although i could only attend to one, i was deeply shocked by some of the comments he had on modern performance. (I will paraphrase what Leon Fleisher said)  “Now a days , performers are only interested in showing off what they feel… of course, this makes a strong impact on the audience and suddenly , no one is listening to the music any more, we are just looking at the performers expressiveness. This generation is forgetting about appreciating what the composer really intended and not what the performer is trying to show.”

This reminded me of a experience i had a couple of years ago when i saw the Berlin philharmonic perform a series of concerts which featured the Schumann a minor piano concerto. For this concerts they had invited Maurizio Pollini and Lang Lang to perform the same concerto on different dates. I attended both concerts, and the difference between both performances was unbelievable . Pollini hardly ever moved, he was so focused on creating the right sound and texture to make his phrasing the way he thought Schumann might have wanted it . (He is a classic example of an old school pianist.) While Lang Lang was the total opposite, he would whisper to the keyboard, he would constantly show facial expressions and would not stop moving …. honestly, you could not concentrate any more on listening to the concerto since everything was so acted.

John Stuart Mill argued that the best way to live is by being yourself, individuality creates geniuses and makes everyone happy, but i think that now a days , individuality of performers is just destroying the individuality of the composer we are supposedly entitled to represent. Of course, Lang Lang must be a very happy guy, he is quiet an individual (just look at the cover of every single album of his), but he puts his own personality on top of the composer way too much and this can be very irritating to a certain degree.  We suddenly stop celebrating the individuality of a composer and his genius to elevate the personality of the performer.

Of course, this is not only seen in classical music. When i first came to the USA, i had the chance to watch the popular tv show  The Voice which features top pop artist of the moment such as Shakira, Adam Levine, C low and country music star Blake Shelton as judges. Through the show the contestants have to pick a song every week and perform it. Usually the songs they pick are good, ive heard music from great bands such as Guns n roses, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Aerosmith, but what most of the contestant do is, they pick a song and then they do a choreography or type of dance which doesn’t really fit in the type of music they are singing . However , for the judges this clearly highlights the individualism of the contestants by being themselves and innovating . For me , this totally breaks the essence of what some songs are supposed to be about.

Now a days , we are just interested in celebrating the individuality of performers and how original they can be, but we are forgetting about respecting the individuality of the composers who made all the music happen. Lets try to think about that.

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5 Responses to Individualism in performance

  1. dkeezing says:

    This is an issue that I struggle with as a performer myself and as someone who watches many performances. It’s difficult, because ideally you need to find a balance. Something my teacher always says is that the most effective performances are the ones in which the player’s hands, mind, and heart are working equally well. That is to say, you need your hands to be working well so you’re actually capable of executing your ideas; you need to be familiar with the style of composition, time period of the piece, composer’s intentions, etc, or else your musical decisions might not make much sense; and, you need to develop a personal, emotional attachment to the music, so that your gestures are heartfelt and individual. I think the most powerful performances I’ve seen are one’s in which these three factors are accounted for, but I also think there is something to be said for a performance that is very individual and might slightly askew the composer’s intentions (and, of course, the notion of what the “composer’s intentions” might have been can vary from time period to time period, composer to composer). Basically, I would take a performance that is extremely heartfelt and emotionally potent but is lacking in some understanding of the composer’s intentions over a performance that is very exact in executing the composer’s ideas (whatever they may be), but lacks a sense of raw emotional connection to the musical gestures. It would be nice to have both, but if it were a choice, I’d chose the former. And I think most audience members who aren’t conservatory trained musicians would, as well. It’s difficult to put this into Millian terms, because we’re talking about two different individuals with potentially two different desires. The idea of utilitarianism is useful for this purpose, because we can ask the question, “What decision on the part of a performer/interpreter would result in the greatest happiness for the largest number of people?” The scenario of a performer taking many liberties might make a lay audience happy, but it might isolate people who are more musically literate (how often do classical musicians criticize Lang Lang, despite how popular he is with the general public?). This is incredibly difficult to do, but the way for a performer to bring about the greatest happiness for the most people is to immerse him/herself in the culture of the music he/she is playing and strive to understand it better or as well as anyone alive. In this way, your musical choices will be very informed, and you’ll have developed a deep emotional connection to the music, which will be readily apparent to anyone listening. You’ll be able to take liberties while playing Schumann that enhance the drama of the music in a way that a performer in the 19th century might have taken liberties. That is a very utilitarian approach to performing a piece of music.

  2. scter117 says:

    Often I hear the idea that the way to bring young people back to the Concert Hall is to recreate how we perform old, famous pieces. However, the composers are not being given the due justice in such a action. While I admire the effort to make Concert Halls popular again, changing the way we perform Beethoven’s 9th is not the way to do that. Instead, perhaps its time we make new age Symphonies and Operas. By new age I mean in the context (musical, and cultural) of today. While stern classical lovers may be offended or upset, adding drums or electronic instruments to the orchestral stage and perform pieces inspired by the world’s mot famous songs might change the tickets bought dramatically.
    If performers want to display their amazing abilities, instead of OVERPLAYING a written piece they should write their own. While that is easier said then done, such a change of thought just might lead to amazing pieces and performances that showcase the individualism of that person to the utmost degree.

  3. andymaskiell says:

    This, among a few other things, is probably one of the conflicts in the music world I have heard discussed the most. Having studied both composition and performance, I think I have a little foot in both doors.

    On one hand, many composers often had a very clear image for their music (or at least we have come to accept this notion based on writings/letters/etc. about or by the composer). Brahms, for instance, was apparently pretty much more of a stickler for interpreting what was on the page, and I know of several teachers who absolutely discourage rubato in places where Brahms did not write it himself. However, sometimes the point of a piece is PRECISELY to show off the performer; a lot of pieces written by people like Wieniawski and Paganini fit into this category and I’ve had many people say that THESE are the composers who performers should take plenty of liberties with, less so with people like Schumann and Brahms.

    On the other, I know the temptation to make musical decisions in places which are either not indicated by the composer or which go against the composer’s markings is hard to suppress. Perhaps because of my compositional studies I tend to do this less than I used to, but I remember that before that training those impulses and temptations were much more prevalent in my practicing. I would argue that most composers (except for people like Elliot Carter…. I believe it was David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet who said that Carter was insistent that they play his piece as precisely 72.4 BPM) want you to make decisions about their music that are not written. To an extent, it’s impossible to avoid hearing an individual in any given performance: between timbre, vibrato, timing, etc. everyone is different.

    For me, I don’t think it’s a question of which of these is better, but encouraging people to have a balance of both. Perhaps objections to Lang Lang is that, as Daniel said, “he puts his own personality on top of the composer way too much.” It’s not that Lang Lang’s importance in making “himself” heard is a bad gesture, but that he is, in a way, doing disservice to the music by overshadowing the brilliance of Schumann or whatever he happens to be playing. On the flip side of this, many people make fun of Yo-yo Ma’s recording of the Cello Suites by Bach for the opposite reason; they feel that he is so conservative in his approach that there is no personality at all in his interpretation.

    As far as using utilitarianism as a judge of artistic success, I think that is one that is ultimately doomed to fail. How do you measure people’s happiness? Even if 500 people supposedly love a performance of a piece, how does that fare if 100 people love it so much that their pleasure somehow surpasses that of the larger group? It’s such a suggestive unit of measurement that I think it would ultimately drive many performers insane, constantly trying to tailor their playing to please an audience that is always changing in order to achieve something that is unmeasurable (at least not at all tangibly).

    For Mill’s relation to all this, I think he would actually value all of these interpretations, since they foster discovery about not only the piece being performed, but also your own tastes, ideas, and, for musicians, ways in which they would perform that piece differently. This is one of the many reasons why he ultimately treasures individuality, especially in something like the arts.

    Oh, and I have the feeling Lang Lang’s success is just capitalist nonsense. More ticket sales =/= better music, it just means more profit (most likely not the performer).

  4. Its true, we need to find a balance as performers and we must never leave a side what the composer is trying to show. I think Andy makes a good point about show pieces, they are indeed compose in order to show how GOOD a performer is technically, however, when we go to the big composers such as Schummann , Brahms or Shostakovich , we need to find a balance between our personality and what the composer originally was trying to show. However , i think now a days we need to try to play new music as much as we can . By having the composers alive, we have a better opportunity to understand what they really meant and they will be able to give performers ideas on what new things they can do in order to make their pieces sound different or experiment with them.

  5. jlau4 says:

    I found this post to be quite interesting, because it is a very relevant dilemma as a performing artist. I believe it is important to somehow strike a balance between following the composer’s intentions while adding a little bit of personal flare to a piece. Mill would obviously promote expressing individuality, and certain contemporary pieces allow a lot of room for the soloist or ensemble to decide what musical direction they want to take. I find it hard to determine the utilitarian side of things because music is so subjective to personal tastes and they are always subject to change, so I end up going back to Mill’s support for the individual desires of the performer.

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