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The macro end of interpretation?

March 9, 2009 at 10:38 PM


more idle thoughts.... to make an interpretation emerge from the instrument is best understood in technical terms.  Suppose one were to call this the micro end of the interpretation construction scale..  Without the big picture (macro) at the other end one is not really going to know what to use the tools for.  A few examples for want of anything better to do;)
One of the greatest versions of the Sibelius was by Heifetz. He felt that in order to play it well he needed to visit its place of origin.  This is a very simple but profound thing to me. In my mind one can have a greater sense of what one is trying to achieve in Italian baroque sonatas for example, if one has strolled around and soaked the architecture of Florence, Venice and so forth. One reason I think Oistrakh could play the Sibelius so well was his long and bitter experiences travelling across hideous frozen expanses to perform for a handful of fur wrapped babushkas.
One of my favorite concert works is a set of deceptively simple pieces by Martinu. The notes take about ten minutes to learn but I wasn’t really getting it. After I read about how he was a sick child and his father used to carry him up a tall bell tower (his work place) everyday and leave him staring out of the window at the sky I felt I could visualize the kinds of sound he was trying to get on paper. But it still didn’t resolve the issue of the awkward accents and sudden time changes in the fast movements so I asked my accompanist who just happens to be Czech what the intention of this was. He told me that in olden times, rural wedding held in bars included bands that had a peculiar quirk. They would be playing along as normal and then out of boredom or whatever would suddenly throw in a different riff as a competition between friends to see if they could trip one and other up.  By imagining precisely this scenario at a drunken wedding party the whole picture finally made sense to me. And what could be more complete than a disembodied view of passing clouds and the earthy clunk of farmer’s boots on a muddy floor?
One of my favorite conducters here in Japan is called Imura. He is primarily an opera conductor and brings many of the ideas he gleans from this field across to his orchestral work. Time and time again he stops the orchestra and asks specific players `What image, what character do you see here? What are you actually trying to represent?` This is really crucial in Japan because such an approach is truly rare.   One of the few times I have conducted I was working on Carmen and it was clear that the orchestra, although of a relatively high standard for amateurs, was not at all clued into  what it was about.  I talked a litlte about the image I had of Carmen as this incredible fiery gypsy woman dancing around a fire with a slit skirt and little beads of sweat on exposed leg. Dark flashing eyes etc. It seemed the point was well taken and as we began again I got an astonishing image from the music being produced. There was a campfire but the woman dancing around it was not only wearing a kimono but doing the exact opposite of what Carmen would do because Japanese women tend to express sexuality by what you don’t see.  It was an extraordinary example of how musicians were unable to transcend their own cultural mores to achieve a specific end.
Probably you play the Mozart e minor violin sonata. That was written at the time of his mothers death and to my mind, is a very deep reflection on this and how life changes. Reading the Mozart letters is important , but just keeping this thing in mind tends to prevent one from banging out the violin chords with a triumphant `Look at me!` as so many students seem to want to do.  They are a gentle full stop. A metaphor for one life ending and a muted celebration of continuity in the stately dance of the second movement..
Hope this amused,

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 11:11 PM

Interesting!  Very funny!   I think it is great to try to remain faithful to the composer's view the way you explained it!  It is a great pretext to travel or at least to travel or learn things through the net!  About Mozart, I love to play his music because some of his violin concertos have been written when he was 20 (or around this age I think, I would have to check to be sure) about the same age as me now. At 20 you have to be serious but you still like to tell jokes, to be a big child when you are on holidays!  Mozart has to be played with the heart of a child, in my humble opinion! One must look to have fun and it is not something with a big drama.  (there is some exceptions though) Also, I have always loved very much Bach and Vivaldi stuff (student or easy concertos).  At the time where I played those, as a late starter, I have always had this great will to give my all.  This music was fantastic to start with because the emotions are so powerful and this "will" to play the violin could really be well expressed in these because I think Italians and German also have this will and strong character!  Talking about the winter, Glen Gould, this virtuoso of the piano, loved so much the north that he moved in nordic places in order to compose better. It inspired him... I have heard that it was because he wanted to "freeze" his sexual instincts to give his all to music but I find this last argument a little excentric!  Sibelius, as a scandinavian was also very Nordic in his music according to specialists!   Schostakovich expressed the revolt of the soviets in his music and some like Tchaikovsky or Myakovsky were supposed to be more "melancolic".  We really hear this in their music! Interesting to see the music vs the composer who did it!!!

Good blog,


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 11:52 PM


except that with regard to travelling I think Aristotle was once listening to a friend complaining  about how `Mr X visited many foreign clime s to improve but remianed unchanged.`  To which Aristotle responded `Of course. He went with himself.`

Another important lesson from a dead old Greek dude.



From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 10, 2009 at 12:46 AM

lol! This is like visiting Japan and eat exclusivly in Mc Donald's and stay in american Hotels and claim you were immersed in Japanese culture!  Or take an organise tour and not talk to anyone (except those in the group) because they are oh my god... strangers!    lol


From Royce Faina
Posted on March 10, 2009 at 5:17 PM

Enjoyed this one very much Stephen.  I also like what Anne Marie posted about visiting Japan eatting mc.D, etc., LOL

Where I grew up, there are very tall sand dunes.  Not quite mountains.  It was all I could use to try to imagine Grieg's piece about the halls of the Mountains.  I could never get into that work untill I moved to Wyoming and then traveling through the mountains here, going up one end and down the other, as well as the sights, smells, etc., it just hit me one day, "Oh Yes! Now I Know!"  The wonderful Eurika Moment.

When I go for my 3 mile stroll, depending on that day, the weather, the season, the architecture, it's amazing how it seems to affect how I play whatever I'm working on when I bring that hour and a half back into the aprtment with me.  From now on, I'm going to use what you brought out the next time I'm working on something.  Research it, the composer, the time of it's writting, the culture, the times.  I have done and do this but now with my mind's eye open a bit wider.



From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 11, 2009 at 1:59 AM

This is one of four recent blogs that touch on interpretation including one I posted.

I believe that the goal of interpretation is to realize the composers full intentions including the ones he couldn't notate explicitly. Of course there will be some of the interpreter's vision and art but as much as possible art of the interpreter must be in the spirit of the art of the composer. A strictly personal interpretation is at best a caricature and at worst a burlesque.  

Knowing a composer means knowing his culture, his philosophies, his traditions etc. The best interpreters are themselves composers, albeit typically not at the level of the artists they interpret. 

We are mistaken when we think that a composer mainly had some inarticulate intuitions that we have to realize in some personal way. All the great composers were great thinkers and had access to great thoughts and great minds. Most of them were well informed about the religious traditions of Western Europe even if they were not themselves believers. In any event they were steeped in a culture that was religious to the core and could not have avoided religious ideals on the nature of God, creativity etc. no matter their personal beliefs. (It is common to say that many of them were irreligious but while many rejected the outward practice of religion they had very deep beliefs about God.)

They were also incredibly well trained musicians. They knew a lot more theory, harmony and counterpoint than anyone can cram into a college textbook and they knew it very profoundly. There is a book on Bach that illustrates this very well. 

An authentic interpretation must reveal the composer and his muse to us far more than the interpreter. A straightforward performance of the score without ugliness is apt to be far more rewarding to a listener than some reinvention of the piece in the name of personal interpretation. 


From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 11, 2009 at 4:28 AM

So true about the importance of having the macro picture at the other end, Buri! Certain things I would never have learned about Italian music had I not soaked myself in Venice and Florence, or about Dvorák and Martinu, had I not visited Czech Republic.

This is same with paintings. It’ll make so much more sense to a western artist about Chinese scenery paintings, for instance, if she/he has visited China and have actually seen how the mountains, trees and water look like there.

On the other hand, the difficulty in transcending one’s own cultural is not unique to musicians. Reading western sinologists’ works has always been more entertaining to me than educational about Chinese culture. Not they are getting things wrong so much as they don’t seem to be able to get it just right. Being married to a well-respected western sinologist (a specialist in Chinese ancient poetry to be specific) myself, I’m quite comfortable with the notion that even the most authentic/ objective interpretation of a historical work must be a representational product of the interpreter’s own culture.

What is not accessible should not be expected to reveal. Ought implies can (i.e., we ought not if we cannot). How accessible for instance was Mozart’s intent behind his violin concerto #5 to Oistrakh? How much is it accessible to a great concert violinist in Turkey?

One of my favourite contemporary philosophers Bas van Fraassen once said to me that he didn’t mind his work being misinterpreted by non-English speaking philosophers; as long as it generated thinking and creativity, it was a worthy endeavour. Now, this is what I call enlightenment.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 11, 2009 at 5:14 AM


Yixi,  its interesting talkign about something as nebuluos as `culture.`   When we pose questions like just how distanced wa sOistrakh (for example) from the culture of Mozart (relative I suppose to a modern violnist form Salzburg) I think part of the answe rlies in his memebership of another culture .  By that I mean that for better or worse w eare all part of a very narrow sub-culture called `the violin` and that may well serve as a bridge between the various worlds. 



From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 12, 2009 at 3:10 PM

Just a little anecdote on visualisation. Your Carmen made me laugh but it's obvious such a vision can be perfect for you but not for a bunch of Japanese ladies. Unstead tell to the ladies that it is a well made fiery gypsy man etc who is dancing around the camp fire and see the reaction!  If it is a unisex orchestra, tell the two versions. We must not forget that two genders are actually playing and you must motivate the two :)

With my first teacher, I played a spanish piece.  He once told me, make it more spanish, think about a woman spanish dancer with a red dress, black chinion etc I replied that I couldn't because I was not ...   So he said, oh then think of a nice spanish man and the resault was immidiate from what I remembered! 

Can always try this and see...


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 12, 2009 at 11:20 PM

and the more ambivalent?

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