As promised in my previous blog about Schumann in Toronto, going back – again – to these negative reviews which have started to make me think about expression in music, I will try to express my thoughts about it, since I am very much aware of the fact that these are not just some critics believing I am not expressive enough, but also many cellists .
Seemingly there is no right or wrong anymore in music making. Anything goes, there are no borders to how expressive, slow, fast, loud, soft any piece may be played. The other day a famous pianist played one of the Rachmaninov Concertos in 57 minutes – the composer himself took for the same piece about 30 minutes. I am convinced Rachmaninov was right, I like the rather introvert approach, not the “heart on the sleeve” kind of expression. For me it easily becomes vulgar and over the top. But who is to say that I am right? Maybe the famous pianist was right and it was much more expressive?
I see a similarity with food: my wife for a certain while started to put more and more salt into her delicious Puerto Rican dishes, and after a while I didn’t like the restaurant food anymore, because it seemed not salty enough, not “enough taste”, not enough expression if you like. We got used to the high amount of salt she added at home – luckily we realized it and forced our taste back to a lower amount, since it is not good for your health, I guess. But also you can taste more of the food you are eating when it is not drained in salt. Same for sweets: especially in the US everything has become so much sweeter that I don’t even eat desert here anymore. I used to love eating the raisin scones offered in the bakeries and Starbucks – now they all have this heavy sugar coating on top that it is impossible for me to enjoy the taste.
But obviously people consume and like this. So I guess something similar is happening to music and maybe especially to cello playing. I truly believe that if Feuermann would be reincarnated and playing the way he used to play, people wouldn’t get it. Far too refined and subtle, far too intimate, not outgoing enough for nowadays taste. Is it worse or better? It doesn’t matter, this is the time we live in. The development of the vibrato speaks for itself. We all use too much of it, and it can easily be a turn-off for new listeners who don’t know that “a lot of vibrato means lots of emotion”. Because this is wrong – emotions are not created by the way how much we vibrate, but what we do with the music altogether, not with some hornily vibrated single notes.
I heard string players vibrate without any sense on some “comfortable” long notes in an almost sexual way, followed by some notes without any expression. No, not every note has to be vibrated, but there has to be some kind of sense and continuity behind it, not just where it is technically comfortable “to go for it”. I find it very helpful to practice entire pieces without vibrato and to try to find the expression solely in the way I use the bow. Articulation, different bow speeds and weight, sometimes more into the string, sometimes on the surface – it’s challenging, because we are so used to rely on the vibrato as our “expression-machine”.
At least these are things related to the music making. An other aspect of “too much sugar in music making” are the gestures some musicians put on. No, I won’t mention any names, I am sure you can come up with a couple of names yourself 🙂 But here is one very interesting story which I’ll make very short:
This is an experiment in Hannover, where several critics and musicians where invited to hear some pianists in a studio. They didn’t know that the three pianists played playback, miming the exactly same recording. The only difference was the way they acted behind the piano. The first one was totally calm (like Horowitz and most pianists from old times), the second one moved in a moderate way, and the third one threw his arms, shook his head, just the full monty of some of today’s pianists.
Well, guess what – 85% of the viewers thought, the last one was the most expressive, purely musically speaking, while the thought the first one was just boring. Are all these people superficial, or is it just a fact that in a live performance we also listen with our eyes. Yes, the charisma counts, it is important, and I don’t mind at all people moving expressively on stage. But if this starts replacing the real musical expression I get a bit worried. If it, the so-called “show” becomes the main subject of the players attention, to have a great choreography without any musical statement, music itself is in trouble.
And if the lack of exaggerated movements, head shaking and extensive groaning is being interpreted as emotionless, it is indeed a bit worrisome. What can one do? Stay unimpressed and focus on the music, would be my first advice, but not to close the eyes in front of the reality either. People want the event, there want the drama on stage, be it real or not. Do we have to give it to them? They pay money to see it, and we live from it. At the same time we have to stay faithful to our musicianship (if there is any) and our believes, we have the duty to show them what we believe is truthful and real, so I guess, for now I won’t change much, just keep on listening to myself and look for true emotion.
The problem is that every musician’s feeling are real, but we don’t know how well we translate them into music, into the hall, where the people are listening…