I, too, was gone for the weekend, at a Stanford symposium titled “Reactions to the Record.” The basic idea was to examine not only early recordings themselves and what they document about changes in performance style, but also how recordings and recording culture have changed the musical consumer culture, music making itself even, and how the study of recordings has changed academic musical study. Ultimately, the idea of “reactions” to the record implies a kind of interaction between listener and recorded performance—How do we learn from what we hear? How do recordings change our approach to performance?—more than passive listening, or consumption. Many people there were both performers on some level and writer/researchers—a lively, lively community.
This was a real party. Lots of intense conversation, in meetings and over meals, about topics of mutual concern. Now, this is not academic chit-chat about salaries and so on; we are exchanging as much information as possible, as fast as possible, about topics that hold the most burning interest for us. Those present included a vast majority of performer-scholars, including conductor and NY Times critic Will Crutchfield, musicologist Richard Taruskin, the pianists Anatole Leikin, Kumaran Arul, and George Barth (both to be found here; George was my doctoral advisor), all three superbly intelligent and sensitive musicians, Malcolm Bilson, Andrew Rangell (here’s a review), Jazz historian and composer (and Dean at SMU) José Bowen, recording historian Robert Philip, and quite a few others. Cool people to hang with! What is particularly enjoyable is a gathering of souls interested in the same general subject, an interaction of performance and performance history and criticism that excludes so many interested in only one of the areas. Whatever was played, you knew people were really, I mean really, listening—listening intelligently, with thoughts and reactions and real appreciation. Yeah, the stakes were punishingly high (I played first on the first concert, without having touched the piano that day), but it was extremely rewarding to be part of that.
There were two concerts, and I enjoyed everyone. A talented and razor-sharp young graduate student from UC San Diego named Jeffrey Treviño played Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, the first time I’ve heard that inside-the-piano classic live. Anatole Leikin played some Granados and Skryabin, two composers whose piano-roll recordings he has studied, so his approach to these composers’ rhythmic inflections as pianists comes directly from them. George Barth played Brahms and Chopin with real eloquence (especially the Chopin Barcarolle, Op. 60). Three performances in particular, though, will illustrate how a conference like this can work, and the kinds of doors it can open.
Malcolm Bilson is one of the real pioneers of fortepiano performance, and has built a long career playing Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven on various fortepianos, carefully noting how various pieces reflect the capabilities of the pianos for which they were written, and acknowledging the complications of playing such works on different instruments. Bilson played Schumann’s Waldscenen on a Graf piano…like an absolute god. Querulous entry into the forest, haunted spot, hunting song, you name it; we were plopped down in the middle of a nineteenth-century German forest-tale, with all the ghoulies and beasties, evocative images, and delicious terrors one might expect to find therein. So, here we had a wonderfully effective performance of a historical work on an appropriate historical instrument.
Kumaran Arul played, among other things, Chopin Mazurkas, and he has clearly internalized the composer’s celebrated Polish agogic rubato, in which the beats of a measure in three-four time are inflected so that they seem to be in duple. This is a terribly difficult thing to do persuasively, because it is a style that was extraordinary long ago, worth comment even in Chopin’s time. So, while in a sense a historically inappropriate instrument (a big, modern, 350-horsepower Steinway is a far cry from Chopin’s preferred Pleyel of the 1830s), the historically appropriate technique absolutely sold the playing, making the pieces vibrant via access to the old rhythmic vocabulary.
Andy Rangell, a Boston-based pianist, did a fascinating experiment: he played the Bach D Minor French Suite and Schoenberg’s Suite Op. 25…trading movements from each, dovetailing them so to speak. As the composers intended? Of course not; impossible. Yet, threads appeared. Hearing Schoenberg after Bach highlights the German heritage that underscores Schoenberg’s work, especially in terms of rhythmic impetus, and to hear Bach again after Schoenberg is to have your aural palate cleaned. To hear them alternate in dance-suite mode was just a banquet, and Rangell plays both superbly. These interlineated suites made for some of the most refreshing and thought-provoking listening I can remember. The piano was more or less appropriate for the Schoenberg; of course, historically utterly inappropriate for the Bach. Rangell plays Bach incomparably, and I am in complete agreement about Bach belonging on the piano, but I bring up historical appropriateness to point up the varieties of approach we encountered at this meeting (no orthodoxy or narrowness, please).
This is academic life at its highest point. Hail, George and Kumaran, who put the meeting together! Being involved was a real privilege. Now, I have to see if there’s a reasonable publishing venue for my paper, which involved a lot of recordings.
And now I’m back trying to put out fires and catch up. Heigh-ho—this is academic life at a far more typical point.