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 Post subject: Classical vs. Non-classical Revisited
PostPosted: Tue Feb 16, 2010 5:31 pm 
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I am a lifelong composer and pianist, and have been a double bassist with a major American symphony orchestra for over thirty-five years. I have reintroduced this topic as it seemed to degenerate into something that did not do it justice. This is an important topic of which I wish more musicians had a better grasp.

Most of the previous discussion centered on Classical music as a style. But Classical music is no more a style than improvisation. Classical music is a method of creating, communicating, and realizing music. It is most significantly characterized by the fact that the communication is done VISUALLY. A style of music is determined by the way in which the music sounds. As far as I can determine, there are essentially three methods of creating/learning music: to read or write it, to improvise it, and to learn and/or perform the music by ear. Any style of music can be learned, created, or performed by any of these three methods. A Classical musician is someone who makes music by reading it.

That said, there are several characteristics of Classical music which have been brought about by the fact that it IS visual. A composer must know what is going to happen when he or she writes a particular note for a particular instrument with a particular dynamic, length, articulation, etc. A performer must know what those representations mean. Both participants must have an abstract understanding of what is expected. It is this abstraction that makes it "classical". Classical performers (and composers) strive toward certain classical "ideals" of perfection in tone, execution, rhythm, beauty, and, yes, style. Popular or jazz performers, by contrast, strive for individualism in most aspects of their performance. Only a real connoisseur can tell the difference between classical performers, whether individual instrumentalists or ensembles. This is because most classical performers are striving for similar ideals of tone, etc. However, many average listeners have no trouble distinguishing between popular performers and bands. For a popular performer, the more distinctive the better!

Because the music is represented visually, it is subject to the same scrutiny as any other visually represented artwork. Time is represented spatially, and composers (and performers) can grasp, can actually SEE an entire work at once. It can be edited, rewritten, and perfected. Composers have drawn from other visual representations, such as literature and poetry to craft their work in similar ways. Complexly integrated musical form is the direct result of this visual representation.

But these characteristics can be brought to improvisation and aural music as well. When I was growing up, Classical was the "serious" music with other types of music being intellectually and (especially) socially inferior. But what started as "hi-fidelity" recording changed all that. Not only did the great Classical music reach the masses, but ALL music reached the masses, and it reached them without social stereotype. As Marshall McLuhan stated so insightfully in the 1950's, hi-fidelity recording made all music socially equal, because it all emanated from the same two speakers. Very shortly creative stylistic hybrids of all sorts started to emerge, in both Classical and popular music. Slowly the tightly controlled markets began to break-up, and the days of linear stylistic "progress" were gone forever. The internet has continued the job that renegade labels began in the 1950's and 60's. Since the internet took over, it is the availability of music from all over the world that has particularly impressed me.

But there are hybrids in performance as well. Using the big bands of the 1930's and 40's as a model, orchestras have been performing concerts with a soloist or group from another kind of music for 30+ years. With the orchestra, I have performed concerts with Pop and Jazz performers, Rock'n'Roll, Country, Western, Bluegrass, Folk, Celtic bands, African drum ensembles, Gypsy bands, Native American drums, dancers, and vocalists, Native American flutists, a Didgeridoo soloist, Japanese and Chinese instrumentalists and ensembles, and many more. In all cases, the orchestra was playing the STYLE of the artist(s) we accompanied, but we were playing in a Classical manner. It is a hybrid presentation. A recording studio often works in the same way, hiring Classical musicians to "back" a popular artist and writing out their parts.

With multi-track recording and computer technology, the editing, reworking, and spacial organization, once the sole custody of Classical music, have been brought full-force into non-written music. The proliferation of recorded music has also diluted the skill level of Classical musicians. I remember when the Suzuki method of teaching violin came out in the 1960's, it was highly controversial. Learning Classical music by ear was not only blasphemous, it was cheating! Suzuki was just using methods that had been common for millennia in Asia, namely "teacher plays - student imitates." But Suzuki used not only the teacher but recordings of great violinists! Now this has become the norm, and everybody listens to the same performers. I just played a concert in which two local fourteen year-old soloists played movements of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto. Their performances were musical, sensitive, expressive, and technically competent. This would have been unheard of forty years ago. But the ear is much more sensitive than the eye, and its impression runs deeper. When I played rock'n'roll in high school in the 1960's, we routinely played four hour gigs from memory, and we were no prodigies.

The lines delineating Classical music become hazier each year. Most new music we play in the orchestra has been composed in MIDI and transcribed for orchestra. Is this really Classical? It is now! Composers used to take care in how they wrote for performers, as this was their only way to hear their creations. Now composers already know what the music sounds like. Now we get G melodic minor scales with A#'s and Gb's! The orchestra has changed too. For example, we have a trap drummer on contract, and our pianist has to read chord charts.

For most of my composition career, I have worked the in-between area of written music and improvisation. I have transcribed improvisations, used them as models, and used them as material. I have also tried to bring my composition techniques and aesthetics into my improvisation. In all cases, when the music is transcribed, it becomes something different. Try transcribing an improvisation, especially one that was done without reference to preconceived meter (or click track). You will begin to see just how fragile rhythmic notation is. If a musical passage is not CONCEIVED within the metric grid, it can be devilishly difficult to transcribe. What meter? Where is beat one? Meter change or syncopation? Written retard or metric modulation? Classical musicians think their music is very specific, but what makes it unique and dynamic is that it is NOT specific. It is abstract. A classical work is never played the same way twice. An improvisation or aurally conceived work is highly specific. Each sound is exact; each balance is perfect. A MIDI keyboard needs 127 steps to capture real dynamics. A sequencer divides a quarter note into 480 parts to capture real rhythm. An improvisation cannot be accurately transcribed because notation is not specific enough! And what a nightmare it would be if it was! It would make Pierre Boulez look like childsplay!

I am trying to be brief, believe it or not. This is a subject with a thousand side topics. A composer can only give certain clues as to how to perform his music. Imagine how DaVinci's Last Supper would be if DaVinci only wrote instructions as to how it was to be painted. But also imagine how many wonderful interpretations there would be! It is this constant reworking and diversity that makes Classical music the magnificent art form it is.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical vs. Non-classical Revisited
PostPosted: Wed Feb 17, 2010 4:34 pm 
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glenn wrote:
I am trying to be brief, believe it or not. This is a subject with a thousand side topics. A composer can only give certain clues as to how to perform his music. Imagine how DaVinci's Last Supper would be if DaVinci only wrote instructions as to how it was to be painted. But also imagine how many wonderful interpretations there would be! It is this constant reworking and diversity that makes Classical music the magnificent art form it is.


Hello Glenn, and welcome to Piano Society. You have many interesting points - I especially like the last one about following DaVinci's instructions.

I am interested in hearing your opinion about something: If you had to classify ragtime piano music and your choices are only 'classical' piano and 'popular' piano, what would you choose?

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 18, 2010 1:20 am 
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Thanks so much for your cordial reply. I am still finding my "chat" legs, I suppose. I like the DaVinci story also because it gives and idea of what things are like today with recording. Having a composer's own recording of his original classical piano work would be like DaVinci painting his painting AND leaving instructions. It makes for much less originality, and is almost pointless.

To me "classical" is pretty specific, but "popular" is pretty vague. Popular as a style would be difficult to determine. How far would it go? What would be the bounding parameters? "Popular" seems to me to be a social designation, a lot like "commercial". If that is the case, then there would be a LOT of "popular" classical music (and even some "commercial"). What would you say about the Gershwin preludes, or Debussy, or Grieg? What about the movie music of John Williams, Danny Elfman, Henry Mancini, or Bill Conti? What about Johann Strauss or John Phillip Sousa? At some point, it becomes a matter of taste. To me, Joplin is a classical composer that wrote in a ragtime style. Some of his music was popular. Also, I think "popular" as a style used to have more of a linear evolution, with pop radio or MTV, etc. But since the internet, the music world has become a lot more fragmented. All teenagers seem to have their own playlists, and most are wildly different. One of my daughters friends has collected five terabytes of Anime theme and background music! Now that's different!

To me the distinction comes in the kinds of decisions it takes to compose the music. Improvising is intuitive, decisions must be spontaneous simply because you CAN'T stop to think about what you are doing. When composing by ear, you must be able to REMEMBER what you did, and this is quite difficult without simplification, such as a fake sheet, or recording, which is more improvisatory. But classical music is reflective because a composer has the opportunity (even if he or she doesn't) to reflect over every note. Composers write one note at a time, and each note is a decision. Scott Joplin took great care in writing his music, and it has the detail to show for it. Somebody like George Winston, on the other hand, who spontaneously improvised his music and then transcribed it (he probably had somebody else do it) pushes the limits of classical credibility. It is not the fact that he is New Age (there are a lot of classical works that fit that definition!) but that it is "fake" classical music - there are nothing but spontaneous decisions.

Growing up I had a book of pieces transcribed from Dave Brubeck's Time Out album. The tunes were definitive, as I am sure they are for Brubeck, but the solos were transcribed too. Though interesting, this seemed silly, even for a fifteen year old kid.

So to me, classical and popular are not so much apples and oranges, as apples and designer jeans.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 18, 2010 5:59 am 
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Ok, thanks - I think I have a better understanding now. Joplin is a classical composer who wrote in ragtime style. That is why his (and Gershwin's, etc...) music is still 'good' today.

glenn wrote:
Having a composer's own recording of his original classical piano work would be like DaVinci painting his painting AND leaving instructions. It makes for much less originality, and is almost pointless.


I've just a little side note here: So you are saying that it is redundant for the composer to leave behind his recording of his own original piece of music, plus instructions on how to play it. That is what many of them did, yet there are plenty of different interpretations of that certain piece played by others. For example, Granados and de Laroccha. We can hear Granados play his own work, yet de Laroccha plays the same piece of music with a great deal of differences. And then another top player like D. Riva plays the same piece even differently still. Also I've read that Grieg gave his permission for players to interpret his music however they see fit - as long as they play correct notes and rhythm, etc...

Sorry, I'm a little confused and may have strayed. (It's passed my bedtime...)

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my videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/monicapiano
my personal website: http://www.monicaalianello.com


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 18, 2010 7:00 am 
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I don't think that being classical is what makes Joplin and Gershwin good, but I agree that they continue to hold water long after their style has faded. You can't ask for more than that really.

I agree with you that there are many examples of pianists (and other performers) making significant interpretations of works written by composers who have their own recordings. I just think it is difficult to ignore such a benchmark is all. Several years ago, the common saying among conducting teachers was that you can listen to recordings of Stravinsky but don't listen to recordings CONDUCTED by Stravinsky. Yet just this year, I played a Firebird in which the conductor played the end of the finale with sharp staccato chords (like Stravinsky did), and even felt compelled to use his recordings as justification. [The FF staccato chords make a wonderfully grand ending sound violent and ominous.] There are a lot of things like that in Stravinsky's recordings. I have often felt that Stravinsky tried to hide his emotion and felt embarrassed when his writing betrayed him. They seem almost sabotaged at times, but that's something else entirely. Nevertheless, his recordings are still there for young conductors to listen to, instead of working their interpretation out for themselves, and it is hard for them to resist doing so. (I hope you slept well.)


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 18, 2010 3:07 pm 
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I agree that it would be difficult to ignore a benchmark such as a composer's own recordings. As an amateur, I am thrilled when I learn that there exists a recording of a piece of music (one that I am working on) played by the composer. To me it is like this is the definitive example - the goal on which I should set my sights. Plus, I am not educated enough to feel I have the right to make changes in the music. But then I listen to another player who makes changes (in good taste) and I start to question all of that.

Interesting about Stravinsky's writing betraying his emotions. I have not read up on Stravinsky to know what sort of man he was. Was he shy? We know that Chopin was very reserved, yet wrote so much emotionally-charged music.

But since it is so hard to resist listening to a composer's own recordings, I will ask you - can you resist?


(I slept fine, thank you.)

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"Simplicity is the highest goal, achievable when you have overcome all difficulties." ~ Frederic Chopin

my videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/monicapiano
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 18, 2010 4:27 pm 
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You know I have seen the same 'Time Out' transcriptions. While perhaps not my favorite, I thought the transcription of Strange Meadowlark was quite good. Maybe the jazz improvisation made it unnecessarily long. There are some Bill Evans transcriptions that I think are brilliant. Not all of them, but some almost seem like he sat down and wrote them. There are also other examples besides Bill Evans. Of course these musicians spend years learning and refining their improvisation skills and also know how to play certain songs very well. The result can often be quite inspiring I think.

glenn wrote:
Growing up I had a book of pieces transcribed from Dave Brubeck's Time Out album. The tunes were definitive, as I am sure they are for Brubeck, but the solos were transcribed too. Though interesting, this seemed silly, even for a fifteen year old kid.

So to me, classical and popular are not so much apples and oranges, as apples and designer jeans.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 18, 2010 9:39 pm 
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Quote:
You know I have seen the same 'Time Out' transcriptions. While perhaps not my favorite, I thought the transcription of Strange Meadowlark was quite good. Maybe the jazz improvisation made it unnecessarily long. There are some Bill Evans transcriptions that I think are brilliant. Not all of them, but some almost seem like he sat down and wrote them. There are also other examples besides Bill Evans. Of course these musicians spend years learning and refining their improvisation skills and also know how to play certain songs very well. The result can often be quite inspiring I think.


I think Bill Evans IS brilliant. His playing is so refined; his voice leading so disciplined. He obviously made a point of learning to play that way, and though I have not seen the transcription of which you speak, I believe you when you say they look "written". Transcriptions are quite educational to a point, but they change how we look at the music. I have done a lot transcribing of my own improvisation and find that there seems to be some kind of chemical reaction going on when you change media. It is not the same as the improv, and it is (usually) not quite convincing as classical music. I love improvising, and do a lot more improvising than composing these days. But I would recommend the transcription process to anyone, it is very enlightening on so many fronts.

Something I have noticed about my own improvisations, is that my "time space" is larger than when I am composing. When composing I make sure every note and detail is "just so", but when improvising I have broader sense of the "moment". When these improvisations are transcribed, I find it difficult to play them at a slower tempo. They often don't sound very good. Some composers are satisfying to play at nearly any tempo, because every note is worked out (Bach is the best at this, I think). To me, this just makes Bill Evans even more remarkable. He had that composer's focus, even while improvising.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 19, 2010 3:02 pm 
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They have a few pretty good transcriptions on the piano society site. Namely the Bill Evans turn out the stars and the Keith Jarrett over the rainbow but I think there are a few others. I have played through some of them, and others, myself. I am always surprised how some jazz pianists can choose such good chord voicing's, employ thematic ideas into their improvisations and chord voicing's so quickly and real time. In my case I don't do much improvising except every once in a while I will add chord substitution to a pop arrangement I have if it is otherwise very thin. It takes me so long to come up with only 1 chord substitution that seems to work, and even then I am never quite happy. I am always impressed when I see people do this real time.


glenn wrote:
I love improvising, and do a lot more improvising than composing these days. But I would recommend the transcription process to anyone, it is very enlightening on so many fronts.



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PostPosted: Fri Feb 19, 2010 3:43 pm 
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On the subject of a composer setting a benchmark for their own composition, I don't actually feel any less restricted for works where that happened as opposed to having a "standard" recording where another performer performs the work. As a recent example, I started learning one of Lera Auerbach's Preludes for piano, and I disliked her execution (I'm purposely avoiding the word "interpretation") of the ending, and I'm executing it in a very different manner. Of course, I will be influenced by what I heard - if I had started to learn the Prelude without hearing any recording at all, I would surely play it differently. But that's not a consequence of the recording having been made by the composer so much as the consequence of just hearing any recording - you get some good ideas and a general sense of how the piece sounds.

Instead of the painting analogy, I like to use a storytelling analogy. If some writer writes a tale and then tells it to an audience, one could also say that it sets a benchmark on telling that particular story. However, the way someone tells a story is highly linked to his personality, even more than the content of the story itself; even if someone set out to copy the writer's storytelling in an exact manner, that person probably wouldn't be successful. Another person telling the same story isn't doing it in a "worse" or "better" way, but rather in a different and highly personal manner. And as long as the person telling the story understands the content of the story, can we really say she's not "getting the interpretation right"? Perhaps we, personally, in the position of that person, would change the emphases, present the climax in another fashion, etc. Perhaps, as a listener, we would prefer that the person had told the story in a more detached way, or a less detached way, or in a more serene mood, or in a more romantic mood, etc. The point is that every person is individualistic, be it as a performer, a composer, or a listener. Different people will perform music in different ways, and different listeners will like music presented in different ways. The three arts of performing, composing or listening are all distinct and individualistic.

A major stepping point in my playing (both in the piano and in the violin) came when I realized that for much of the music I was playing, I didn't really know what I wanted to say. I was playing the right notes and solving the technical difficulties, but some of my music was great and some of it was bad. The pieces I was good at performing simply had caught my heart (like Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) and I knew what I wanted to say even before starting to learn them, while the others had been learned in a "mechanical" way. I could play them, I would hear recordings to know how they sounded like. But it never would add up since I didn't know what I was trying to say. In the storytelling analogy, it would be like having someone who doesn't understand the language the story was told on hear the original storytelling over and over until she can acoustically reproduce it. That's what I call an "interpretation" problem. As long as we know what we are trying to say, then that can get across to our audiences. A good story deserves to be told and retold, and every telling will be different.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 19, 2010 4:40 pm 
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pooispoois wrote:
A major stepping point in my playing (both in the piano and in the violin) came when I realized that for much of the music I was playing, I didn't really know what I wanted to say. I was playing the right notes and solving the technical difficulties, but some of my music was great and some of it was bad. The pieces I was good at performing simply had caught my heart (like Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) and I knew what I wanted to say even before starting to learn them, while the others had been learned in a "mechanical" way. I could play them, I would hear recordings to know how they sounded like. But it never would add up since I didn't know what I was trying to say. In the storytelling analogy, it would be like having someone who doesn't understand the language the story was told on hear the original storytelling over and over until she can acoustically reproduce it. That's what I call an "interpretation" problem. As long as we know what we are trying to say, then that can get across to our audiences. A good story deserves to be told and retold, and every telling will be different.


I like what you say here very much. And it's the second time in as many days that I've read about how we should communicate to our audience via our playing. I think I have the same problem - some of my recordings are decent and some are sort of plain. The decent ones are the pieces that captured my interest and heart the most. I'm going to try to communicate better from now on....

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my videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/monicapiano
my personal website: http://www.monicaalianello.com


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 19, 2010 11:50 pm 
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For me, about 90% of interpretation is about the vivid expression of emotions. Aside from making certain technical details of the music are clear, HOW the music is played is dependent on its emotional content. Of course, opinions about that content can vary from person to person.

About 1980, I read an article (in the doctor's office) that changed my life. It affected me so much I stole the magazine! The article was by a scientist/inventor/concert pianist named Manfred Clynes. The article was about research he had done into emotions, how they were expressed and communicated. He used a finger sensor which would pick up changes in pressure when emotions were expressed. He found the emotions were sensed and expressed through waves of intensity. He found that these waves of intensity were manifested as very specific forms lasting from fractions of a second (i.e. - joy) to several seconds in length (i.e. - reverence). He found these forms were the same throughout different cultures (European, Indonesian, Australian Aborigine). He also found that these forms were communicated through music - remember, he was a concert pianist too! People are so sensitive to these forms that they can tell when they are "off" a little bit, they perceive it as insincerity. With only minor variation, he found that people perceived the emotional content of the same recorded music in the same way. He also found that people perceive an underlying "personality" of the composer as a waveform which can be detected through the emotional content. This waveform remains in their music throughout their lives. (Google Manfred Clynes, he has done a lot of other stuff too, and has written interpretive software and invented emotionally sensitive batons for computer interpreted music)

Not being very scientific, it was enough for me to know these emotional forms existed and that I already knew what they were! It has affected my playing and composition ever since. In music. these "forms" are expressed through dynamic, contour, harmonic tension and release, density, register, spacing, tempo, strong/weak pulse, expectation/surprise, etc. If I am playing a piece, I do what the composer says and see if I perceive something, even if only suggested. If I feel something, I try to express it clearly even if that means some rubato or dynamic emphasis. There are limits, of course, depending on the piece and style, but that's where I start. If I don't feel anything, it is my opinion that the interpreter has license to use their imagination to CREATE some emotional content. The performer is the one who is on the line for his performance, and his expressivity is an real and not intellectual issue! I have seen performers take a middle management approach and say "it's the composer's fault", but I have also heard some performers make exquisite music out of almost nothing. I have played under conductors who will almost stifle emotion by trying to play "what the composer wrote", and I have seen conductors (from Rostropovich to Doc Severnsen) change the purpose and intent of the music to fit their own interpretive vision. There is something to be said for taking full responsibility for the effect of ones performance.


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