Who are you there to hear?

I just seem to be thinking more and more about this concept of whose music it is recently. Part of it is probably occasioned by the fact that I found Cameron Carpenter’s Facebook page and have read back some articles he’s linked in, and part is due to a conversation on Mark Wood’s Facebook page as well. I started listing off the classical musicians I admire the most nowdays, and the list looked like:

1) Gabriela Montero (all hail)
2) Rachel Barton Pine \m/
3) Mark Wood — who I define as a classical musician however he may define himself
4) Zoe Keating
5) Cameron Carpenter

Two things struck me when I was looking at this list after having written it. They are:

1) With the exception of #2, all of them have had either significant run-ins with the classical establishment, or they have been flat-out rejected by it. And even Pine is often more idiosyncratic than the classical world would like her to be.
2) They are all known for performing as themselves. Soloists, to be sure — but that BS attitude that’s still all too common of “the performer must disappear behind the composer’s intentions” is just not to be found among them. At least, not as an overarching philosophy.

I still recall reading a blog post by a working orchestra violist who remarked, with total confidence, that it was the job of “any honest musician” to disappear behind the composer’s intention. It amazed me how he could toss off such a problematic statement so casually and thoughtlessly. Any honest musician? Billy Joel? Ella Fitzgerald? Carly Simon? Buddy Rich? Really?

I then left a comment on another blog whereby I (equally casually) tossed off a fairly large statement that most classical music concerts are like seances. If we all are very, very quiet and play the music exactly as the composer intended, then the spirit of Beethoven will rise from the grave and be with us tonight! No coughing, no talking, keep your fingertips on the table, no clapping between movements!

And I’ve just been cogitating on how that is emphatically not the case for the above musicians, who always make it quite clear exactly who’s on stage.

As an example, Carpenter is often given some lip for messing around too much with a composer’s work, but consider any play by Shakespeare. It would be interesting to go and see a version of it performed as if it would have been performed in his day sure, just as HIPP has its place. But no one would think to say that the Elizabethan way is the only way to do it. Opera is another — the Whitman’s Sampler of interpretations of Wagner’s Ring is dizzying. You never simply go see “the Ring.” You go see So-and-So’s “Ring.”

And it’s a lead-pipe cinch that Wagner himself would have been apoplectic over some of these interpretations; he was a legendary control freak. But it doesn’t stop anyone from giving bicycles to the Valkyries and a lightsaber to Siegfried. In fact, it’s expected, even celebrated, when a set designer or director uses Wagner’s vision as a springboard for communicating their own. Some go quite far. People despise some, while loving others, and arguments are had. Opera would be a poorer, duller arena without those arguments. Instead, it’s alive and well, thanks to the vision of a living, breathing person coming to life on stage.

Pop and rock also know this well. Most of the best groups were their own songwriters, and a huge part of their appeal was that the audience knew that they were hearing a piece of music performed by people to whose lives it held a direct relevance. Through their music, you get to know them.

Classical music has just lost that. Where even classical musicians imagine that it’s their job to evaporate behind the composer, then who are we there to hear? A dead guy who we’ve heard a million times? What does it turn into then — “My version of the Tchaik violin concerto is the one that Tchaik meant to bring into being!” “No, mine is!”

What about your version? When does the audience get to learn what you think? Sure, people out there might not agree with it, but that’s the price you pay for the people who think you were fabulous and incredible. For every person who thinks you’re the second coming, there will be one (a conservative estimate) who thinks you stink on ice. You simply can’t do anything truly revolutionary without getting up the nose of somebody.

And if both you and everyone else who is playing a given piece are all arguing that yours is the “right” way, well why would I want to hear you as opposed to any of them? Indeed, why would I listen to any of you at all? Why wouldn’t I just go to Amazon and read some reviews to see who likes what the most, and just buy that and avoid the drive to the concert hall and paying for parking?

Someone like Carpenter, Montero, or Keating with her well-known interpretation of Beethoven 7/2 may play things with a flair or point of view that not everyone agrees with, but at least I know it’s them when they’re up there. And I want to get to know them, know that they think and how they approach things, whether I agree with them or not. (What does “agree” or “disagree” even mean in that context anyway? That I wouldn’t do it the same way myself? That I’ve heard better? That I agree or disagree with one particular part? The way one plays a piece of music asks questions that are just not yes/no.)