19 January 2011

The Importance of [a modest number of—] ‘Wrong’ Notes

Authenticity is not the only quality for which a performance might be valued. Where a relatively inauthentic performance is highly valued, it is valued in spite of its ‘inauthenticity.’ For example, Schnabel’s recorded performances of the Beethoven sonatas are well regarded despite the wrong notes that they contain.”
  —  Stephen Davies, p. 47.
Beethoven marks ‘fugue in 3 voices with some license’, which is a serious understatement [Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”] and which I read as something of a joke: the joy of the joke being the extent to which Beethoven will simply flaunt the very idea of a fugue. Though the fugue subject begins with a series of consonant, descending thirds (taking up an obsessive theme of the piece as a whole), pretty soon its running sixteenth notes have a willful tendency to encounter all sorts of dissonant neighbors, and these ‘wrong notes’ become a subject for the composer’s perverse and inventive discourse. Beethoven’s ‘play’: causing all kinds of collisions of one dissonant neighbor with another and then miraculously making sense of them: this is the playful creation and resolution of chaos.”
  —  Jeremy Denk.
I  was recently checking to see how my friend, pianist Victor Goldberg, is doing with his Asian tour. As part of my online “checking up,” I looked at his Twitter feed, which I had not done in awhile. There was not much in the way of updates about his performances in Hong Kong or Taiwan or Thailand in there, but there was this little tweet from last June, which I’d not previously seen.

Are wrong notes that important?”
  —  Victor Goldberg, Twitter, 23-JUN-2010.
N umber one, Victor plays exceedingly well, with wonderful expression and technique. He does not produce wrong notes—at least not many of them, and especially not many of them in the context of the difficult, finger-challenging repertoire he performs. His tone remains consistently focused, clear, and centered throughout the range. The pulse remains secure, and his rhythms are accurate for the style. Dynamic levels are consistent, emotionally coherent, and an accurate interpretation of the style. Phrasing remains always consistent and sensitive to the style. Expressiveness manifests creative nuance and style, remaining responsive not only to the score but to other performers and the audience. Articulation has secure attacks, and all markings (staccato, legato, slur, accents, etc.) are executed accurately. In short, anyone who has heard Victor play would be astonished by his Tweet from last June.

N umber two, Victor’s recoveries from any notes he misses are invariably graceful and, if anything, the few misses lend in an admirable way to the overall humanity of his performances. We do not attend to hear damned automatons or computers perform. We come to hear a real human, and to vicariously experience our own humanity more fully through what that dear human does.

N umber three, we know both the quotidian and the sometimes noble, poignant origins of “mistakes” in elite performers; we understand how they happen, at least those of us who have ever studied music do. And we actually want to witness them. We love virtuosic spectacle, yes, but, more than that, we glimpse first-hand in the virtuosos’ limits and accomodations and recoveries from occurrences around those boundaries some important dimensions that we have and that all people, past, present, and future have.

N umber four: authenticity is not conditioned upon enslavement to the urtext. In any good performance, we witness improvisatory but at the same time fully consequential music. We see the person’s full absorption as it unfolds in front of us. And, given the finiteness of human attention and other capacities, the “full absorption” is not evenly spread across all of the myriad elements to be attended to. As a result, we witness the highly personal irregularities of the elements that receive extra attention, while other less-attended elements recede toward the boundaries where the so-called “mistakes” happen. A lot of what we call “depth” in performance arises via these core-vs-boundary processes. Again, it is part of the beauty.

N umber five: the composer created these risks in the score. In some cases the risks were put there deliberately, in full recognition of what awkwardnesses under the hand (or for the voice, etc.) would do to the performer—some of Rzewksi’s writing is diabolical in this way—and in other cases it was happenstantial/incidental. But the aesthetic whole—the unity of the score’s architecture, replete with its hazards and insurmountable challenges—is what we seek.

N umber six: We can measure the “mistakes” and statistically model the ‘reconstruction error’ or fidelity to the score. In principle, we could study the situations in which the reconstruction error density is high and yet our emotional and aesthetic reception of the performance is also [paradoxically] high.

F irst, we record the occurrences of deviations from the score and transform them from the time-domain to the event-frequency-domain. Then yt is the power spectrum of those deviations. And we calculate the Kullback-Leibler (KL) divergence (see Lee and Seung 1999)… the 50-cent equation up at the top of this blogpost.

F or those who are especially interested in these issues, have a look at the paper by Maria Ruiz, Hans-Christian Jabusch, and Eckart Altenmueller at Hanover and Dresden (link below).

N umber seven: some of what we hear as “wrong” is not wrong after all, even if the performer herself/himself obsesses over it.

W  e first have to diagnose the right notes as ‘right’ before we can say that any of them are wrongly played—‘diagnose,’ rather than merely find: no longer does the fact that a composer puts down a C on paper [or in Finale or Sibelius, etc.] necessarily mean that s/he cares two hoots if a C sharp is played instead, or a C-semi-sharp for that matter. And even if s/he thinks s/he cares, one takes leave to doubt the profundity of his/her worries when, in rehearsal, one notices that s/he does not perceive the difference between the alleged right note and the wrong note s/he gets instead.”
  —  Hans Keller.
E vents remaining in Victor Goldberg's Asian tour include:
  • Masterclass, City Hall, Hong Kong - 20-JAN
  • Masterclass, Hong Kong University - 21-JAN
  • Concert, Discovery College, Hong Kong - 23-JAN
B est wishes, Victor. See you back in the U.S. at the end of the month.

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