Is it the notes or the performance?


I’m frantically writing on my iPhone between Brent Cross and Hampstead – as my train descends underground – as I have spent over three hours today listening to the same Fauré nocturne and I’ve been wondering what is making me rather obsessed with the piece. Is it the subtle harmonic movement, the piano writing that fits the topography of the keyboard with such grace, or is it the key of E-flat major? I wonder how much my obsession comes from a need to learn it for a workshop – or is the compulsion to learn it due to the beauty of the writing?

Kathryn Stott’s recording of Fauré’s piano music is wonderfully paced and sensitively phrased. There is a sense she understands the harmonic movement, and takes the listener on the journey Fauré has created faithfully. I wonder if his music would always speak with such ease, regardless of the interpreter, due to the “notes” the composer chose? I am normally willed to listen to a piece due to the timbre, or sonority of the instrument, or the performer – yet I feel the notes chosen by Fauré are more compelling than a particular interpretation.

I often select notes by imagining the gesture that would create them on a particular instrument. I find myself drawn to the lower register of the violin due to the wonderful shape the violinist must make to activate a sound on the g-string. Equally interesting to me is the taller posture players seem to occupy when they play in higher registers. String instruments have a real concern for the choreography of the performance, as do pianists. It is the choreography of the musical gesture that fascinates me and drives my own writing.

I wonder to what extent pianist-composers select black keys in combination with white as the mixture of the two fits comfortably under the hand- Ravel’s Jeux d’eau has a wonderful outburst that demonstrates this concern for keyboard topography. It is more than simple note selection for notes sake. Composing with computer software/hardware removes these topographic concerns, creating music beyond the corporeality of performers. I wonder what we lose when music cannot be realised by a living, breathing player? With Barthes “grain of the voice” missing through writing that is not within the possibilities of a living musician does the music lose part of it’s appeal?

My fascination with the physiognomy of performance means I often recall – or imagine – a performance when listening to recordings. Do we rely on memory to a greater extent when listening to recordings more than when we indulge in our musical appreciation in a live concert? Do other listeners rely on a memory of performance when listening?

Fauré’s fourth nocturne relies on idiomatic piano writing, and indulges itself in gestures that would look as expressive as the notes sound. I find myself exploring how I choreograph the phrases as much as how I want them to sound. But then again these two are connected as technique is surely the physical movements necessary to achieve the desired sound. But it is the visible of the technique that interests me; more so than the invisible technique Mathay discusses.

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