Stanislawski Follow-up: Tactical Performances and Musical Character

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Back before Christmas, Tom Carter came over here and engaged in some really productive debate in response to my post on Stanislavski and Schenker. (Joke on me: I had wondered whether it was going to be an excessively obscure subject, but got probably the most response I’ve had for ages. Shows the limits of my predictive power!) This post is a follow-up to a couple of loose ends that got left dangling.

First, Tom asked:

So, could you talk more about the performances you experienced in which the singers identified local objectives without integrating them into a super-objective? Or those in which they had detail but missed on the global?

And I cried off doing it immediately so as to gather my thoughts - which I have now done. I didn’t want to name specific performers, but I have spent some time thinking about the instances I had in mind and distilling a number of typical features they share. All were amateur performances – and the tactical approach has the feel of a developmental stage that you need to move beyond to achieve expertise.

The features included:

  • Discontinuities of tempo or metre. At its most basic level, this is the sound of the beginner who slows up for the difficult bits. But that’s an issue drive by technical limitations rather than musical intentions – the performer isn’t thinking about the global trajectory of the piece, but they’re not really thinking about expressive shape at all, just surviving its execution.

    At a more technically fluent level, you find performers delivering a phrase quite convincingly, but falling out of the music at the phrase breaks. Each chunk of music has its own identity, but it doesn’t join up into a whole. I’ve written about the different stages of this here.

    And of course, for a significant chunk of the 20th century, one of the idiosyncrasies of the barbershop movement was to institutionalise an essentially tactical approach to interpretation even at the highest level that actively discouraged staying in the same tempo for any length of time. I don’t mind linking to a performance of this kind, because this example is still regarded as a classic of its era. But I find myself glad that the last 20 years has seen a growing recognition that audiences do like to know when to tap their feet.

  • Obtrusive expressive moments. This is where an expressive feature is pointed up to the extent that it interrupts the musical flow or distracts from the overall message. Examples would include a fermata that ends up adding an extra beat to the bar, or articulating a lyric in a way that breaks the thread of the melody.

    A reasonably common way for people to create sticky-out moments is to focus on individual words rather than the meaning of the whole idea. An adjective is typically more expressively loaded than a verb, but it is less central to the overall message. Again this seems to be something I’ve written about before.

  • Clap-traps. It occurs to me that when an audience mistakes a dramatic pause for the end of a piece, you’re probably also suffering from too tactical an approach. In fact, the grand pause is probably the purest illustration of why you need a sense of long-range structure. It usually forms the focal point of a piece’s narrative, but consists of nothing but silence. Its expressive power comes entirely from the memory of what went before and the anticipation of what is to come. It is where we discover most exactly that the meanings we gather from music lie not in the sounds themselves (beautiful though they may be) but in the sense we make of them in our imaginations.

The other thing that Tom’s comments got me thinking about was the relationship of character to the overall piece. As he pointed out, the super-objective as conceived by Stanislawski is about the motivations of individual characters, not about the overall play.

This made me think about how in a play you have multiple characters in a single work, whereas in a song performed by a vocal ensemble you have usually a single persona, with multiple performers involved in evoking its identity. And this is why an approach to musical performance that restricts itself to attention to your own part never has the magic of one where every performer feels like they are performing the whole musical texture.

Just paying attention to your own part and nothing else would be like an actor saying, ‘I’m just operating the legs of this character; just tell me where to walk and when and I’ll get on with it. No, I don’t want to know why he’s walking over there or what he’s doing with his arms – I’m not going to change how he walks whatever’. It would be absurd, wouldn’t it?

So, thanks again to Tom for coming over and making me think harder about some of these questions than I had been intending to!

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