Performance Style in the Age of Recordings

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One of the main interpretive challenges to face classical musicians is the ambiguity of notation. The dots on the page are very informative about what to play, but mostly leave us guessing about how. What looks like the ‘same’ notation will carry different expectations for performance style at different points in history and in different places. Formal training teaches the typical answers to these questions, and advanced training provides the research skills to seek out mores specific answers for particular repertories.

Of course, even armed with all the available information – about historical instruments, and the techniques used to play them, about the treatises on performance or aesthetics – the musician still has the imaginative task of converting that into real sounds. An interpretation thus represents a statement of how the performer concludes the music should go.

Now, for people working with popular repertories of the last 50 years or so, the task is very different, since the definitive text is now no longer on paper, but a recording.

There is a transition period of course – there were times in the 60s where you’d have the same song performed by two or three different singers in the charts at once, for example – but the trend was strongly towards using the recording studio as the compositional milieu. If we want to know how, say, Freddie Mercury wanted one of his songs to go, we have direct and definitive evidence about performance style, in a way that we just don’t for Schubert.

It seems, therefore, to be an unnecessary statement of the obvious to suggest that ensembles taking on a cappella versions of recent popular songs should listen to the originals at an early stage of their preparation. Now, with the people who commission or choose the arrangements, you don’t need to say this, because they will have picked the song because they already love the original.

But you can’t assume that everyone in the ensemble also knows the song – we all assume the music sloshing around in our heads is mainstream, but you’d be surprised how different other people’s idea of ‘everyone knows this’ can be from your own. It’s not so very long ago that I heard a set of teach tracks of an arrangement of a song that I thought was pretty impossible to avoid which had a glaring wrong note in the tune. It wasn’t a stupid wrong note – it made musical sense – but it was clear that the singer had not come across the song before. And had he done his homework, he not only would have avoided the misreading, but would also have had a clearer idea of the rhythmic feel to aim for.

And I’d extend this plea to do your homework back to songs of the tin pan alley era, where the original came as sheet music, but whose popularity was secured by famous recorded performances. There isn’t the same sense of a ‘definitive’ here, but there is a performance history that a lot of your audience will be familiar with. It has never been easier to research performing traditions than it is today.

Of course, the aesthetic question of how you use this information about performing style is harder for people working in this repertory than for classical musicians. Classical musicians can maintain the convenient fiction that the composer’s intentions are paramount precisely because we’ll never know who actually answers the question correctly. Every interpretation is a best guess, and the world is enriched by having lots of different intelligent and deeply felt best guesses from lots of different musicians.

But if we do know exactly how the original went, that doesn’t tell us what we should do in response to it. We’ll never sound exactly like the original, and besides, why would anyone want to listen to us attempt to if they can just listen to the original anyway? On the other hand, a performance that shows no awareness of the original is likely to provoke consternation. (I am reminded of a sudden of my 10-year-old self singing ‘Return to Sender’ from the sheet music without ever having heard Presley and finding the whole thing rather baffling – ‘Just what is the point of this song?’ I thought.) The pleasure of the cover version come from measuring the distance between the original and its appropriation by a different artist.

And in order to chart this distance, you need to know what the original sounded like. If nothing else, it’s a good idea for performers to start their interpretive process at least as well-informed as their audiences.

I can't remember where I read or heard this - I hope not here! - but it's in relation to someone collecting songs - could even have been Alan Lomax. A woman was recorded singing a song, sounding first-hand as anything. 'Where did you learn that?' she was asked. 'Oh, I used to hang around by the doors of the record shop - they were always playing this - I adored it!' was her surprise response.

I'm really interested in that cusp of recording technology, and something else has sprung to mind - Elgar's recording of 'Nimrod'. It was made in 1926, by which time (I've been informed - my knowledge on this is scant) there'd already been quite a lot of change in terms of orchestral style - moving from high romanticism to the C20th? I absolutely adore the recording - it's not slow and funereal, not sombre, but sincere, alive, swelling and pushing forward in tempo, full of portamento. It's beautiful. Like the Tin Pan Alley songs, it's not an Ur-Nimrod, but it's likely to be pretty close.

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