Music is Hard 16: Virtuosity (part 1)

This week:
Yeah, music is hard, but should it sound like it? Performers struggle technically, musically, cognitively, etc., but should the audience see or hear that struggle? Is anything lost or gained in hiding it? Inspired by an eighth blackbird blog post.

The Sing-Off on Hulu
“Should Music Sound Hard?” on the eighth blackbird blog

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


This entry was posted in Music is Hard, podcast and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • john pippen

    I feel sort of confused. Tim, are you saying that adding expression that would effectively make the music sound harder (perhaps in this example by adding more bow pressure or by slowing down a particular moment to convey struggle) you feel that would be unmeaningful? I feel like the way you said things (or perhaps the way I heard them) seemed sort of contradictory.

  • Hi John, Thanks for listening and leaving a comment.

    I think you might be confused about what I was saying, which is definitely not your fault considering how inscrutable my stream-of-consiosness blathering can be at times.

    If Mr. Gerhardt were to add expression to his performance that would be a great thing. I would go so far as to say that adding expression and the risk of adding difficulty would also be preferable to an emotion-lacking performance.

    I’m not a cellist, but I suspect adding more bow pressure will increase the difficulty of more technical passages; however, there must a musical reason to play with increased bow pressure. And if he could do it without it sounding difficult, I would prefer that.

    For me, the hierarchy of importance goes like this:

    God-level: Convey the musical idea.
    Angel-level: Effortless technique.
    Celestial level: Wear a nice suit.

    I don’t think that an audience wants to listen to a performer struggle with technique. That does not mean that the performer can’t convey the emotion of personal/emotional struggle. But those are not the same thing. The former constitutes a less compelling performance; whereas, the latter may do the opposite.

    If I didn’t say that on the podcast (I haven’t listened back yet) it’s because David confused me. I’m not very smart.

  • john pippen

    lol, that helps a lot! You actually did say this at the very end of the podcast, but I wrote the comment before I heard that.

    So to be clear, you think conveying difficulty would be appropriate only so far as it reflects a musical idea, but it should not ever go so far as creating real doubt in the audience that the performer is incapable of accurately playing the piece or passage in question. So, basically, the audience is complicit in the idea that the “struggle” of a good performance remains performative and not “real” in a way. I don’t mean to say that performance is a lie or something, but that it relies on an elaborately constructed illusion of sorts.

  • Well, I’d say it’s a lie, but not the bad kind of lie. It’s like a movie or a play. You know it’s not real, and you often even know the ending. For example, when I watch a James Bond movie, when Bond gets to the “inmost cave” (10 scholar-points for Campbell reference!) I think “how is he ever going to get out of this?” However, there’s no doubt in my mind that he will. Maybe Mr. Gerhardt (borrowing Tim’s NYT style guide) just didn’t do a good job of “acting.”

  • john pippen

    there’s a good bit of scholarship on this very subject and much of it deals with the projection of an identity. Naomi Cumming calls it “the sonic self.” basically, the successful performance relies on the communication of signs, certain sounds understood as somehow musical, that contribute to the construction of an elaborate and elusive identity. so in virtuoso performances, you’re hearing “Midori,” not Midori the person who (I’m making this part up) like 30 Rock and Cheesy Blasters.

    I hesitate to call it a lie, but I think I’m in agreement with you, Dave. I mean, people really flip there shit over music and movies, so it’s obviously representing/engaging/mediating some notion of reality for them. but that’s not to say anything is absolute, just that our culture relies on an elaborate collections of signs and metaphors that makes this possible.