Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Shifting Score

It's understood that most forms of music are collaborative. Whether it's rock, country, jazz, blues, soul, or anything in between, the written music is only the starting point.

For most genres, what's written down is seldom the complete arrangement -- and often times there's nothing on the page but words and chord symbols. It's how the performing artist, in cooperation accompanying musicians choose to realize those incomplete instructions that give the song its sound.

And in a recording situation, the engineer, the producer, the arranger and guest musicians can also help shape the character of the song. In fact, for most people the recording of a song is considered the original -- not whatever printed music version of it might also be available.

For classical music it's different, though. Instead of several musicians collaborating on the structure of the song, a classical work is usually created by a single person who comes up with the musical ideas and the arrangement of those ideas. (For vocal works, the composer seldom creates the libretto -- it's usually supplied by another person.)

Classical music starts with the score -- and so one might think the score's immutable. Take a look at my little etude above. I've specified the notes to be played, the order and rhythm to play them in, how loud or soft to play them, and how to phrase the lines for expression.

So it's just left to the performer to play what's on the page, right?

Not quite.

Not every little performance decision is specified. MF means medium loud -- so how loud is that, anyway? How fast is "allegro?" And so on. If five different people were to play this piece, you would most likely hear five different interpretations. Collectively, you might recognize the performances as all being the same work (that opening motive is pretty distinctive, after all). But there would be more variation between them than you might expect.

An excellent example of that mutability was recently posted to YouTube. Robert Fink took the opening chords to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" from various recordings made between 1921 and 2010 and the results are revealing. The same notes on the page, but what a difference in interpretations. Different recording techniques, and different orchestral blends can be heard, too.

It's not a new concept, but one seldom illustrated as dramatically. In classical music, as in other genres, what's on the page is only the starting point.

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