Answering questions put by Rosalind Rei, August 2016
Interview with Dr Mine Doğantan-Dack
1) What are your personal motives for taking unusual/creative approaches to performance – are they aesthetic, political, intellectual or a combination? When and how did you first encounter the idea of unusual/creative performance?
In 2006, I organized a research symposium at Middlesex University, London, titled “Aesthetics of Musical Performance” and as part of the symposium I gave a paper on the relationship between the musical “work”, the score and performance: one of the points I made was that twentieth-century classical music performers have played a decisive role in sustaining the ideology of the musical work and the attendant notion of faithfulness to the composer’s intentions through their traditionally conservative aesthetic approaches to musical scores. Although the musicological literature attributes the emergence and establishment of the Werktreue ideology to music critics/theorists/analysts – and partly to composers – performers have arguably been its most ardent supporters. I argued in my presentation that the responsibility of the classical music performer today is to ensure that the musical “text” remains open and not sealed off by attempts to preserve some supposedly original meaning. As part of my talk, I played five different interpretations of Bach’s E major prelude from WTC Book 1 that I had recorded prior to the symposium. While these five interpretations differed significantly in local details, they would have sounded rather similar – and not in any way radical – to most listeners, as my approach to the score was still very much shaped by an aesthetic perspective based on my training as a classical pianist. In hindsight, it seems significant that I had chosen a score by Bach, which naturally supported experimenting with articulation, tempo, dynamics and phrasing while still retaining its familiarity. Any radically unfamiliar reading of a classical score was still in the distant! The only “radical” proposal I made during that symposium was that all five interpretations be played one after another in the same recital, and that developing multiple readings of classical scores should be part of performance pedagogy. Already in 2006, my motivation for seeking alternative, creative interpretative approaches to classical scores was not only intellectual-scholarly but also political, resulting from a dissatisfaction with the dominant narrative in the musicological literature regarding the historical-cultural context of the “work” concept, and the undesirable consequences of presenting contemporary interpretations as representations of undistorted original meanings of past texts and images.
Between 2006 and 2012, I did not undertake further experimentation with classical scores; but as I continued to research the pedagogical and critical discourses surrounding classical music performance practice, I started to become aware of not only the greater complexity of the historical background of the musical “work” concept, but also the many myths, unquestioned assumptions and simple untruths permeating these discourses. I started asking why contemporary classical performers unquestioningly accept these myths and falsehoods, and who benefits from sustaining such beliefs. An early outcome of this research was an article in a special issue of Nineteenth-century Music Review in 2012, in which I argued that the performance-oriented discourses of the nineteenth century support the idea of faithfulness to “the music” but not to “the composer”, further complexifying the relationship between the score, performer and composer.
It was in 2011 – the year I became an Associate of the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP) – that the idea of a systematic practice-led investigation to produce radically creative performances of classical scores – ‘radical’ in the sense of going deliberately against the established norms of classical performance aesthetics – started to crystallize, as I began to exchange some of my views in this connection with my colleague Daniel Leech-Wilkinson. While the main premise of the work being done at CMPCP was that musical performance is a creative practice, my own experiences and observations of the classical music performance community as one of its members did not seem to support this assumption: for me, creativity is intimately connected to expressive freedom, but performance practice in the classical domain imposes many constraints that actually hinder the development of such freedom.
In October 2012, Dan Leech-Wilkinson and I organized an experimental session at King’s College London for our CMPCP colleagues, where I performed radical readings of a small selection of scores by Bach, Chopin and Beethoven, treating tempo in a highly non-traditional way such that a standardly fast movement became slow and vice versa; this required making various adjustments in other musical parameters to make musical sense. As part of the talk that preceded the practical demonstration, we explained the motivation behind this seminar in terms of “our frustration at the narrowness of interpretation, the slavish obedience to convention and baseless ethics to which performers are brought up to subscribe”. In June 2013, we gave another seminar at the Institute of Musical Research, Senate House, titled “How creative can a musical practice be?” where we included radical readings of not only solo piano pieces but also of selected Schubert Lieder, with soprano Diana Gilchrist. In July 2013 I gave a collaborative paper – once again with my colleague Dan Leech-Wilkinson – titled “Ontology and aesthetics of musical performance: towards a paradigm shift or radical practice” as well as a lecture-recital of solo piano pieces at the 3rd Annual Conference of the Royal Musical Association, Music and Philosophy Study Group. In October 2013, we extended the repertoire further, with cellist Naomi McLean, to include cello-piano pieces in a workshop and recital we gave at the University of Surrey. At this stage, the initiative had become also pedagogical as I started to ponder the consequences of rethinking the role and extent of creativity in the classical performer’s education. Finding ways of supporting performer creativity while ensuring that institutional and professional-commercial pressures do not stifle it has become an important concern. The session at Surrey also included a panel discussion comprising musicologists, performers, composers as well as theatre and performance scholars, opening out the notion of radically creative interpretations across disciplines and modes of practice. The RMA conference I organized at Oxford University in March 2015 on “Authorship in Music” also included a radical performance event, where a group of performers and students delivered creative readings of canonical classical scores. A more recent outcome of my on-going research in this area – one that is overtly political – is a commissioned article titled “Artistic Research in Classical Music Performance: Truth and Politics”, published by the University of Göthenburg in PARSE – Journal of Art and Research in 2015. This article is accompanied by a radical performance of Rachmaninoff’s Moment Musical Op. 16 No. 5.
2) What have audience reactions been like to your creative/unusual interpretations?
Except the seminar at the IMR in 2013, which was open to the public, the context for my radical performances has been the academic scholarly community. Within this community, reactions have ranged from “this is wonderful”, “but this is not really radical” to “I cannot see the point of all this!” In general, performance students have been very open to the idea of radical interpretation, at times offering their own creative readings. Interestingly, when the repertoire in questions is well known, with a well-established performance tradition, the tendency to be sceptical of a radical approach and evaluate the interpretation negatively is much stronger. On the other hand, when the work I creatively interpret is not well known by the audience, they cannot compare it with standard interpretations they are familiar with, and consequently all they can rely on in judging my performance is its emotional impact and dramatic effectiveness; this typically results in a much more positive response. It is also understandable why some listeners do not regard the artistic result radical enough – or radical at all – since an important element of familiarity remains intact when the tonal logic and the expressive grammar stay recognizable even when the piece is played in a non-traditional way. Some have in fact noted that my readings should be called “persuasive” rather than “radical”. I would, nevertheless, maintain that they are politically radical in that they would currently not be acceptable at performance exams or competitions, for example.
One audience member commented that we’re advocating “old-fashioned relativism” where “anything goes”; this, of course, is not the case at all. While theoretically there can be countless radical performances of a classical score, only some of these will work effectively as classical music in practice, which means that the performer has to make aesthetic value judgments and choices regarding every detail of the score to ensure maximum musical, artistic, and emotional impact. What is most important to emphasize is that there is no single ideal way of realizing a classical score effectively, but this does not imply artistic or intellectual relativism.
Another audience member suggested that what I’m doing was probably the general practice in the pre-recording era; I think that this comment minimises the significance of the cultural- social context of the radical interpretation project. The motivation for undertaking radical interpretations would simply not have existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the institutional-political, cultural and intellectual contexts were very different. I think separating “the music” from all these contexts that enable “the music” to be made and heard misses the point of this project. Scholarly evidence does suggest that performers took more liberties in interpreting classical scores in the pre- and early recording era. But the cultural context, motivations as well as the implications of the expressive freedom I’m trying to introduce into classical performance practice are almost totally different from the earlier, historical contexts that allowed these interpretative liberties.
It would be interesting to speculate whether one reason some listeners react negatively to unfamiliar interpretations of canonical pieces lies in the fact that they identify with these works personally, and only wish to hear their beloved music in the same way over and over again. Furthermore, why is it that composers’ arrangements of other composers’ works are immediately acceptably as instances of creative cultural practice, whereas when a performer changes the “original” text and thereby goes against the authority of the composer, some listeners find this a lot more difficult to accept?
3) Please describe the creative evolution of a ‘typical’ interpretation. Do you systematically tweak specific parameters one at a time, or is your inspiration more intuitive, driven by a holistic vision of what the piece should ultimately sound like?
One of the initial methods I adopted in preparing radical performances has been doing the opposite of the instructions given on the score, in order to test how much and how radically the expressive boundaries of canonical pieces can be extended. The guiding spirit of this approach can be stated as: “What if?” While the traditional approach starts by assuming that we actually know what “adagio” or “forte” should sound like – Claudio Arrau, for instance, wrote, “You should start by respecting the text exactly as it is written. If Beethoven wrote ‘piano’ and you play forte, its definitely wrong.” – in reality all these markings have very blurred expressive boundaries. So why not start at the radical end and see what happens musically when an adagio is played allegro and a forte passage is delivered pianissimo? I have not met any convincing reasons so far as to why this kind of radical practice should not or cannot be undertaken with persuasive results.
The process of building an alternative, creative interpretation is not systematic, except that so far I tended to start by tweaking the tempo indication to see how far I can stretch it expressively and technically while still making musical-dramatic sense. Naturally, when one treats one parameter in a highly non-conventional way, there are various adjustments to make in other parameters. The only “constraint” I have placed is not to cross over to other genres, such as jazz or popular music: this has been done, and in any case as I’m not an expert performer in these areas, my attempts to produce jazzy renditions of classical scores, for example, would not sound convincing at all.
The evolution of a creative interpretation requires a lot of experimentation to judge what does and does not work: it involves a process of practical elimination until an interpretation that sounds persuasive begins to emerge. While an idea might sound interesting theoretically, it is only by putting it into practice can one judge its efficacy. In this sense, preparing a radical interpretation is a true case of artistic research, with artistic practice at its core, leading to high-quality artistic outcomes.
I should also note that the expressive devices and expressive grammar I employ are still within the classical music’s expressive paradigms – and in this sense, I can see why the interpretations do not go far enough for some listeners: the results still sound like classical music. Breaking the rules of the expressive grammar of classical music may be the next step, but being expressive is closely tied to the making of physical gestures in interacting with musical instruments, and in many ways changing the expression means changing the physicality of playing. There is also the issue of being convincing immediately in performance – we cannot expect listeners to identify intellectual grounds after the event in order to evaluate our radical readings positively. Hence, there is also the need to use familiar expressive devices.
Ultimately, the interpretations should sound expressively free and in that sense natural. I have examined various practice-led PhDs, where the candidate gets so concerned about making a theoretical point through practice that the performance becomes constrained, unnatural and convoluted. I believe the success of a radical performance interpretation should be measured solely by whether it sounds effective, moving, persuasive, transforming, etc. – all those qualities we would expect from any classical music performance – and not by the strength of the intellectual, scholarly or political arguments put forward to support it. We put forward the latter essentially to expose the various myths and falsehoods dominating classical performance pedagogy and to make a political point about the need to change it.
4) Are there any composers whose works you think are particularly amenable to reinterpretation? What makes you select particular pieces for re-interpretation?
I think any classical score is open to reinterpretation in principle, although in practice scores with fewer explicit performance instructions by the composer appear to afford creative and radical approaches more immediately and perhaps more easily. Works with deeply established performance traditions pose a certain resistance since we are so used to hearing them in a certain way. Without such performance traditions to colour one’s approach, interacting with scores creatively and imaginatively comes more naturally. Till now, I have attempted to reinterpret well-known and small-scale works such as preludes, etudes, intermezzi, or single movements of sonatas. As my repertoire largely consists of tonal music, I have remained within this range in selecting pieces to reinterpret. I’m currently working on some Scriabin preludes to create radical readings, but as these are not as well known by audiences as the Chopin preludes, it remains to be seen how “radical” my readings will sound.
5) Creative/unusual performances undermine the idea of a fixed, timelessly authoritative score. Do you yourself write your interpretations down, and if so, how detailed are your notations? Who are they for? Do you rely on conventional notation or do you use indications idiosyncratically? Are you ever “finished” with an interpretation?
When I prepared the five recordings of the Bach’s E major prelude for the 2006 Symposium, I notated in great detail all the expressive particulars of each version using my own idiosyncratic marks and symbols: these were essentially aide-mémoires for myself. In the case of the more recent radical interpretations, I continue to mark the score to remind myself the expressive decisions I make, but only in terms of the more general parameters, such as tempo and sometimes in terms of articulation and dynamics. I do not intend these markings for any other performer: I think one of the basic points of a radical interpretation is that it represents a very personal artistic perspective on the score and music in question, and each performer would ideally develop their own perspective.
6) Theatre and film adaptations of the literary canon are often just that – adaptations to a particular context and audience. Has classical music been particularly resistant to unusual/creative performance compared to other artistic mediums and why? Are attitudes changing or staying the same, and what evidence of this is there?
Classical music performance practice is probably unique in not having undergone any of the experimentation that has permeated all the other art forms – including classical music composition –and in having remained immune from the influence of politically engaged artistic practices since the early twentieth century. The reasons for this state of affairs are complex, but arguably one of the most important factors has been the ideology of the faithfulness to the composer’s intentions, which compels performers to chase “the ideal” interpretation that “the correct” reading of the score would reveal; we still need extensive research to understand who in society exactly has benefited, and continues to benefit, from this ideology. Then there is a whole set of myths that classical performers are indoctrinated with from the earliest days of their training and education. One of these myths, ardently advocated by musicologists, music theorists and music psychologists, is that the musical structures – including melodic, harmonic, metric and rhythmic patterns – embedded within the score provide direct access to the expressive content of the music. This view is such a pervasive component of discourse in performance studies that one finds it in almost any scholarly text on the subject. In its extreme version, this position was reflected in the much- criticized analysis and performance literature of the 1980s and 1990s, where an analysis of the metrical, rhythmic and tonal structures of a piece would be used to stipulate the location and extent of the expressive details of a correct or ideal performance. In spite of the resistance presented to any alternative approach by this deeply-rooted tradition insisting on an ontological connection between particular kinds of musical patterns and particular kinds of expressive content, it is in reality very difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate that the materials of a musical idiom have any expressive properties in the absence of a real or imagined performative context. The implication is that there are no plausible grounds for maintaining that the tonal-rhythmic patterns in a given piece of music make specific expressive demands on its performance: the same notes and rhythms can be performed in widely – even radically – different ways, each of which can still produce expressively convincing results. Precisely because the expressive potential of a composition cannot be known except through convincing performances of it, it is superfluous to speak of the expressive potential or meaning of musical structures in the abstract.
Now, while there has been a lot of experimentation in recent times regarding the external context of classical music performances, there has not been any significant change in attitude towards the realization of scores. For example, many classical performers today are involved in performing in “unusual” venues such as bars, night-clubs, etc., in outfits that present them more like pop stars, and in settings that involve more audience interaction. The way they play the canonical repertoire, however, has not been the subject of radical experimentation. One very important factor for this is commercial pressure: we need to draw paying audiences to our performances and in an environment when the number of classical music audiences has been shrinking, promoters shy away from supporting performers who do anything radical with the sounds of well-known pieces. I think it will take concerted efforts on the part of classical performers to convince managers and promoters that if concerts were to become less predictable in terms of the performers’ interpretations, they would also become more interesting; that performers would become more engaged in what they had to communicate through their music making, as they would truly own their interpretations; and that audiences can start delighting in the creativity of performers and in new interpretations.
7) How would you teach a young musician to develop his/her own style of performance? If classical institutions are wary of innovative performance, how can musician engaged in these practices promote their work? Please comment on the risks involved in training young musicians in these practices (in terms of future career prospects being admitted to conservatoires winning competitions). How can these risks be mitigated?
I think we need to start changing the intellectual attitude of young musicians towards performing the classical repertoire while we also guide them in developing their own artistic voices. As I have already mentioned several times, there are many myths surrounding the art of music performance in the classical genre. We are all brought up to believe in the sanctity of the score, and many of the older-generation musicians whom we might admire as artists in fact subscribed to such a view. We need to make our students realize that the discourses surrounding classical performance pedagogy are culturally constructed and do not inhere the final word about matters of performance; and that we can still continue to admire the musicianship of a performer while questioning and critically evaluating their views. For instance, you may consider Claudio Arrau one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, but you do not need to subscribe blindly to his belief that “an interpreter has the sacred duty to render intact the thinking of the composer whose work he interprets.”
As for teaching creative approaches to classical scores, this should really start at an early age, before students are made to internalize the idea that there is only one ideal – and ideally effective – way of performing a piece of music. We should encourage young musicians to develop and manifest their musicianship without necessarily imitating their teachers; we should teach the art of making music persuasively rather than playing necessarily in institutionally sanctioned styles; we should prioritize the joys of making music and not the idea of finding and preserving some imaginary original interpretation. I should also like to note here that the pursuit of expressive freedom and the development of one’s personal artistic voice do not have to result in radical or unusual performances. The greatest benefit I had drawn from my involvement in the radical interpretation project has been the increasing awareness of expressive possibilities in music making and the freedom this brings in the moment of performance. While I do not (yet) present radical interpretations in my regular, professional solo and chamber music work, the knowledge that if I choose to, I can in fact play otherwise (both in terms of expressive skill and as artistic-political choice, if you like) has been enormously liberating, impacting my “traditional” interpretations as well. I think it is this kind of freedom that we need to impart to our performance students.
As for promoting radical creativity in performance pedagogy and the risks this involves, I think it is a big challenge trying to achieve lasting results without institutional or cultural support. Ideally, one should be able to make a career by expressing one’s artistic voice without succumbing to commercial or institutional pressures. But because these pressures have been and continue to be so powerful in the world of classical music performance, unless we can create a niche for radically creative interpretations within the commercial arena, young performers will inevitably continue to play in order to please the gatekeepers of the profession. Perhaps it will take a group of courageous musicians to lead the way and produce innovative recordings, give lecture-recitals of creative interpretations, etc. which might convince these gatekeepers that potentially great cultural and economic benefits are involved for the classical music industry in loosening the grip on performer creativity.
8) Could you name performers of classical repertoire that you admire for their creative/ unusual performance styles?
As I already suggested, creativity for me is a matter of expressive freedom and in this sense the performers I admire – for example, Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire – do not necessarily have unusual performance styles: but you can hear their individual voices when they play, unlike so many young musicians who merely repeat in performance what they have been taught by their teachers. A performance does not need to involve a radical reading of a score to be effective and moving: it only needs to be effective and moving musically.
As for musicians I admire for their unusual performance style, I would like to mention, as you would expect, Glenn Gould. Recent interpretations of Ivo Pogorelich are interesting, although I hesitate to call them entirely convincing. And as we go back to the early days of the recording era, we find so much more expressive variety and individuality among performers that listening to their musical world, one can discover interpretative gems.
Finally, I should like to mention the late Charles Rosen – not only for his exciting attempt during the last phase of his performing career to bring back old-style Romantic pianism – but also for his open-minded approach to classical scores and pedagogy. Regarding choice of tempo, for example, he wrote in his book titled Piano Notes: The Hidden World of the Pianist (2004): “It is not illegal to play a piece of music at the wrong tempo: we risk neither jail sentence nor even a fine” (p. 43); “I regret … the failure to realize that it is often effective and advantageous to play a work at the wrong tempo. Many great performers have given wonderful and illuminating renditions of works at tempos that they themselves could believe was the one the composer intended by cultivating a delusion. A student should decide on a tempo not because it is accepted by the academy, but because it is effective or because it suits his or her individual sensibility. When the conservatory imposes a respectable correct performance with the rigor of authority, it not only encroaches on the indispensable liberty of the student, but hinders their artistic development” (p. 99). In a similar spirit, I would encourage classical music performance students to pursue their very own vision regarding the interpretation of music they undoubtedly love, and to enjoy developing their personal artistic voices: I believe that their artistic integrity, accompanied by an unwavering conviction in their artistic vision would ultimately be recognised by the artistic community and the public.