Abigail Dolan

Abigail Dolan

I was exposed to so many different sonorities which were forgotten, and began to think of ways to use these old approaches as a source of inspiration.

Studying historical flute recordings exposed Abigail to techniques no longer taught to musicians, let alone heard in performance.

The recordings formed the backbone of her PhD thesis on musical expressivity and changes in flute performance style.[1] Abigail later drew on these experiences in the sound archive to refresh her own performance practices.

The recordings that Abigail worked on are testament to a time when a wide variety of now-forgotten techniques were used by flute players. Her study coincided with AHRC Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM) collating a huge body of historical recordings that had lain unstudied. Abigail’s work on these, and others found at the British Library and in a private collection of early flute recordings, revealed how drastically homogenised flute playing became during the 20th century. Sonic diversity narrowed as the French style – which encouraged expressive playing through subtler and smaller-scale inflections – grew in popularity. ‘I was exposed to so many different sonorities which were forgotten, and began to think of ways to use these old approaches as a source of inspiration’. While Abigail sees the French style as providing performers with an interesting range of techniques in its own right, recordings made before it became dominant present a stimulating variety and diversity. She wanted to see how these early recordings ‘could be used creatively … in ways which are relevant to today’s performance styles’.

Listening to historical recordings, and the recent changes in musical scholarship, which put the role of the performer in shaping the musical experience at the heart of the inquiry, prompted Abigail to explore new ways to perform Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’, a piece she knew intimately from years of study, teaching and performance. The process of devising multiple versions was at first a matter of isolating and altering performance parameters related to tone quality – vibrato, dynamics, and articulation. With vibrato for instance, Abigail experimented with using none:

to using it liberally:

Following vibrato production found in early recordings made in England and Germany, in one of the versions Abigail uses a fast, shallow and throat-production vibrato type, which results in an alternative tone quality:

She also widened the range of dynamics available to her, making the soft dynamics softer, or introducing a wider range of articulation:

Abigail also experimented with temporal aspects of performance. Concretely, this meant making decisions over tempo (how fast the regular beat is) and timing (deciding when particular moments in the music would occur) to alter the passage of musical time as heard by the listener:

Yet she realised that isolating each component of performance in this way was not quite enough to create coherent, unified interpretations that were each distinct from one another. To achieve this, Abigail leveraged the work’s original connection to dramatic narrative. The piece had been composed as incidental music for a play. She re-imagined the kind of scenario or characterisation that each of her versions might accompany:

These personal storylines at one point resulted in 10 versions of the score. In the process, the score was marked with symbols, and a large sticker was affixed to the score on which she wrote down the narrative action that it could evoke. Now that she has internalised each version completely, Abigail performs without any of the original notation that had guided her creative process. She performs the many faces of Syrinx with one clean, original score in front of her.

Before she embarked on these projects, Abigail would prepare one version of a score per performance. Now, she plays several versions at a time. Exactly how many depends on the length of the programme and the other works that are included. Abigail rejects the idea that this is a uniquely creative, or self-consciously radical method. It is simply an outgrowth of acknowledging that notated music can be interpreted convincingly in more than one way. Hers is one of many ways to express the endless potential inside the score. What drove her to renew her practice was more a desire to improve her own skills and repertoire – something all performers strive to do through their careers. This is why ‘challenging performance’ is not quite right, she says. Her practices await a term that more accurately captures the way she views her work. But in the meantime, this terminological impasse itself speaks of ‘the beauty…and the complexity of what we’re doing’.

The ‘we’ that Abigail refers to is the group of performers and scholars around her who also explore less obvious aspects of the score. This included her husband David Dolan, her PhD supervisor Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and her colleague Shelley Katz. Katz inspired the particular practice of performing a score multiple times in its distinct characterisations. She attributes a lot of what she does now in her work to the creative synergy that has built up between them. ‘Trying to trace a linear chain of cause and effect from inspiration to result is difficult’ she says, since there was a ‘whole hub of thinking’ about creativity in performance.

Playing different versions of a score as standard practice challenges the idea that a great performance entails flawlessly mirroring a single standard style. It also challenges the idea that the performer’s role is to convey some musical essence inherent to a given score directly to an audience. Marks on a page executed accurately and in technically sophisticated ways can nonetheless result in many varied performances – and many different musical experiences. Abigail thinks of the score as ‘a fantastic departure point, a skeleton, a script’ which you can’t do without. But the score ‘is not identical with the musical experience’ and is indeterminate with regards to some crucial aspects of heard music: ‘How loud is mezzoforte?’ Abigail asks. The point about an inevitable disjunction between score and performance is forcefully highlighted by expressive parameters in particular: ‘nothing in the score relates to vibrato’. Performer creativity – and the stylistic pluralism that results from encouraging this – need not be at odds with technical excellence, rigour or even adhering to what is notated on a page.

Another implication of her practices is listener involvement in the work. An art-form that centres on auditory experience sometimes seems to forget the audience. Performance practices like Abigail’s can rectify this. By unfurling the many faces of a score, she beckons the audience to actively listen to its previously hidden intricacies. This is especially the case since Abigail introduces her live performances to audiences, explaining what she is about to do with the piece and the thought-process behind her multiple renditions.

Visit Abigail’s more detailed article about her ‘Syrinx’ realisations.

Interview with Rosalind Rei.

[1] Abigail Dolan, ‘Landmarks in Flute Performance Style on Record 1900-1950’, PhD thesis, King’s College London, 2010.

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