Mine Doğantan-Dack

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. (Charles Rosen)

Radical performance

Mine Doğantan-Dack, who is both a scholar and a professional performer, pointed out already in 2006 (in a symposium in London) that 20th-century classical music performers themselves play a decisive role in sustaining the ideology of the musical work and the notion of faithfulness to the composer’s intentions, through their traditionally conservative approaches to musical scores. You could say that performers have been the most ardent supporters of Werktreue ideology. During that talk she played five different interpretations of a Bach prelude to illustrate her point that developing multiple readings of classical scores should be part of basic performance teaching.

Then in 2011, as an Associate of the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP), Mine and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson exchanged some ideas about a much more radical approach to reading well-known classical scores, aimed at discovering how much performer creativity (expressive freedom) was possible. Over the next four years they gave several joint seminars and lecture-recitals, some with soprano Diana Gilchrist and cellist Naomi McLean, aimed at exploring how far we could go and still generate a musically persuasive result, and at testing audience reaction to overriding current performance norms. A recent outcome of Mine’s research in this area is “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.

Rachmaninoff, Moment Musical, Op. 16 No. 5. Mine Doğantan-Dack (piano).

Here the tempo is very different from that usually taken with this score; other parameters are adjusted accordingly, to produce a persuasive alternative performance.

‘In general’, Mine comments, ‘performance students have been very open to the idea of radical interpretation, at times offering their own creative readings. Interestingly, when the repertoire in question 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.’ This is revealing, suggesting that many of our views about good performance have nothing to do with the musical result!

As far as calling these performances radical is concerned, Mine feels that ‘they are politically radical in that they would currently not be acceptable at performance exams or competitions, for example’, and that in that sense the term is appropriate.

Preparing a radical performance

‘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?” … 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.’ … ‘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.’ As Mine and Daniel argued in their presentations, to invoke other genres just allows people to put these more radical performances into a safe box labelled ‘cross-over’, where they no longer seem to challenge normal practice. The task, then, is to work within classical styles of performance but still to get scores to work in quite new ways. ‘In this sense’, Mine explains, ‘preparing a radical interpretation is a true case of artistic research, with artistic practice at its core, leading to high-quality artistic outcomes.’

Ultimately, ‘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.’

Problems with the standard view

‘Classical music performance practice’, in Mine’s view, ‘is probably unique in having remained immune from the influence of politically engaged artistic practices since the early twentieth century. The reasons for this are complex, but 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 is that musical structures bring with them their own correct interpretations. Yet, ‘the same notes and rhythms can be performed in widely – even radically – different ways, each of which can still produce expressively convincing results.’

‘Many classical performers today are involved in performing in “unusual” venues such as bars, night-clubs, and in settings that involve more audience interaction. The way they play the canonical repertoire, however, has not been the subject of radical experimentation.’ Yet classical music audiences have been shrinking. ‘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.’ Then ‘audiences can start delighting in the creativity of performers and in new interpretations.’

How training needs to change

‘Teaching creative approaches to classical scores should really start at an early age, before students are made to internalise 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 in institutionally sanctioned styles; we should prioritise the joys of making music and not the idea of finding and preserving some imaginary original interpretation.’

At the same time, ‘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 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.’

‘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 the gatekeepers to the profession that potentially great cultural and economic benefits are involved for the classical music industry in loosening the grip on performer creativity.’

Charles Rosen wrote in his book 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.’

‘Interview with Rosalind Rei.

NOTE: The full text of Rosalind’s interview with Mine Doğantan-Dack, where she makes many further points about radical performance, is available on this separate page.

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