Many potential performances lie dormant within a single score. Shelley Katz considers it his duty as an artist to deliver these to audiences through his playing.
Shelley Katz regards scores as palettes filled with potential. This is why, he thinks, it is more “enriching to hear Rubinstein play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star as a little ditty for half a minute [..] than to hear an average [..] music student of a conservatoire perform a Beethoven piano concerto for thirty minutes.” Although a complex Beethoven score contains far richer potential than a lullaby, the artist-performer would be able to detect and make audible hidden strands within the latter in a way few others can. This ability to find non-obvious aspects of a score and manifest them in their performances produces what he terms ‘enriching’ performances – ones that expose audiences to powerful emotional experiences. The player who can aim for and achieve a particular affective response within their listeners – be that shock, enthralment or wonder – is an artist who has fulfilled their duty to audiences.
Though he often felt frustrated by the strictures of performance criteria as a young music student, it was a challenge issued by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson several years ago that first prompted sustained reflection upon his creative practices as a performer. Daniel’s challenge was to produce seven distinct performances of one score without altering the pitch order notated. The other constraint was that altering parameters slightly, such as subtle and temporary changes to dynamics or tempo, was not enough to constitute a new version of the score. The only way to achieve this near-impossible number of distinct performances without resorting to adding or subtracting notes was by making very sustained and large scale changes in the parameters of musical performance. Shelley became the first person to succeed in producing over seven versions of one score – resulting in the Bach prelude versions featured on this page.
We reproduce Shelley’s first ten performances here. ‘Similar to the sketches done by artists before they do the ‘real’ painting, these first recordings of mine, recorded on an iPhone4 as it was closest to hand, were the actual breakthrough moment, when I answered the question, how to render seven or more completely convincing and distinguishable performances.’
Bach, Prelude in e minor: 10 versions
Actors in training are commonly tasked with performing one text in multiple ways. With these prelude versions, Shelley has undertaken the musical equivalent of this exercise. Without altering the notated pitch order, Shelley has produced ten versions of this prelude, each forming different relationships between the notes.
Shelley has systematised how this might be done. One method entails isolating one or several parameters, specifying what is to be done to each for the duration of the piece. ‘Attack’ – the ways that notes are struck – is a parameter a player might specify by deciding to play in dry staccato rather than a heavily pedalled legato. Though this procedure involves making changes to aspects of performance that the musician has a large amount of control over, sonic results are nonetheless difficult to predict – especially when various parameters are altered in unusual ways and then combined. Hence, a lot of trial and error is required. Concretely, this might involve shifting parameters by slight degrees, listening to the results and then making alterations accordingly so that when finally the layers of altered parameters are woven together in live performance, they combine in a way that achieve the performer’s intended effect.
Shelley describes, for example, how he can use his musical vocabulary to reflect the emotional state of a listener back to them through his playing or else to use his technical skills to produce a performance that interacts in interesting ways with the emotional state of his listener.
Another means of achieving multiple versions of one score is to use an image or narrative as a departure point. Shelley describes, for example, how he can use his musical vocabulary to reflect the emotional state of a listener back to them through his playing or else to use his technical skills to produce a performance that interacts in interesting ways with the emotional state of his listener. A performer might similarly use a fictional narrative to guide him or her in calibrating various parameters of their playing. The final performance aims to be eloquently expressive of the emotions that define the imagined scenarios.
Though a performer appears to have boundlessly free choice over how and where to alter parameters of their playing, they are in fact bounded by some constraints. Shelley stresses these limits are equally important factors in the final, heard result of the performance. The first and most obvious limit lies in their particular instrument – each has a finite range of potential mechanisms an instrumentalist could manipulate to produce a finite range of sounds. The acoustic environment of the venue is the other, often overlooked factor that narrows the range of choices that performers have to alter aspects of playing. The sonic effects produced by one technique inside a church will sound entirely different when the same techniques are practised in a recording studio. The acoustic properties of performance spaces – which the performer has little control over – will ultimately alter the character of the final piece. Considering the acoustic environment is not just relevant to live performances but also performance for recording. The recording performer can think of what type of real acoustic environment they wish to evoke and which techniques can achieve this effect best. Shelley calls this recreation of an acoustic environment in recorded playing the creation of a ‘virtual acoustic space’.