Category Archives: Performance practice

Returning to “La source”

Four historic performances of Arthur Saint-Léon’s ballet La source, spanning 150 years, illustrate how—through the sacrifice of a feminized nature—the work represented the biopolitics of sex and race, and the cosmopolitics of human and natural resources.

In 1866, when La source debuted, the public at the Paris Opéra may have been content to dream about its setting in the verdant Caucasus, its exotic Circassians, veiled Georgians, and powerful Khan. Yet the ballet’s botany also played to a public thinking about ethnic and exotic others at the same time—and in the same ways—as they were thinking about plants.

Along with these stereotypes, with a flower promising hybridity in a green ecology, and the death of the embodied Source recuperated as a force for regeneration, the ballet can be read as a fable of science and the performance as its demonstration.

Programmed for the opening gala of the new Opéra, the Palais Garnier, in 1875 the ballet reflected not so much a timeless Orient as timely colonial policy and engineering in North Africa, the management of water and women.

Its 2011 reinvention at the Paris Opéra, following the adoption of new legislation banning the veil in public spaces, might have staged gender and climate justice in sync with the Arab Spring, but opted instead for luxury and dream.

Its 2014 reprise might have focused on decolonizing the stage or raising eco-consciousness, but it exemplified the greater urgency attached to Islamist threat rather than imminent climate catastrophe, missing the ballet’s historic potential to make its audience think.

This according to One dead at the Paris Opera Ballet: La source 1866–2014 by Felicia M. McCarren (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-54905).

Above, Eugénie Fiocre in La Source, depicted by Edgar Degas circa 1868; below, an excerpt from the 2011 production.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Performance practice

Improv Everywhere!

The improvisation collective Improv Everywhere specializes in staging public-space interventions, which they refer to as pranks or missions.

By enlisting pedestrians in discrete one-time events that challenge protocols of public contact and that expand our understanding of public flexibility and empathy, Improv Everywhere offers an antidote to mainstream, hegemonic formulations of spectacle, virtuosity, and generalized expectations concerning the purpose of performance.

The group’s integration of trained and untrained performers (whom they refer to as agents), the kinds of space and sociality that they create, and the connections between their live and web presences reveal noteworthy contemporary understandings of intimacy and the social fabric.

This according to “Why not Improv Everywhere?” by Susan Leigh Foster, an essay included in The Oxford handbook of dance and theater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 196–212; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-23390).

Above and below, Conduct us, a collaboration with the designer Ilya Smelansky and New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Performance practice

International journal of the study of music and musical performance

 

In 2019 Open Music Library launched International journal of the study of music and musical performance.

The journal advances both a general and professional interest in music and its performance with essays that cover a range of approaches: from discussions of little-known composers and musicians drawing upon primary and secondary sources to more specialized studies of composers, works, instruments, performers, audiences, and institutions. A review section covers new books, scores, and recordings. Whenever possible, international contributions are presented in the original language as well as in English.

Below, Hans Werner Henze’s Du schönes Bächlein; the work’s performance practice is discussed in the inaugural issue.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, New periodicals, Performance practice

McCoy Tyner and “apart playing”

 

McCoy Tyner’s improvisation on Bessie’s blues, recorded with the John Coltrane Quartet in 1964, exemplifies the traditional Afrodiasporic performance practice of apart playing.

A formulation of the art historian Robert Farris Thompson, apart playing occurs whenever individual performers enact different, complementary roles in an ensemble setting. For interpretative purposes, the concept helps to provide a cultural context for certain pitch-based formal devices, such as substitute harmonies and playing outside an underlying chord or scale, which Tyner uses in the course of his solo.

This according to “Apart playing: McCoy Tyner and Bessie’s blues” by Benjamin Givan (Journal of the Society for American Music I/2 [May 2007] pp. 257–80).

Today is Tyner’s 80th birthday! Above, performing in 1973; below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performance practice, Performers

Granados’s performance practices

Enrique Granados’s Duo-Art piano-roll performance of his Danza española no. 5 (Andaluza), made some 20 years after the piece was published, illuminates much about late-Romantic piano performance practices.

Transcription and analysis of this piano roll illustrate the disparity between score and performance. Granados added and changed notes, ornaments, articulations, and chords. He also altered many rhythmic values, desynchronized melody and accompaniment, rolled chords at will, and introduced drastic tempo changes not indicated in the score. His performing style thus reflects a personal approach to the piano that lies well within the broader context of the Romantic performance tradition.

This according to “Piano-roll recordings of Enrique Granados: A study of a transcription of the composer’s performance” by Anatole Leikin (Journal of musicological research XXI/1–2 [January–June 2002] pp. 3–19).

Today is Granados’s 150th birthday! Below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Performance practice, Romantic era

Rhythm and experimental psychology

 

In the laboratories of 19th-century experimental psychologists, new concepts of precision-oriented, mechanically regulated musical time emerged as a positive ideal—one that led to the ubiquity of the metronome in the training and practice regimes of classical musicians and pervasive understandings of “good” and “bad” musical rhythm in the 20th century.

Most notably, Wilhelm Wundt included a metronome in the assembly of clockwork instruments employed in his research into the variables of human perception and action. His experiments helped to shape and define modern concepts of rhythm, radically shifting the concept of musical rhythm from a subjective, internal pulse reference to an objective, unerringly precise phenomenon independent of human agency.

At the turn of the 20th century, other psychologists, such as Carl Seashore, disseminated these scientific ideals to a wider public through important music publications, and by the 1920s such ideals were becoming pervasive among both amateur and professional music practitioners.

This according to “Refashioning rhythm: Hearing, acting and reacting to metronomic sound in experimental psychology and beyond, c. 1875–1920” by Alexander Bonus, an essay included in Cultural histories of noise, sound and listening in Europe, 1300–1918 (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 76–105).

Above, Dr. Wundt (seated) and colleagues in his psychological laboratory, the first of its kind, ca. 1880; below, an abridged version of György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes.

BONUS: For the purists, a complete performance of Ligeti’s work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performance practice

Toscanini’s annotations

 

Critics, scholars, and performers have long noted that Arturo Toscanini’s reputation for absolute fidelity to the printed score was little more than a public relations myth.

Now that the legendary conductor’s annotated scores are available for study, three types of alterations can be observed: (1) modifications of dynamics, articulation, bowing, phrasing, and tempo; (2) orchestrational adjustments; and (3) the introduction of new material.

The combination of Toscanini’s Italian musical heritage and Wagnerian aesthetic convinced him that the highest service that a conductor could render was to impose certain types of musical changes whenever he sensed that a composer’s artistic conception was threatened. In his mind, there was neither egotism nor hypocrisy in this approach.

This according to “Toscanini and the myth of textual fidelity” by Linda B. Fairtile (Journal of the Conductors Guild XXVI/1–2 [2003] 49–60).

Today is Toscanini’s 150th birthday! Below, his recording of the first movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, one of the works discussed in the article.

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Filed under Performance practice, Performers

Performing premodernity online

performing-premodernity

Performing premodernity online, an open-access journal launched in January 2015, publishes papers given at Performing Premodernity conferences as well as reports from workshops and other events.

Performing Premodernity is a research project based at the Department of Culture and Aesthetics at Stockholm University. It is one of eight premodernity projects funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences). Concentrating on both academic and artistic research, the project aims to contribute to the revitalizing of historically informed performance today.

The journal’s first volume includes papers from a conference that was held in København in February 2014 on Francesco Cavalli’s opera Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne. Below, Soledad Cardoso performs an aria from the work.

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Filed under Baroque era, New periodicals, Opera, Performance practice

Medieval music and memory

Although writing allowed medieval composers to work out pieces in their minds, it did not make memorization redundant—rather, it allowed for new ways to commit music to memory. But since some of the polyphonic music from the 12th century and later was written down, scholars have long assumed that it was all composed and transmitted in written form.

Our understanding of medieval music has been profoundly shaped by German philologists from the beginning of the twentieth century, who approached medieval music as if it were no different from music of the nineteenth century. The fact that a piece was written down does not necessarily mean that it was conceived and transmitted in writing. A new model emphasizes the interplay of literate and oral composition and transmission.

This according to “Medieval music and the art of memory” by Anna Maria Busse Berger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

Above, Notre Dame Cathedral, an early center of polyphony, around 1450; below, Viderunt omnes. by Pérotin, who is widely considered to be the first to compose at his desk rather than in the church.

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Filed under Middle Ages, Performance practice

Unperformable music

ligeti etude 14a

Some artworks—works of music, theatre, dance, and the like—are works for performance. Some works for performance are unperformable.

Some such works are unperformable by beings like us; others are unperformable given our laws of nature; still others are unperformable given considerations of basic logic.

Musical works that fit into each of these categories really are genuine works, musical works, and works for performance, and the very possibility of such works is ontologically significant. In particular, the possibility of these works raises serious problems for type-theoretic accounts of the ontology of music as well as certain mereological or constitution-based accounts.

This according to “Unperformable works and the ontology of music” by Wesley D. Cray (British Journal of Aesthetics LVI/1 [January 2016] pp. 67–81.

Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention! Above and below, György Ligeti’s Étude No. 14A: Coloana fara sfârşit (Column without end), one of the works discussed in the article.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performance practice