Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Performing Difficult Music

An interesting piece on the modern performance of difficult music in Orpheus Complex's blog, speaking up for performers whose technical accomplishment can often be taken for granted. It's not just recently written music that's the issue either - all manner of classical music written over the past four hundred years has remarkable demands inside it.

A view from the stalls then. Does the audience really want to see the difficulty at the same aesthetic surface of the music? In other words, is the struggle as interesting as the beauty of the music?

The Wagner and Bach that Gavin brings up is really all about the music (in fact the Wagner is less about the music than the drama, burying the technical challenges even deeper). Yet there is music written in order to showcase the technical abilities of the soloist. Certainly the 19th century saw the rise and rise of the tenor voice as a vehicle for courage in the face of perilous (usually meaning high) music. Here is Rolando Villazon (and Mark Elder) talking about the dramatic tenor at the height of the bel canto era in a BBC 4 documentary:

Part of the appeal of this is that the demands made on the singer come in music that is highly melodic and appealing. The height, or tessitura of the music is its own sort of coloratura, the singer's version of the complexity that would have been the great appeal of artists such as Paganini or Liszt, as much a draw for their own variations on simple, familiar music as the music itself.

It's when the music itself begins to become tricky to understand that the issue of difficult music starts to become a clouded. Just to continue the singing line, as it were, for a moment, for me the watershed period is that of the post-2nd Viennese School, where melody is dispersed in the face of new compositional techniques. Nonetheless, a composer like Alban Berg was capable of writing lyric, singable lines into his music (not to mention snatches of melody recognisable as such in the previous century) if only the singers have the technique to make them shine out of the music's aesthetic, let alone technical complexity. This is a reversal of the situation in the 19th century where the audience count on a singer to be subordinate to the music, simply so that it can be understood - once again the technical difficulties become hidden. Modernism follows in the 20th century, where music and the musicians are persistently required to perform music that reflects the constituency of the world.

All this is of considerable interest to me as I prepare to take part in a production of Karlheinz Stockhausen's penultimate opera Mittwoch aus Licht. Completed in 1998 but first conceived back in the mid 1970s, the score - that is to say the written music - is marked in great detail and demands that the singers perform in all sorts of ways that would be considered alien to the normal practise of singing. This 'extended' technique, as it is commonly known, involves all sorts of other vocal noises, as well as isolating elements of the vocal sound which are usually combined in its day-to-day delivery.

All this comes from the sort of work that Stockhausen and others (most notably John Cage in America and Pierre Boulez in France) were doing during a period now referred to as the avant garde (avant garde is of course a term that describes something just ahead of the state of the art at any given moment, although in classical music it has come to refer to a fixed period in the 1950s). It was exploratory as much as designed to achieve premeditated results and extended its reach past the remit of technical musicianship to all sort of other aesthetic and cultural areas. In other words the technical challenges of the music had some passing investment in the culture of apprehending the music. Whether or not it is seen as difficult, it is meant to be noticed by the audience.

However, the cultural experimentation and fermentation of the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, in which much of this music was born is, simply, an anachronism nowadays. In a postmodern world in which we are all, if not enlightened, then part of a culture that recognises that things be accounted for, objectified, I wonder whether or not the abandon and experimentation in which an avant garde audience would be prepared to indulge (in itself, let alone in the performers) simply isn't current. It is going to be very interesting for me as a performer to see how we prepare the music of this extraordinary (and, incidentally, no doubt sincere) piece of music - and also how it is prepared mindful of performing it for a contemporary audience.

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