An Unreasonably Roundabout Explanation of How One May Achieve More Coherent Musical Expression

By Marco Schirripa posted 01-15-2014 15:33


I have always been fascinated by the clear connections between each form of art through history, implementation, evolution and perception.  Recently, however, I have been pondering how any part of one’s artistic process can be explained in some way by practical means.  For example, there are some performers who are world famous because of their ability to be profoundly expressive like no one else can.  While this is something that requires much talent and a trained ear, it is not just simply the performer being “brilliant,” but he or she subconsciously utilizing small scientific phenomena in such a fashion that more coherently communicates a certain idea to an audience.  If I want to play something expressively, I do not have to explain in words what that means, however one could accurately describe “musical expression” as “the planned or spontaneous variation of a given element of music from the preserved medium to assist in a certain emotional inflection for the listener.”  In short, I can move three notes of a Bach violin movement slightly further apart and make a cadence sound “pretty.”  While I disagree with the idea of a purely scientific approach to musical expression, I think we, the performers, can take heed of some of these ideas to help achieve even more profound musicality.

Yesterday I read a (translation of) an essay by Bela Bartok in which he describes the reason and method by which one should collect and record folk music from different cultures.  The reason behind this essay, of course, was that Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, among others, were instrumental in travelling around Hungary and other European countries to record common people singing their cultural songs.  This ethnomusicological study served as a strong compositional influence for Bartok, among other composers, throughout the twentieth century. 

In the essay, Bartok covers in great detail the “best” ways to obtain recordings, including what phonograph to use, what types of songs to collect, who to ask, etc.  As the essay progresses, he delves into greater and greater detail, covering nearly every imaginable variation in the process, such as how to initiate conversation with those one asks to sing, and even suggesting that a single performer should be recorded multiple times over a span of several decades to get the most true understanding of what the music means to them, and any musical variations that may occur over time.

When one looks at the overall message of the essay, it appears almost as if Bartok is approaching folk song collection as a scientific experiment.  In a chemistry lab, for instance, one regulates his or her results by making sure the test occurs under standard temperature and pressure, as if to replicate the conditions of a real-world occurrence.  By traveling to rural areas, asking only certain people in certain places, and attempting to compare different variations of a particular song, as well as recording the same person singing the same song ten years apart, Bartok is attempting to collect information in such a fashion that he can use it to identify how the music would be presented spontaneously, in its normal habitat.  When a 19th century housewife wakes up at dawn and sings while preparing the morning meal, the music carries a much different affect than when the same individual is singing for a strange Hungarian man with a phonograph. 

This idea of attempting to replicate spontaneity makes clear some of my thoughts on expression in the performance of solo percussion music (or anything, for that matter).  We often look at composers’ valiant attempts to describe in words exactly what they want from the performer: there is a pitch, a rhythm, a tempo, a timbre, a dynamic, and often some sort of expression marking, such as “sweetly” or “vivo.”  While these words tend to point a performer in the right direction, it is nearly impossible to understand exactly the composer’s thought process and how an idea is conceived through another person’s ears.  What makes Bartok’s strenuous recording method brilliant is that he is able to more accurately capture the emotional, societal and perceptual contexts of the music.  Instead of listing that a performer sang a certain song “sweetly,” he can deduce, after much research, that the same song is, for instance, sung on the morning of a joyous occasion, such as a wedding, to represent the love of a family, as well as paint the mental picture of a well-dressed woman singing this song of profound joy to her children, while shedding tears of happiness. 

That detailed mental picture is far more specific than “sweetly,” and would be moderately impractical for one to impose onto a score.  However, we as performers can learn from this and apply it to the way we interpret and present our music.  The average person, myself included, will read through a piece and see a marking such as “sweetly,” then probably make a small change possibly involving a lighter touch or more legato; but what about trying to communicate this expression marking to the audience?  I guarantee that a slight amount more legato on an idiophone will not cause an audience to realize a distinct difference in the emotion of a piece.  While this will always be an issue when dealing with idiophones, think about how much more profound this change could be if you painted a detailed mental picture of something “sweet” instead of perceiving it as an arbitrary adverb.  Imagine the music instead says, “Play this section as if you are madly in love and filled with ecstasy as you stroll through a light snow on a mild February evening.”  This, in my opinion, could still fit under the broad term of “sweetly,” however could cause the performer to experience and apply real, legitimate emotion to the music.  While the sonic difference will still be subtle, these subtleties are what separate great performers from just good.

The bottom line is that one should remember that music, literature, or any form of art is much, much more than just ink on a page, a thought that seems to get lost sometimes through the jaded eyes of an overworked music student.  A piece of music or art is an immortal representation of the creator’s deepest, most powerful thoughts at a given time, with ink and paper being the most accurate attempt of preserving such feelings.  As performers, we should recognize this and strive to apply what emotional, societal, and perceptual contexts we can to our interpretations and performance.

By the way, the essay I read:

Bartok, Bela. "Why and How Do We Collect Folk Music?"  Bela Bartok Essays.  Ed. Benjamin Suchoff.  Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.  Pp. 9-24.  Print.