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"Events". Merce Cunningham Company
Image by Museo Reina Sofía via Flickr

Shortly after Merce Cunningham’s death, he and his partner John Cage were quoted in a newspaper article.  Their insights resulted in my thinking about this blog post.

Although I have performed nontraditional music, I am not an expert.  However, problem-solving can often be done best by using unorthodox thought processes.  Hence the connection between the article and this post.

John Cage, surprisingly, and perhaps uniquely, had no preconceived sounds in his head.  He asserted that each sound he wrote had its own life.  Interesting concept!

Merce Cunningham, who had his choreography performed with Cage’s music, spoke about “set points” being coordinated.  Movement and music are together at certain spots.  At other times, they proceed independently.

Cunningham thought that movement could stand on its own.  If it is well done, it is beautiful.  On the other hand, if the movement and music are always synchronized but not performed well, who would be interested in watching and listening?

What does this have to do with more traditional music?  After all, most music I play has meter, tempo markings, and the various instruments are in sync.  Its composers’ intentions were almost certainly preconceived.

It is the unusual to me thought process, as well its realization (its life in the music), that is helpful to me.

I would suggest that we can suspend at least some of our embedded ideas.  This is quite useful in solving interpretive issues.   At times, no matter what you try, certain phrases just don’t work.  Or an entire piece won’t fit with what you know about the composer’s style.

When that happens, I never accept merely getting through a phrase in a mediocre way just to feel relieved when I arrive at a section that works.  Playing something in a way I am not convinced of is unacceptable.  And mediocre playing will never fly with a savvy audience.

When learning a piece, it’s important to decipher all the markings and find the composer’s intentions.  But after you’ve tried everything, sometimes a phrase or a movement just doesn’t feel right.  That is a good time to say, “This is… but what if it isn’t?”

A word of caution:  when something isn’t working, that is not the time to impose yourself on the music.  You need to look further, try something else.

One example:  a 20th century violin/piano sonata I performed recently.  The piece begins romantically, and then there’s a change.  The second section is marked 4 beats faster.  Not much of a difference… until you look at what the musical style is, too.  The faster section is airier, with lots of filigree going on, rather than being melodic.  So it needs to sound completely different, new.

Arriving at something that works need not take an excessive amount of time.  All that’s required is a flexible way of thinking.

Go for it!

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