PIANO: Freedom, tempo, gold rush

Happy October! I know we’re all looking forward to some cooler weather and spooky music.

Some thoughts on freedom in classical music….especially regarding tempo.

For many of us, the composer’s score is hallowed ground. We treat the score as the authority, and it’s our job to slavishly devote ourselves to all the markings on the page. We MUST play all the “right” notes and all the “right” rhythms. And play at the “right” tempo.

But what is the right tempo? Sometimes composers give us a metronome marking. Most of the time, not! Famous pianists can’t seem to agree on ONE tempo for a particular piece. Some seem to be natural speed demons…. Martha Argerich is notoriously faster than most.

Some teachers have told me that there IS no right tempo. That every person has their own natural tempo for each piece, a speed at which the piece unfolds comfortably for him/her. Collaborative pianists have it a little tougher…we have to be able to play at ANY tempo (so we can play with anyONE), even if it feels unnatural to us.

Glenn Gould, the famous Canadian Bach interpreter, takes this one step further. For him, tempo choice was not just an interpretive decision. It was part of his aesthetic that designated “the performer as composer.”

For him, the composer’s score was NOT the end….in fact, it was just the beginning. Gould believed that performers are also composers. A score is JUST a possibility. It is a musical potential written down by the composer. In fact, it’s our job as performers to discover the hidden potentials in the music….how it could go rather than how it “does” go.

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Most of the time, he would choose drastically slower tempi than indicated by the score, to bring out different structural elements, or to bring more melodic clarity. (Check out his Appassionata sonata or the apocryphal Brahms concerto no. 1 with Leonard Bernstein conducting).

I’m not suggesting that we go completely off the deep end and ignore everything the composer has written. But it does beg us to look at our beloved classic music differently. In pop and certainly jazz, we allow for wide ranges of interpretation, or “covers.” And so those genres keep evolving and growing, forever staying relevant through change.

Perhaps we who study classical music could bring some of this exploratory attitude to our pieces. What would it sound like to play at different tempi? What new elements come out if I bring out the off-beats? What happens if I make a VERY dramatic ritardando here? Or a small one? Why does this dynamic level work?

At the end of the day, let’s give ourselves the freedom, the prerogative, the right to discover more potentials in our pieces, even if they are “wrong.” Isn’t the true essence of music self-expression? I don’t believe we’ll always find self-expression in slavish devotion to notes and rhythms. We find it when we start questioning those musical elements that we take for granted.

In the spirit of questioning, here’s a lighter story. My Power of Eights partner-in-crime James Cline and I decided to cover Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush with piano and guitar. I’ve been in love with this piece since the summer, especially after hearing the Dolly Parton/Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris version. It is so ethereal and other worldly…which is the point of the song to me. However, James suggested a certain style for the middle section which secretly horrified me. Rather than protest, I decided to try it, and save the protesting for later. Strangely, his idea opened up new possibilities… (and I never got around to protesting).

Here’s our version of “After the Gold Rush”

Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments! Always happy to hear from you.