The Singer and the Song

Maggi Dawn, looking for debaters on the subject of scripture and translation, asked some questions on Twitter this morning which got me thinking.

@maggidawn: The Message: do you love it or hate it? I’m looking for debaters on the subject of translation
@maggidawn: The King James Version: beautiful or incomprehensible? I’m looking for debaters on the subject of scripture and translation
@maggidawn: who have you read/listened to that has most influenced you on translation and interpretation of the Bible, tweeps?

I have very little familiarity with “The Message” as a paraphrase or translation, and my familiarity with the King James Version is by no means complete. But I am also acutely aware that my Hebrew is very poor and I don’t understand Greek at all. When I read the King James Version I think I understand the language fairly well, but I know that isn’t true for everyone. If we are going to have scripture available to everyone that means we will need to renew our translations and interpretations as our use of language changes. So I find a certain irony in the existence of groups which believe the King James Version is the only valid scripture, given the Reformation value of accessibility of the text — despite the situation surrounding the actual translation, which I understand was made with certain goals regarding the status quo in church and politics.

A few years ago I read various books by Karen Armstrong, and was struck by her repeated assertion that in many faiths there has at some point been a tradition of compassionate exegesis. That is, the “rules” are that any interpretation of scripture which is harmful, violent or cruel, is necessarily incorrect. That helped me a lot in coming to terms with a collection of texts which is often contradictory. Indeed, learning to see the Bible as an anthology rather than as one coherent book was also helpful.

As far as interpretation is concerned, there’s a great post by the Three Minute Theologian which illustrates the difficulty of scriptural literalism. A musical score contains a certain amount of information about which notes are to be played when, and if you’re lucky you get instructions about volume and articulation, too. But all of that must be interpreted in the context of the performance expectations of the time: in some periods there is a great deal that nobody bothered to write down because it was just the done thing, for example repeated phrases having some variation in dynamic. Debussy and Brahms are both composers who wrote a huge amount of what they wanted on the page, so that it is possible to follow their instructions exactly and get a half-decent musical result, but both still require a sense of line and direction, and the knowledge to interpret things like the time signature, which doesn’t only tell the performer how many beats there are in a bar but how they should be stressed in relation to one another. Bach left much more to the discretion of the performer. As I commented there, an historically accurate interpretation of music requires study of contemporary performance practice, but an informed contrast to that tradition of interpretation also requires some understanding of how the music would have been performed. Performers always end up interpreting, too.

What is important in the interpretation of music, in the end, is not how correctly one interprets the dots and squiggles, but the impact of doing so on the listener. A very historically authentic performance and one that departs drastically from traditional performance practice can both be moving and inspiring; it is likely that neither will consist only of what is written on the page. The creative interpretation of the performer or performers is an intrinsic part of the music, whether the performance consists of singing, blowing air through tubes, drawing a bow across stretched strings or even putting together instructions for robots to play the music (I refer to various forms of digital music, most of which are so far outside my own area of training as to be incomprehensible to me in their performance techniques).

I’m not a theologian, but I’ll go out on a limb here: I believe that how people present scripture in the way they live their lives is a more important interpretation issue than which translation or tradition of interpretation they might use to read it. That doesn’t apply only to Christianity, either. Actions speak louder than words and actions are more important than which words you read.

What do we say in our daily actions?

(edited slightly for clarity)
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Results, moving on and settling in…

Where to start?

I got my degree. Specifically, I have been awarded a Bachelor of Music (Hons), Second Class Honours, Upper Division. In ordinary terms that’s known as a 2:1 in the British system.

I had a celebratory recital on 10th July. I’m listening to a recording now, to try and make a CD to hand on to someone who couldn’t be there. It’s interesting… a note in the Mozart that I had pegged as ‘always a bit sharp’ is flat in both the exam and the recital. Clearly I should have recorded more of my practising for troubleshooting purposes. Overall, the recital went well and I think I played better than in the exam, so I’m very glad I did it. Also, there’s little better than playing with friends and family for a large group of my friends and family.

I’ve also moved house. No more shall I wander along the Roman Road, at least not in order to get the bus to take me to Trinity in the mornings. The new house has a music room, which means I don’t actually need to leave to practise. I don’t need to book a room, either. This is most excellent. The house even came with a piano, which, although in need of some work, allows me to put off the expensive decision on buying one for myself, at least for a few more years.

So, I’ve been doing some practising, some small bits of composing, and rather a lot of packing and unpacking. In an unprecedented fit of being rather more organised than usual, most of my existing teaching schedule for the autumn is sorted out. I do need to find more students locally, but I also know it will take time to build up a class in this area.

The next few weeks bring a performance on 18th August (I’ll play serpent and Anna will play violin), a trip to deepest darkest Somerset to unwind for a few days, and rather a lot of unpacking. I also need to start doing some arranging and transcription of popular works for horn, violin and ‘cello, as it looks like a group of us are doing some of that. I also want to get going again on putting together a horn and organ concert, but I may need to wait a little longer and get some job applications out of the way, first. A website wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

In future summers I hope I’ll be able to have a longer rest in August, but as so much is in transition and there are so many new starts, this one is turning out to be mostly one where I keep my head down.

How about you?

The Garlickhythe Occasionals and the London Gallery Quire

Long time no post, I know! I’ve been working hard and learning a lot… and recently I’ve been having internet problems at home, which tends to scupper posting a bit.

I will be playing the serpent twice this weekend! Once will be with the Garlickhythe Occasionals, at a Ceilidh in Highgate on Saturday night.

For the more devoutly inclined, on Sunday at 6.30pm I’m playing with the London Gallery Quire at Choral Evensong in Dulwich at the Chapel of God’s Gift.

Concert tonight

I’ve put together a small choir to explore the legal and ethical issues involved in copyright and publishing of sheet music, and raise awareness of the resources currently available for accessing works in the public domain. We’ve rehearsed for the last few weeks and tonight we’ll be putting on a concert of some of the repertoire we looked at.

Songs of Freedom
a choral exploration of law and liberty

20 March 2009, 8pm

St John On Bethnal Green
(right by Bethnal Green tube station)
200 Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9PA

Tickets are sold on a pay-what-you-will basis and the funds raised will go to support the Open Rights Group and the fund for building restoration at St John on Bethnal Green.

Chamber music

Saturday’s concert went well, I thought. The audience was quite small, mostly due rather rainy and unfriendly weather in the morning.

Playing in that particular space was interesting: I found the piano very loud and could hardly hear Anna on the violin but apparently three feet away the balance was good. I think we played reasonably well: not everything was technically perfect, but that isn’t a realistic expectation at this point. Not everything was musically perfect either, but there were definitely some good moments. The audience was appreciative and this is always a welcome thing.

So far this week has been going a bit slowly. I had quite a tiring week last week: in addition to preparing for Saturday’s performance I was dealing with broken glasses, a broken horn (nothing major: the pinky hook came unsoldered), and feeling generally quite tired. I managed to pick up a cold from somewhere and it has gone straight to my ears of all places so I’m not feeling amazing.

That said, I’ve been getting some good work done. Monday was understandably slow and I really had to push myself to get out of the flat in the morning at all, but the teaching component of it went well and by the end of the day I was feeling much better. Coming home to find out some of the repertoire I’m being asked to play at Charterhouse was certainly a highlight.

Tuesday I managed my distractabrain a bit better: I got somewhat ambushed by piano parts for various bits of chamber music, but this is no bad thing as having a high level of familiarity with these is only ever going to be an advantage. In total I practised for six hours. I also took various parts out of the library and attended a concert at the Old Royal Naval College Chapel in the evening.

Repertoire! I had just started to get to a point where I was feeling a bit stuck, a bit aimless in my practising… I really needed either a lesson (next one is scheduled for 18th July so still a little way off) or some intermediate goals to work on. There’s nothing like being told, “Hey, come play this in two weeks” to get things started. It looks like the programme will be as follows:

23rd July
Hindemith Kleine Kammermusik for wind quintet
Mozart Quintet for Piano and Winds
24th July
Reinecke Trio for piano, oboe and horn in A minor, opus 188
29th July
Ligeti Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet

The Hindemith I don’t know well but I do have a recording of it; I’ve played the Mozart before though it was a few years ago. I know neither of those will be problematic, and roughly how much work I’ll have to put in. I’ve actually been working on the Reinecke this year anyway, though in the end we didn’t get past the first rehearsal due to schedule conflicts.

The Ligeti was an unknown to me, before yesterday. I was worried at first, because I don’t always “get” Ligeti: some of what he writes I find deeply moving and beautiful, and some of it I guess I’m just not ready for yet. I’m not guaranteed, as I am with Bach or Mozart or Brahms, an instant idea of what to do with the music. Oh, Bach and Brahms and Mozart all require study for me to perform them effectively and really understand them, but I have a good grounding in the harmonic language used, so I always know where to start. Some more modern works simply leave me baffled.

This is actually quite important. For me, performance (and teaching to an extent but that’s a different discussion) isn’t about technical prowess so much as communicating to other people my ideas of what is good about a work. It’s a sort of show-and-tell, where I have an opportunity to get up and, through playing, say,

“Listen to this! Isn’t that bit neat? Isn’t it amazing how sad these sounds can make you feel? Isn’t the rhythm there fascinating, aren’t those harmonies beautiful? Shiny! I love it! I hope you do, too!”

That’s an amazing gift, a wonderful opportunity, and I can’t do it if I don’t love or at least like the piece I’m playing. I will never be able to use technical accomplishment to dazzle a listener into loving a piece of music, and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. That doesn’t mean that the technical aspect of musicianship isn’t important: to communicate my ideas clearly requires physical preparation, to be fluent in the language of music requires a high level of proficiency and further refinements in that are always going to be possible. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, though, understanding and liking the music and being in a frame of mind to pass that on are absolutely essential.

I was pleased, then, to discover that the Ligeti Bagatelles are an instant match. Why did I not know of these before? They are gorgeous: playful lyrical by turns, rhythmical without detracting from some truly beautiful harmonies. It will be an honour to perform them, and I hope I can do them justice.

The Show Must Go On

It goes without saying that one should always be on time for concerts if one is performing.

I usually aim for arriving at the concert venue and being ready to play 30 to 60 minutes early, and also add 50% onto my expected journey time. I’ve not yet been late for a performance.

At Sinfonia on Thursday night we had a problem. Our first horn player was stuck in traffic. This wasn’t a huge problem for the Biber, because it has no horns in it.

The Vaughan Williams Folksong Suite does have four horn parts, but they are printed with 1st & 2nd on one set and 3rd & 4th on the other. Since we each had a copy of a part, all the parts were there. It is possible to cover most of the harmonies with three horns, because the work is quite heavily scored with lots of doubling. The third player jumped up to first; I played the third and fourth parts, alternating based on my own knowledge of the piece and the other parts. This is really not ideal but I doubt anyone in the audience noticed, except for the empty seat beside me.

The Mozart was going to be problematic, even though it has fewer horn parts. There was only one copy of the first horn part, and it was with our delayed first horn player. I hadn’t been scheduled to play in that piece at all, though I believe I have performed it before. The first part and the second part are fairly similar, it’s basically all octaves all the time except for a few bars in the last movement, but those few bars are fairly crucial. We had a very quick look at the score and decided that the thing to do would be to have the second player jump up to first (since he’d been rehearsing and knew what to expect), and let me sightread the second part.

Thankfully it didn’t happen that way. We were in our seats and about to tune when our first horn player arrived, flustered and rushed but with her horn and her part. I must admit I was almost disappointed as it would have been fun flying by the seat of our pants like that, but it’s probably for the best.

This is what happens when you are late for a performance: other people have to take big risks. That is why it is considered so awful. Every part really is crucial. And what would have happened if I did not know the Vaughan Williams so well, or if our first player had not made it in time for the Mozart and there were no other horn players available to try to cover the part?