Hitting a metaphorical brick wall

I was reminded tonight of why we try to avoid talking about metaphor and meaning in rehearsal.

As it happens, in the midst of a long and very happy day of trio rehearsals, one of my colleagues and I found ourselves in complete and profound disagreement about one passage. It’s not unusual for people to disagree, of course, but in a certain sense, chamber music disagreements are different, and often more intractable, because of the lack of a hierarchy. A 2nd oboist may disagree with the principal oboist’s articulation in an orchestra work, and may well discuss it, but at the end of the day, the principal will win that argument.

Unless, of course, the conductor agrees with the 2nd oboist.

But the real issue in our case is that we both had strong metaphorical constructs in mind, and that they were pretty antithetical. I was using words like “rarified, elevated and ecstatic,” and he was using “rustic, earthy and carnival.” It’s not hard to see why we got stuck.

But of course, although we have different sound concepts, I think the difference in sound concept is much smaller than the difference in metaphysical concept. This is the problem with rehearsing in terms of meaning and metaphor- when we agree, it’s wonderful, but when we don’t we cut off each other’s psychic room for perception and response. The whole beauty of abstract music is that a single piece, even a single performance, can be experienced spiritually in profoundly different ways. That experiential space is something very personal and very profound- it is us at our most honest. To take that away can be quite cruel. I never picture cathedrals in Bruckner, I picture the cosmos- the dances of galaxies and the destruction of stars. However, I don’t have the right to destroy another listener’s mental imagery. Likewise, people can disagree about whether the end of Shostakovich 5 is happy or sad, but only fools take it twice as fast as he intended it (see, even that makes you tense up, even if you know I’m right! Still, better a fool than a politician who splits the difference between Shostakovich’s tempo and 2x Shostakovich’s tempo).

So, we agreed to leave it for now and record it later. I have a feeling that when we listen to the playback, it will be obvious if it needs to be louder or softer, longer or shorter, more or less articulate. If you boil it down to “sounds-good/sounds-like-shit,” life gets easier.

Then he can have a carnival while I contemplate the fragile wonder of the undiscovered country.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “Hitting a metaphorical brick wall”

  1. Elaine Fine

    Perhaps the beauty of chamber music is that words often fail to solve problems concerning broad ideas of interpretation. When, as a conductor, you are trying to get a bunch of people to blend together and to present your concept of sound, words do work. They tend to create a happy medium–a point of reference perhaps–for a number of musicians with individual ideas to come to a useful consensus. And you can use your body to illustrate your concept of the music, and the musicians, who are looking right at you, appreciate having definite gestures to guide them and help them play together as a unit.

    Chamber music is so different. I find that in rehearsals of chamber music, the best operative words are functional ones: the kinds of words that help make a performance clean, and make it easy for the musicians who are playing to be spontaneous and creative while still being precise and aware of everyone else’s every nuance.

    I find that discussing things like the lengths of notes, intonation, balance, dynamics, quality of attack, quality of release, timing of attack, timing of release, length of phrase, direction of phrase, structure of the piece (form), choice of tempo, how to keep a tempo, and figuring out who should lead in transitional sections make for more productive chamber music rehearsal time than lofty images that can work so well when you are conducting.

    A conductor can solve all the above problems by, well, conducting. A group of chamber music players need to share all the responsibilities equally, and than means that each member is also entitled to his or her internal verbal concept of the character of the piece or the quality of a passage. It might not be the same the next day anyway.

  2. rbonotto

    I can remember the negative effects of hearing a piano trio inspiring me to write something.

    At a performance I heard several years ago, a piano trio had asked a violist to join them for the Dvorak Piano Quartet #2 in the second half of the program. Unfortunately, their interpretation seemed to me all wrong: heavy-handed and Teutonic, trying to turn Dvorak into Brahms (I suspect), reminding me of Alfred Einstein’s noting a German musicologist extolling Dvorak, “despite occasional Slavonic aberrations.” (I’m not sure Brahms would have been
    pleased with the performance, either.)

    Worse, the piano trio absolutely buried the viola, already a sound-problem with this sort of ensemble. About halfway through, the violist seemed to give up, and the line on her mouth might have been drawn with a ruler.

    In anger about that afternoon’s performance, I went home and wrote a Concerto for Viola and Piano Trio. The violist doesn’t get *all* the tunes. But he/she does get to stand out some.

  3. Paul H. Muller

    Eric Whitacre told a good story at a recent concert I attended. He described the difference between conducting a voice choir and an orchestra, ( paraphrasing):

    “I began pleading with the brass section. Give me passion! I want more intensity! Give me an apocalyptic sheet of sound that will peel the paint off the walls and melt the windows into puddles on the floor! And the principal trombonist says: ‘So you want that louder, or … what?’”

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