The Art of Interpretation

For many of us, the topic of musical interpretation conjures up images of many world-renowned conductors and soloists fussing over the length of a fermata. Ensemble musicians often regard interpretation to be of secondary importance, instead favoring to focus on more basic musical skills (rhythm, intonation, tone quality) and the ability to listen and blend various musical styles together. However, interpretation might in fact be the single most important skill for any performing musician, both soloist and collaborator alike.

Interpretation is essentially the art of playing someone else’s music. With the exception of musicians who exclusively play their own compositions (or are dictated to directly by the composer) or engage in free improvisation, we are all interpreters in one form or another, no matter what style, idiom or genre of music we might play or sing. Yes, this means that every time a crowd sings “Happy Birthday,” they are interpreting someone else’s music.

Surprisingly, there are in fact only three different means by which to interpret a piece of music: 1) copying and/or blending the interpretations of others, 2) using documented and/or physical historical evidence to speculate about interpretations from the past, and 3) directly applying theoretical and analytic models of musical aesthetics.

The first of these three is by far the most popular and, in my opinion, overused means by which to interpret a piece of music. We have all done it. We decide to begin working on a piece of music unfamiliar to us and almost instinctively turn to a YouTube or Google search for other performances. Hopefully our favorite/hero artist has performed the work in question so all we have to do is copy the performance verbatim. Sometimes if we are lucky we might be able to attend a live/local performance of the work, or maybe we study with a great teacher who has performed the work many times. Those of us who have a bit more experience might try to assimilate what we like about various performances together to form our interpretation. All of these are essentially the same method and have the same advantages and disadvantages.

If we base our interpretation on other great interpretations, we can very quickly and easily sound like the great performers we have decided to copy (albeit a bit less authentic). We might also be able to carry on many more recent performance traditions associated with a particular piece of music. This way we don’t risk offending the ears of our audience by giving them something they might not have been expecting. However, in doing this we will begin to sound like everybody else. Over time we all listen to and copy the same few recordings and performances and everything begins to homogenize. What if those same few recordings and performances everyone listens to are grossly “wrong” in some way?

This brings us to the second method, using historical evidence. The historically informed performance movement began mostly in the early twentieth century with the belief that the performance practice of music composed prior to 1750 had in fact not been passed down very accurately. Later on the movement began to question the interpretation of music composed up to and including the early twentieth century.

It is the belief (with a lot of supporting evidence) of many experts of historical performance practice that early recording artists often made drastic interpretive changes in order to be able to record themselves more quickly and efficiently. They began using a lot more vibrato, a lot less rubato, gave up improvising and ornamenting almost entirely, and favored a more consistent use of similar articulations. They wanted the primitive microphones of the time to pick up their performance equally well as well as make it maximally easy to splice their best takes into a single recording. Since these are the recordings most of the great performers and conductors of the 20th century used to learn their repertoire, this style became the new standard for performance practice in the twentieth century. This rendered many 19th century performance traditions completely lost to history. Therefore, the only sensible way to figure out how pre-recorded music was performed is to listen to some of the first and oldest known recordings (before anyone began changing their style) and (even better) find documented and physical historical evidence. This evidence may include letters, treatises, old instruments which have survived without modern modification, concert reviews, etc.

The historically informed performance movement has produced its share of unique interpretations. In my opinion, some of them are quite moving while others are somewhat lacking in cohesiveness and conviction. Historical evidence itself can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Ultimately we are just speculating about past interpretations, and in many ways this method has some of the same disadvantages as the first one. That being said, the movement has had far reaching influence on performers of older music. Anyone planning to interpret music from the pre-recording era would be wise to seek historical evidence to motivate many of their musical decisions.

One of the greatest advocates for the third means of musical interpretation was the Austrian music theorist, Heinrich Schenker (1868 – 1935). Schenker’s theories about the melodic and harmonic structure of music have been used by theorists and performers for nearly a century to determine important notes, melodic/harmonic direction, and the relationship/importance of various tonal centers. More generally, analytic models provide clarity to answer interpretive questions. They move the interpreter to ask the same types of structural questions as the composer/creator might have. Theoretical analysis gives performers a tool to explore and answer some of the most basic questions about what makes music move us in precisely the ways that it does.

Unfortunately, many models which have been developed by music theorists often fail to do much of this. In my opinion, the discipline is currently not mature or powerful enough to answer many of the questions posed to it. Most models developed for 18th and 19th century Western music only seem to explain 18th and 19th century Western music. Sometimes they can be stretched a bit to shed light onto something else, but often times the models are rendered somewhat useless. In order for aesthetic theories to match the explanatory power of scientific theories they must be able to answer far more basic questions about musical form and structure.

As I see it, performers are equally capable as theorists and composers to ask and answer these questions. What makes a particular passage of music sound the way that it does? How do we hear something differently the second time we listen to it? Why does a piece of music sound different to the performer than it does for the audience? How can the harmony affect how a particular melody sounds? Does all music need to have melodic content to move us? Why do some people enjoy a particular piece of music and others not?

These are the questions every performer, conductor, composer, theorist and historian must be able to answer, at least on some level. These questions form the basis of all interpretive decisions. How fast should this go? Should I hold this note a bit longer here? Should this A-flat have really been an A-natural? Which instrument should I play for this piece? Where should I take breaths/change my bow/interrupt the fingering?

For soloists, these decisions can be made without much discussion or debate. For ensemble musicians, these decisions can often lead to extensive debate and, in some cases, being kicked out of the ensemble. Music is very powerful and moving. None of these decisions should be taken lightly. They represent the difference between a standing ovation and the throwing of large volumes of fruit.

The next time you find yourself trying to learn a new piece of music, try doing a bit of your own analysis and some detective work with the score before pulling up one of your favorite recordings on YouTube. Who knows, it might be your unique interpretation that finally wins you that audition, or gets others to buy your recording since everyone else’s all sound exactly the same.

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