There's more than one way to do it
It’s taken me several decades to come back around to the idea that there’s more than one way to do it, as far as classical music is concerned. The voices from my classical music education reverberate through my head whenever I sit down at the piano.
Is that an Urtext edition? You’re playing an articulation that’s not in the score! Is that metronome marking real? Why aren’t you doing the right dynamics?
It’s enough to turn anyone into a big ball of neuroses. So much of classical music preparation revolves around being true to the score and having an authentic performance practice, not to mention the often repetitive and laborious work that it takes to perform something like an etude. An unspoken goal of these rituals is that if the composer were alive today (they’re often not!), they’d somehow approve of our interpretations. I’ve sometimes felt stifled by being a classical musician. In fact, I took a long break from classical music to get a PhD in computer science and work in technology for about a decade.
I first came across the phrase “There’s more than one way to do it” when I was studying computers as a teenager – it was the Perl programming motto. Strangely, although many people associate creative freedom with the arts rather than science and technology, it doesn’t always feel that way for classical musicians. The mere fact that generations of artists have made lifelong studies of Bach and Beethoven means that no matter how you play their music, someone will think you’re doing it wrong, and that opinion will be shaped by decades of listening to other people play the exact same thing. Just recently, a teacher whom I love and admire told me that it wasn’t possible to rewrite the ornamentation in a Mozart rondo because it was too well known. As if Mozart himself, a well of creativity, would ever play it the same way twice!
If centuries of performance practice feel like shackles to performing artists, imagine how it feels for composers. This is something I didn’t really consider when I first started writing music on a whim a few years ago.
The Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy for Music workshop for emerging composers, GLFCAM, turned out to be the antidote to many of these feelings. I have been blessed to audit three cycles at GLFCAM. Like many happy accidents that have shaped my life, my decision to apply to GLFCAM was nourishing in ways I could not predict. By design, the GLFCAM cohort comes from a dizzying array of backgrounds. During the three weeks I spent in Boonville, my ears, mind, and heart were full. We love the familiar, and in this time I became aware that I idealized certain musical forms (fugues, sonatas) in part because I had spent my entire life studying them, and not because of their intrinsic superiority. There is nothing like being around other artists to teach you that there’s more than one way to write music, more than one way to play music, and more than one way to be.
The pandemic forced us all to come up with new ways to make music, and my time at GLFCAM was instrumental in preparing me for that. During the pandemic, one of my composition projects (not related to GLFCAM) was to write a string quartet. Because of the pandemic, the players were never in the same room as each other and could only rehearse from home, over the internet. This was a challenge for the composers in the project. In typical ensemble writing, the composer can specify who plays first, down to a few milliseconds. Such a high degree of precision isn’t possible when performers listen to each other over the internet, because the sound takes time to travel from one player’s microphone through the internet to another player’s headphones. We all had to come up with different ways to manage the ensemble. The performers were equally stretched as the composers, acting as their own sound and video engineers. Playing takes a huge amount of trust in these situations, because none of the players has an accurate impression of what the sound is really like. Your microphone becomes part of your instrument, and your headphones become part of your ears. Relying on these awkward tools after decades of in-person chamber music playing necessitates a dramatic shift in expectations and preparations. In the end, local recordings from all four players were combined and mastered for higher audio fidelity. It was incredibly moving for all of us to really hear them for the first time, without audio jitter and with the correct levels. Not only was I blown away by the beauty of the playing, but to witness and participate in discovering a new way to make chamber music was such a moving experience.
When I think about the future of classical music, what I wish for is that classical musicians have the same freedom that improvisers and jazz musicians do; freedom to write their own music; freedom to see the composer as just another collaborator; freedom from the canon and the belief that new music deserves to be written and elevated just as much as old warhorses; and most of all freedom to play, because there’s always more than one way to do it.