Thursday, 28 October 2010

About time

Last night we played piano quartets with Jonathan, who is visiting from the United States.  Jonathan got in touch with me through the ACMP 11 years ago when he visited Israel the first time. He is a neurologist in the US Army whose specialty is the charming subject of nerve gas. He claims his work is in civil defense - developing antidotes and vaccines against all the ghastly stuff the bad guys are planning to dump on us. But I don't know. He signs his emails "Nrv Gas R Us", wears a military crewcut, and writes that he can play on Monday evening because his conference here (on nerve gas, with the Israelis - enough to make you nervous by itself) "concludes by 1830 hours". An odd combination - talented musician (pianist, violist, composer), extroverted and charming, yet military careerist and passionate student of weapons of mass destruction. A cross between captain Nemo and Dr. Strangelove.

Anyway, we played the Schumann quartet as you might expect from such a person: at a tempo just over the edge of comfortable. Fast so that you have to scramble to get in all the notes. The sixteenths bunch up in little piles, instead of standing out sharply like pearly shark's teeth; the subito pianos come by the second note after the forte, instead of the first, and the cadences never line up absolutely exactly. But it is thrilling. It is like skydiving, all the thrill and adrenaline of extreme sport without the risk.

I have played the Schumann quartet many times, at a speed just a hair slower. The difference in tempo is objectively almost imperceptible - probably less than a single click on the metronome - but the sense of the piece is completely different. I am not saying better or worse. At this faster tempo, we lose much of the attention to detail (even when reading) that lifts a performance out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.  On the other hand, there can never be anything about the reading that is pedestrian or plodding. You are forced into a kind of vital, life-or-death attention that leaves you weak at the end.

All of which takes me back to thoughts about detail. It is always amazing to me how acutely minute changes in details make huge differences in performance. The physically measurable differences between a performance of a Beethoven sonata by a second year conservatory student and one by Yehudi Menuhin might be miniscule - a few milliseconds difference here, a single cycle difference in intonation there, a note stressed more or less by an almost negligible difference in amplitude - yet the sense of the perfomances are completely different. It is almost as though the difference is not in the physical dimensions of sound, but in a completely different, perhaps mystical dimension.

Much, if not almost all, of these differences are in time. Music, says Stravinsky, is what defines the relation between man and time. It is in the infinitesimal elasticity of time over a note or a measure that creates the difference between performances. These differences are often so minute that they don't even jiggle the metronome. On the other hand, I often find that my tempo has deviated wildly, without having any sense of its having changed. If I didn't check with a metronome, I would never know.

I have now reached the point in this blog entry where I should write a neat concluding paragraph, with something snappy to say at the end. But I don't have such a paragraph. Well this is a blog, I can do what I want, right? so we'll leave that discussion as it is. I'll think of a conclusion later.

I will only add that those of you who didn't come to hear us play at the Dancing Camel missed a gay old time. People got up and waltzed to the Blue Danube (which forced us to play it more or less straight, instead making the huge rubatos we like), and my arrangements of Israeli and Hassidic songs was (it's my blog, right?) a smash hit. Also, and most important, the beer was simply wonderful.

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