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Taste in Music



Taste in music (not off topic)

Jack Botelho wrote:
According to Brad Lehman (message no. 8769 in the archives, February 5, 2003) a performance "sucks" if it "goes over the head" of the listener; in other words, there is no place for a historically informed performance to challenge a listener's assumptions about what a selected piece of music from history could sound like. Lehmans's motto is, if such a performance does not appeal to a modern audience, it "sucks".

Frescobaldi: 'Fantasie' (1608)

"The fantasias are complex works which challenge performers and listeners alike. Most start with the calm and spacious imitative polyphony that characterized the late 16th-century ricercares, but in many the texture soon shifts to a dense web of motifs or fast-paced metric and rhythmic styles not usually associated with that genre. In addition to undergoing traditional augmentations, diminutions, inversions and ostinatos, subjects are often transformed by chromatic passing notes, rhythmic distortions and, through the inganno technique, even more radical changes of shape. These transformations generate a rich supply of motifs and counter-motifs that may eventually saturate the entire texture."

Silbiger, Alexander: "Frescobaldi. Works." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2001 edition.

Bradley Lehman wrote:
[To Jack Botelho] Jack, keep your straw men to yourself and let a musician write his OWN mottos, thank you very much.

Here's mine, clipped directly from my web page:

An artistic Credo:

Great performance is a creative and imaginative act of communication, speaking directly to the audience in the language of musical speech and gesture. It is not an attempt to articulate another person's intentions exactly, which is impossible. Nor is it a slavish adherence to instructions, a supposedly selfless attempt to reproduce some platonically perfect work according to a set of rules. A performer must bring the music to life today, with exactly the right expression relevant to the actual moment.

Historical knowledge is helpful insofar as it encourages performers to be more insightful, expressive, and communicative: recognizing the music's character and its native language, identifying its unique features, taking all of that to heart, and finding some way to bring it out. It can free performers from the deadly habit of not thinking--as long as it does not simply replace that with some different habit of not thinking! At its best, historical techniques of expression enlarge a performer's imagination and command of the musical language (vocabulary, syntax, and usage patterns). It sparks one to approach the music in a vital and creative manner, today, thinking and feeling like a composer or improvisor in the moment of inspiration: coming to the performance with fluent language and something to say. Such is the type of performance that allows the music to live and breathe, as natural communication among living souls:

And I'd add to that, today:

A performer's task has two major components: (1) to convey the music--and a LOVE of the music--as vividly as possible, and (2) to encourage listeners to confront things they didn't know before.

That's what I try to do in my playing, and that's what I try to do in my writing (including the dialogue with people here) spark interest and joy IN THE MUSIC, seeing it in ways that perhaps haven't been considered before, and encouraging other music lovers to come on that same journey.

Anyone is free to disagree with anything I say, of course, and quite a few especially vocal snipers here (including yourself) do, trying to shoot it down. But a performer has to have conviction, and take a firm stand on a view of the music; it doesn't do to go onto a stage with things undecided, or unprepared. All I'm doing here is offering things I've thought about, from experience with the music and with related fields. If YOU don't like it, fine, but don't go putting words in my mouth. Let an artist say what he feels he has to say. Your paraphrase below does NOT represent my views.

And if anything "sucks", it is a lack of imagination. Whether in a performance of music, or an argument, or whatever. A performance of Frescobaldi should BRING OUT all those wonderful features that Silbiger mentions, instead of hiding them under a plebeian presentation of the notes. Music has a lot more to it than a bunch of notes; there's room for numinous insights to come into it. There ARE some terrific Frescobaldi recordings out there, ones that bring out the music's sparkle; offhand I'll name Loreggian, Hantai, Atticciati, Parmentier, Alessandrini, and van Asperen as some of the players I like best in this repertoire. These guys make it sound like much more than an intellectual exercise; the music really dances and has contrapuntal interest. By contrast, the Vartolo recording that I have heard (the one on Tactus) didn't do it for me, it just seemed really dull; so I haven't spent much more time listening to him. Everybody wants to spend more time on things he likes, and consequently less time on things he doesn't like, right? I played through half a dozen Frescobaldi pieces this weekend for fun, and I really enjoy the music. If that same joy doesn't come through a particular recording, I'm not going to waste my time listening to it over and over. There are too many other things to do, like playing it myself and bringing out the things I find in it, for my own amazement. Music is supposed to be fun, right?

What I don't understand is: why some people here have nothing more productive to do, than try to shoot down a musician's attempts to share things he believes in. If that's the way it's going to be, why should I bother saying anything? I do have other work to do. Even better, I have a child to take care of, and she LOVES to play the harpsichord (even though she's not yet a year old). That, to me, is joy and purpose...seeing, and letting, people do things they like to do; and trying to guide them to enjoy it even more than they already do.

Jack Botelho wrote (November 18, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Let me first apologize for accusing you of "poor taste in music". If there is anyone out there who is snickering at this apology you should examine what your motives are for being a part of this list. We should be here to learn something, rather than take a devious pleasure in bear-baiting and personality attacks. Brad, please accept my apologies.

Now to some basics. Brad, in my opinion you fit in well with the post-modernist attitude of musicians who feel free to interpret ancient music any way they like. Of course musicians may do so, but my problem is when such artists do so under the pretense of presenting this music in keeping with the composer's intentions.

One of the basics of learning is to make mistakes, then make adjustments, rather than sticking to a point of view because it protects one's personal ego. In my opinion, any musician who approaches the keyboard with an inflated personal ego will tell the educated listener more about their own personal desires for fame, fortune, or whatever, than revealing ancient music.

Face it. I have pointed out a fatal flaw in your thinking about Bach and the baroque. You have disregarded fully 50% of the phenomenon - a listener's informed point of view as distinct from the musician's.

One of the great things about the educational process is when the professor has an audience of skilled thinking students to which the instructor presents ideas and receives feeback from such students. The relationship between the musician and sensitive listener mirrors this relationship.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 18, 2003):
[To Jack Botelho] Hi Jack, I accept the apology; thanks!

But I still think there's a serious fallacy here, as made clear in your remarks below. That is: the assumption that a thinking musician, and especially one who takes bold chances, is choosing his/her interpretive path due to EGO! I would hope that you, the lis, would be willing to grant that some musicians really are--selflessly--trying to do their best with the music instead of just pushing their own personalities.

I know that my own goal in performing a piece of music is to find out what THAT PIECE needs to come across clearly, and then do that to the best of my ability. It is a lot of work. There are very difficult choices to be made, even on pieces that seem the simplest and most straightforward.

Frankly, it hurts when people assume that such choices are due primarily (or only) to ego. I'm speaking not only for myself. I know (from working with them for years) that my principal teachers in grad school (Edward Parmentier and Penelope Crawford) also play as selflessly as possible, having researched the music and having thought it through completely, wrestling with every detail. Other professional players are also at this level: far too many to name. I believe Pierre Hantai is one of those: a player who adjusts his approach to every piece he plays, and sounds like a different person depending what he's playing. This is not ego. This is SELFLESS ADAPTATION TO THE MUSIC.

It is much more difficult, and rewarding, to be a musical chameleon than to brashly play all music the same, or however one feels it (without really working it out). It really ticked me off to see you dismiss Hantai's new set of WTC as merely an ego trip, an attempt to stand out from the crowd. Hantai is a terrific musician. He knows how to do his job. I like his playing, most of the time, because it encourages me to consider aspects of the music I hadn't before. That's what I want out of a recording, or a live performance: a challenge that respects and holds up the music as the main event. I myself am upset when I see and hear performers who are more out to show off their own passion, or their personal attractiveness, or their individuality, than to present the music selflessly from thorough study. I expect a performer to have worked things out deeply, but also without killing spontaneity; and nothing slapdash about it. It's insulting when somebody turns in a performance that sounds like sight-reading; I'd rather not hear it at all. If I want to hear a piece sight-read, I'll go do it myself. In somebody else's great performance I want to hear the numinous and the deep and the spiritual and the free...not just a bunch of shallow notes that anybody can see on the page, and not every piece sounding the same as every other piece (where a performer has no range of ability and/or imagination). I'm a listener too; a very finicky one. It's insulting to be accused of otherwise.

When I'm working up a piece to play in public, I first run it for trusted friends (some musicians, some non-) to find out if the approach really works. That is selflessness, listening to what they say, and making the appropriate adjustments. I did the same thing yesterday evening with a new composition: I'm working on a commission to write a hymn tune in four-part harmony, to commemorate someone who has died. I worked up three (so far) completely different settings of the given text, and realized already that one of them was terrible so I threw it out. I then took the other two (last night) and played them for a group of seven people whose opinions I trust, listening to their reactions. I want good work to go out there, and the less-good stuff to be stopped before it reaches the door (even if it was something I'd prefer myself). This is not ego. This is wanting to do a good job, and to have the customer get what they're paying for. This is a desire for a high level of craftsmanship. This is listening to the type of people who will use the product. It's the same with preparing a performance of music written by someone else. It's the same with doing just about ANY creative project: having colleagues and prototype users around to weed out the bad stuff and improve the good stuff.

Neil mentioned liking my recording of Bach's Minuet in G (thanks, Neil!). That one, too, was a struggle. I had worked up that very simple performance, but I also had several other approaches, more ornamented according to style in contemporary treatises. And I tried them out on a roomful of people and listened to their reactions. In this case I heard a preference for the simplest version (perhaps because non-musicians feel they already know that piece well, from hearing it everywhere?). So, such a performance pleases the people who like it simple, but it also alienates those who expected more. (I got a notice in a printed British review castigating me for not ornamenting ENOUGH anywhere in this or other pieces!) There's always somebody who's not going to be pleased, one way or another, and that's just life. The important thing is (I believe) to choose some solution that one can put across with conviction, and that (one hopes) moves people.

So...I still think you're being presumptuous, even cruel, about my supposed "poor listening" (either to recordings or to the complaints of critics). I do not "feel free to interpret ancient music any way I like"...rather, through professional study and a lot of experience, I strive to know the range of possibilities and choose something that is (1) a way the composer probably would have liked it, and (2) communicative to the people who show up for the program. Those are difficult goals! And it's insulting to be told that I'm probably just preferring my own ego in my musical choices; that's in effect saying I didn't learn anything worthwhile in that study. A musician who gets up there and plays things however the hell he wants to is just a wanker. It's irresponsible. It's arrogant. It's an adolescent approach to music. It's not a good goal!

I'd urge you (and anyone else with similar opinions about musicians' egos) to be more charitable to other musicians as well, ESPECIALLY to those of us who take artistic chances. Give them (us) the benefit of the doubt...some of us really do want to do our best BY THE MUSIC even if it means not making any money at it, and not getting any ego-stroking fame (or whatever). You mentioned wanting a free copy of my CDs. That's flattering, but I'm sorry, there's no way I can do that. My several review copies went out a few years ago. Between the monthly cost of the hosting service (, and the property tax and insurance I have to pay annually on the instruments, I don't make enough on sales to earn any money at this. I put the music out there because I love to do it, and want to share something I feel is beautiful.

I was chatting with Ms Crawford last week, about the four or five recordings she already has completed in the past several years, but where she is awaiting funding and release. That's the way it is almost everywhere, these days: the artists have to finance recordings themselves (ourselves), and work and wait a long time to have ANYTHING go out there. (Same for my trumpet/organ recording: my partner and I have been waiting SIX YEARS after the sessions to get it finished, and there's still work to do before it is...we're busy with our careers and families.) It really hurts to hear that listeners think it's all a big ego trip, putting ourselves out there on stage or in recordings. We make sacrifices to get to play at all! We just want to play the music as well as our mental/physical/spiritual abilities allow, and then hope that somebody will be touched by it.

That's also a reason that I try to focus on the positive aspects of other people's recordings, for the most part, even when I'd do something entirely different if it were me playing the pieces. I know how rough it is to get the work out there at all, or to build any sort of career at this. If listeners really want to be sensitive, I'd urge a lot more respect for the people who do the work. Look for the positive features, and offer constructive (not destructive potshot) criticism if there's something you'd like to see improved.

You mentioned "an audience of skilled thinking students" giving a professor feedback. Yes, that's a good thing when it happens. But, a bunch of the stuff I see on this list is more like spoiled jerks sitting in the backrow of the classroom, heckling the presenter with obscenities, and demonstrating little deep thought about the material. It's one thing to disagree with a presenter and draw out a meaningful discussion, of substance. It's quite another when a thoughtful presentation is greeted only with one-liners of disgust, or accusations questioning the presenter's motives, or open disdain for learning. It's just not worth it to put thoughtful or thought-provoking stuff out there if that is the mode of response it gets.

Donald Satz wrote (November 18, 2003):
[To Jack Botelho] Although I often disagree with Brad's opinions, I've read his postings here for at least two years and he never gives the impression that he feels free to interpret ancient music "any way" he likes. That view is clearly wrong on Jack's part. Brad places high priority on historical accuracy and performances practices. When he does advocate deviation, it's from a highly informed foundation, and he always wishes to convey the spirit of the composer's intensions.

Jack Botelho wrote (November 18, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I am very touched by what you have stated below, but it comes as no surprise - you have always had a "huge heart" with regard to aesthetics, and in my opinion, only the most calous critics would like to see you capitulate. In my opinion you are right in criticizing my comments with regard to ego. I have the highest respect for Hantai, but cannot help but feel he has been put up to presenting Bach via some extremes. As we all should know, the reflex actions of human beings makes it easier to perform a contrapuntal exercise at maximum tempo than to slow it down somewhat. Also, we should know, Bach was not a "knight of the keyboard" although he could have been by choice. It is much more difficult (but revealing) when a musician performs an allegro moderately rather than choosing the extreme.

Anyway, I am going to recede into "lurkdom" now, as my mandate is devoted primarily towards a "renaissance" of Italian baroque subjects (in English) online.

I wish you, your family, and your young children a safe, prosperous, and happy new year.

Stephen Benson wrote (November 18, 2003):
Jack Botelho wrote: < Also, we should know, Bach was not a "knight of the keyboard" although he could have been by choice. It is much more difficult (but revealing) when a musician performs an allegro moderately rather than choosing the extreme. >
It was my understanding that Bach's concept of the "knight of the keyboard" had more to do with composition than with performance, a "knight of the keyboard" being someone who composed with the aid of a keyboard. Bach spoke disparagingly of such practices, preferring what he saw as the integrity of the purely mental exercise of putting pen to paper without the help of an instrument on which to work through his ideas. The implication, of course, was that such practices involved "cheating" of some sort.

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