Thinking about Music

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Category: Thoughts about art

The Perception of Value

We ascribe value to artworks by a far more complex system that their simple worth. (i.e. what somebody will pay for them)


1)             Tape found in an old art student’s locker – 10 minutes of traffic noise  – somewhat edited and organised.

2)             Same tape found in John Cages’ study, carefully preserved and labelled opus 56.

3)             Same tape in the Hollywood special effect department

4)             Same tape  preserved at the Ministry of Transport to measure traffic noise levels.

I have to wonder if it is actually just the ideas that we pay for. If I hold the idea that the T-shirt I bought that ‘belonged’ to John Lennon is a real artefact, should I be disappointed if I see that 500 similar items were sold by a fraudster? Until the moment that the fraud was revealed I was very happy with my purchase.

Here is an economics scenario  given to me many years ago by a guy who advised Government Economists:

A man arrives at a farm in the morning and the farmer puts him to work picking the harvest at an agreed £50 for the day’s labour.

At lunch-time another person arrives asking for work and again the farmer (realising he needs more help to finish in time) takes him on also for £50 for the day.

Does the first person have any genuine complaint?


How much should I pay for a tape of traffic noise?

Bach and Improvisation

Improvising Bach

I can’t help thinking that there is too much slavish following of non-definitive scores by players of Bach.  From the top let us be clear – Bach did not  produce Sibelius software type copies of his scores. He didn’t even mark dynamics, and often the instrument being aimed for was not clear.  Everything we hear is generally an interpretation of  those basic open scores. Usually by a scholar well versed in  Bach performance scholarship but still – not somebody who actually  knew the composer.

I find, when playing Bach, that the music wants to find its own way, you can almost sense the  composer  improvising – (brilliantly!) and that he would hate what has happened to his music.  Anecdote alert… coming shortly…

I play many pieces by Bach and they are not easy. Bach wrote nothing but for  master performers so  beginners pieces are always redactions edits or downright bowdlerisation – dismiss them at once. Get back to the best scores you can find and preferable facsimile editions where possible to see what he actually wrote.  – Then learn them, then let your imagination go and work them.

Example. The very first bars of the ‘cello suite in G are well known to every ‘cellist. It is not possible to get anywhere without coming across them and for them to become favourites. The bowing pattern for those opening bars varies according to which edition you read and yet non of them appears in the original manuscript. I found the dame when transposing the piece to play on guitar – I have free choices as to how to slur the notes and I experimented freely with it to find a reading I liked the sound of.  But this is still not improvisation –  it is taking a first step towards liberty.

My true liberation came when I decided in a repeat, to play  something that was more inspired by the music I had just played. It felt good, and it still felt Bachian and was a joy to play. The audience appreciated it too. I’d like to hear more  players loosen up their sensibilities and leave the  minute following of score to students, and for them to  let go and explore the music. Anecdote…. my friend was playing  the Goldberg variations in cambridge. In the audience was a line of elderly gentlemen all following the score carefully. I wondered if they were ticking the bars as they went by. At the end, one of them said it was okay but not very accurately played. I noticed he was following from a different edition.  You have to wonder what pleasure somebody might be getting form  reading their way through a concert and not listening.

Here is a link to an article on a similar theme.

But finally – I’ll leave with this thought – good improvisation skills can cover up the bar you totally forgot – or smear over the wrong note you just played. Don’t forget that unless you are very unlucky and playing in Cambridge – most of the audience won’t have the score in front of them and you are only ever a semi tone away from a note that will fit.