January 7, 2011

What is expression?

Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules isn’t usually art; it’s just anarchy. And following rules for the sake of following rules is just mindless conformity.
- David duChemin, "Don't Break the Rules" 
For a while now, I've been following photographer David duChemin's blog. This recent post from him really hit the nail on the head. I think the kind of expression a lot of guitarists have come to equate with "soul" is what duChemin aptly calls "anarchy."

Communicating with the audience

An expressive performance creates, for the listener, the feeling that the composer and/or performer wants them to experience.

It doesn't mean holding a chord a bit longer, hitting some note louder, speeding up, or slowing just because you're trying to "express yourself" and that's how you feel it. That might fool a superficial listener, but it's not going to hold up in the long run.

There are certain conventions that have evolved over the course of music history in order to accomplish this goal of creating an effect for the listener. This is where ritardandi, rallentandi, accelerandi, accent, dynamics, etc come in to play. This is phrasing.

If you don't understand these things and aren't using these things appropriately, there's a very good chance you're not really communicating with your audience effectively.

Learn the "why"

If these things are applied too clinically or carefully, they may still fail to communicate fully, but they will probably still produce a more convincing performance for the audience than when they are used "intuitively" but inappropriately. 

duChemin offers some great advice, too, for the artist or musician who wants to develop a genuine sense of expression. Think "musical expression" when he says "photographic expression":
Art created in adherence to rules is art about rules, not about passion or beauty or any other thing about which humans have made honest art over the centuries. 
That’s not to say there aren’t helpful principles, but they are only that. They’re guides to help us make our decisions, but divorced from the Why, separated from the reason they became rules in the first place, they’re more a shackle than a permission to experiment and express. I know the usual response to this discussion is that you have to know the rules first, then you can break them; I think that’s baloney too. Just knowing the rules is useless. We need to understand the principles of photographic expression, the reasons these rules came into play to begin with in the first place, then use or ignore them in the service of our vision as we need.
 - David duChemin

A mercifully brief rant

I started thinking about writing this post when I watched William Kanengiser play Sor's B minor etude and read the comments:
  • It is dry to say the least.He plays Sor with an
    Art Deco approach....beautiful tones and longlines.
    Lacking all the Accelerandi,Rallentando,and
    varying beat placement,dynamic contrast,and as
    you say ...color contrast....it is totally
  • like a midi
Now, anyone capable of listening to this recording objectively will hear plenty of accelerandi,  rallentandi, and everything else smithsherman claims are not there. These things are not even subtle, and sometimes they're pretty dramatic. 

So why are they undetectable to loadermen, smithsherman, and the 56 thumb-uppers? It's no wonder classical guitarists in general still have a poor reputation compared to other musicians. 


  1. Interesting thoughts, William. Personally I think interpretation is about understanding, all those things you talk about using (rit., dynamics, etc.) are dependent on how well you understand the piece and how can convey what the composer did through your playing. Some things are easy: melody, rhythm, etc. Others aren't: how does a section fit into the overall structure?

    Kanengiser's interpretation is okay. A bit slow. It's not metronomic. But it isn't really good. You could talk, for instance, about how he does nothing to convey the hierarchy of voices. Or you could talk about how his tempo changes are seemly random and not effective. Or about how his dynamic and color usage does nothing to convey the structure of the piece.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. Chris, I'm not saying it's a perfect interpretation. But you are talking about the way in which those qualities are applied in the performance. The commenter merely says that they are not there. That's different. Maybe he can't hear them, or maybe he just isn't capable of discussing them effectively. He did manage to inspire my post, though.

    I agree that understanding the piece is key to applying expressive techniques well. It's hard to succeed by focusing on the details when you can't also see the big picture.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Why do you want an audience to experience something in particular? How can you ever know that they have? Isn't it enough that they come to your performance of a piece you value, witness your passion and/or competence, and take from it (or bring to it) what they will?

    If your expressivity operates through a set of conventions, are you presuming an audience schooled in those conventions?

  4. I'm assuming that most people who would go to a classical music performance have been exposed to it, intentionally or not, frequently throughout their lives. It's not exactly easy to avoid.

    I guess you can look at it this way. Like the famous man said, you can't fool everyone all of the time. If you follow the conventions that have arisen in this music over the centuries, you might appear competent to most audiences. If you apply those things haphazardly or contrarily, you might appear competent to an inexperienced audience, but they may leave you behind as they gain experience.

    Maybe I'm wrong about this. There are a lot of famous guitarists whose sense of expression seem downright weird to me, but they draw a huge audience.

  5. It sure would be interesting to hear Smith Sherman (=smithsherman) playing the guitar. I've heard the guy really exists. Apparently he's an American.

  6. Thought this might interest you re: expression and interpretation: Aaron Copland's essay The Creative Mind and the Interpretive Mind. Start from the the last paragraph on p. 51 (in the printed pagination; 63 according to the digitized page navigation) and read for a few pages until he starts blathering about national characteristics.


  7. @John

    Thanks again, that was an interesting read. I've certainly seen all those different kinds of performers and, at various times, have aspired to be one or the other of them.

    It's interesting to read this after a recent decision to drop some music I was working on because I just felt like the music's personality and my own were too different for me to give an effective performance. That could be a failing on my part, but the more I played it, the more I questioned why I wanted to play it, and never came up with a good answer.