Al Summers

On interpretation

8:00, 25th October 2017

Al Summers says the individual’s interpretation is the only one that really counts

In August I promised that inclusion of Poulenc’s guitar piece in a Schott compilation would inform October’s column, the single elegant page of Sarabande encapsulating for me the nub of the matter of music. Examining the score, a modern-day, guitar-playing Hamlet might muse ‘…there’s the rub’.

Ricordi sarabandeSimple modal phrases are formed from crotchet and quaver movement (with just one dotted minim) and very short scalic or arpeggiated figures. Frequent changes of time signature help rather than hinder the performer. Harmonic texture is thinner than in much guitar music by non-guitar-playing composers. The sole uninviting visual aspect is that (in all but one edition) almost every note is fingered, repeated phrases on different strings exploiting the guitar’s unparalleled ability to render many tonal qualities of the same pitch or chord voicing. Just ‘playing the notes’ with a Grade 2 or 3 technique is easy; yet I’ve witnessed post-Grade 8 players struggling to make meaning from it, and an atmospheric performance from a musical Grade 4 student.

While pure technique and aspects such as pulse and pace are promoted and rewarded, I must also make a call for creativity and interpretation. Encouraging musicians towards informed decisions beats characterless replicas of idealised click-track renditions, or online shows of speed (tempo would imply musicality) simultaneously depriving pieces of melodic sense, rhythmic interest and harmonic movement – while somehow attracting admiration nonetheless.

After a Grade 8 exam featuring a syllabus-specified Bream transcription with a risky mid-point scordatura (easier for Bream partly because of his expensive tuning pegs), the examiner called me back, asking what I thought gave me the right to alter Mr Bream’s Bach edition. I cited the lute original and Fritz Rothschild as resource and authority. The riposte made me expect failure, but the result was good: the examiner’s advice has since informed every day of my teaching.

We should celebrate the humanity (viewed by some as flaws on a road to some form of ‘excellence’, unattainable perfection) that enables us to recognise a good or even great performance.

For example, during a recent masterclass, an adult intermediate student played a well-known guitar solo piece, putting a certain weight towards the end of the opening phrase – with magical effect. I could imitate but not replicate his feel, the expression being his take on this motif, not mine. None of us plays alike. No one else can play like any of us. This is a cause for celebration.

On notation
The guitar displays a wider range of notational appreciation than most instruments. At one end, Hal Leonard recently published a new edition of Steve Vai’s transcriptions of Zappa’s guitar solos (The Frank Zappa Guitar Book, £24.99). Begun in Vai’s mid-teens, it is an extraordinary achievement.

At the other end, I despair at a decline in notational literacy. One popular guitar notation software encourages the ridiculously messy use of a crotchet followed by a dotted minim rest to show a whole bar’s silence. If this becomes the norm for many players, what sort of logic can it possibly imply? Notational software is just that and only that (an engraving tool) not, as is sometimes stated, a compositional device. It can sometimes produce prettier score than a pencil, and often copies parts quicker than a fair hand; it doesn’t help anyone to compose music. Learning some notational grammar is still a fundamental.

Hans Werner Henze’s notion of teaching music reading to children from age five seems sensible to me. It is no easier (and no more difficult) for most than learning to decipher the alphabet and read text. For many, it is easier than numeracy and mathematics. I run a sight-reading ensemble (of guitars, mandolins and so on), my scores testing and training every member, from beginner to professional. It’s simple: I point out to all that it’s impossible until you learn to do it, then it’s easy – there is just a process to go through (like learning an alphabet or how to count).

Charlotte Gill’s Guardian article early this year (MT readers will recall, grimly) implied that ‘notation’ meant clef – just one of many notations– before lumping it together with music theory, a different subject, then taking a negative, confused view of both. Claiming that it was elitist seemed to state that it was unfit for working class folks (like me, who fell in love with this imperfect, beautiful, democratic language via scores in public libraries). An eloquent head-and-heart response by Janice Tuck of The Fun Music Company was inspirational, confirming that there are many different ways of notating and learning music well: all should be celebrated!

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