got rhythm?

Over the years, I’ve heard recordings in which performers distorted rhythm or tempo in ways I found surprising and extreme. I wondered why–as in, “why did they get so slow here when the score suggests otherwise – do they know something I don’t? Did the composer change the piece?”

Lately, I was in conversation with a wonderful musician/performer, who answered these questions for me: the performers took extra time because they couldn’t play in time. Duh!

This isn’t always the fault of performers. Sometimes, composers write awkward or even downright unplayable things. What is the performer to do when this happens? A common approach is to distort the tempo or rhythm in order to “fit in” all the unplayable notes. Is this the only solution? Or the best solution?

Pianist Marc Couroux (among others) has published an article discussing his approach to Xenakis’ massive piano work Evryali – a piece literally unplayable as notated. Couroux argues that the tempo and energy are paramount, and that some pitches must be sacrificed (i.e. omitted).

Like Couroux, I believe these decisions depend on context. Sometimes the pitches are not the most important element: the gesture, energy, timbre, mood, character, trajectory, rhythm, and tempo might be more essential to the music than the precise pitches. But how does one decide what is the best way forward?

I suggest one let go of the notion of “should,” as in, “I should be able to play this as written.” Yes, indeed, and I should be a statuesque millionairess! Shoulds aside, diligent practice is crucial before resorting to score adaptions (transcriptions?). When you are considering revising a score, you owe it to the composer to fully consider his/her notational choices. Next, solve the problem. This may involve compromises to the score. The necessity of these compromises might change as you grow and change as a player. Therefore, be open to revising your compromise – revisit your solution periodically, to see if it it still the best solution for you and the work.

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