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Re: GG:has the electronic future arrived?

I studied piano quite seriously for 15 years of my life, until I was about
20, and then gradually turned to other things (but continued playing the
piano for my own sanity).  So Bradley's comments ring very true to me.  Yet,
one must acknowledge that in these days of what might be termed
"super-engineered" recordings, there are, to various degrees, elements of
electronic music in all classical recordings on the market.  Once an
orchestra, or a pianist, decides to retake a section of a piece that, for
whatever reason, didn't seem quite right, we are launched into the realm of
the "electronic" and the "synthesized."   The difficulty is where to draw
the line.  Just one example, which is more electronic and preconcieved: a
canon from the Goldberg played manually into a synthesizer, but WITHOUT
EDITING AFTERWARDS, or a live concert of the same piece, heavily edited ex
post facto?

John Grant

-----Original Message-----
From: Bradley Lehman <bpl@umich.edu>
To: F_Minors <f_minor@email.rutgers.edu>
Date: Friday, February 25, 2000 12:36 PM
Subject: Re: GG:has the electronic future arrived?

>(Yesterday's NYTimes article is now reproduced on
>http://www.superconductor.com )
>About SuperConductor's "performance" I wrote yesterday:
>>Mozart's Piano Concerto K453, 3rd Movement.  Also not too bad, though
>>the large paragraphs don't breathe.  I miss playfulness and whimsy.  But
>>biggest oversight is a fundamental element of musical grammar.  The
>>clobbers the resolution note of every appoggiatura (and this movement has
>>hundreds of them at the ends of phrases) rather than resolving quietly.
>>This error is as musically serious and obtrusive as using the word "the"
>>the end of a sentence, or putTING acCENTS on the wrong syllaBLE.  You'd
>>think that given all the trouble they've gone to in this program,
>>with regard to dynamics, they'd teach it how to recognize this.
>Thinking some more about this and listening to a good performance of the
>Mozart concerto K453 (a live recording with Robert Levin at the piano),
>another severely lacking element occurred to me.  It can be described very
>simply: SuperConductor doesn't improvise.
>Even in the most severely detailed and thoroughly notated classical pieces,
>in which one is "not supposed to" improvise any new notes, there is still
>element of improvisation at play all the time.  Every performance is
>different as the performer reacts to the instrument, the room, any
>present, her personal feelings at the moment, and what she had for lunch.
>Tempos, accents, phrasing, articulation, and many other elements are
>to change according to the needs of the moment.  (If the listeners aren't
>paying attention, make subtle changes to coax their attention back....)
>This principle should be familiar to anyone who has ever had a music
>The teacher or coach suggests, "Try it again and pay attention to X," or
>"Give it more Z."  The student mentally focuses on X, or adjusts the Z
>parameter in the brain, and plays the piece differently.  If the student is
>especially responsive and skilled, the piece comes out sounding *very*
>different at only a small suggestion.  The score didn't change, but the
>music certainly did.
>Musicians who no longer take lessons have trained themselves to give
>themselves such suggestions to get the type of performance they want at any
>given moment.  For example, at a recording session a musician plays the
>piece several times with different emphases, and then later chooses the
>that was most successful musically (reacting this time as a listener, not
>a player).  At a live performance the musician chooses emphases depending
>what that particular situation seems to need, and depending on an
>imaginative assessment of what the listeners are receiving.  Recall GG's
>flight from concerts to recordings: he was weary of trying to project the
>music with "party tricks" so it sounds convincing at multiple points in the
>room.  That's a very real problem for musicians, actors, a public speaker,
>anyone on a live stage.
>Preparation for a performance is a matter of preparing a whole range of
>parameters that can be tweaked as needed at the moment, responding to
>going on.  Sometimes it's playing all the same notes but in a different
>manner; sometimes it's playing some different notes.  It's *not* going to a
>practice room, getting something absolutely perfect "as the composer
>intended it", and reproducing exactly the same thing in performance.  An
>overrehearsed performance is rarely an interesting performance.
>The brinkmanship of not knowing exactly how it's going to come out is part
>of the joy of playing music.  Every time it's different.  If the
>is rich enough, it's still interesting after hundreds of performances.  If
>it's going very well, the audience is swept up in the sense of adventure
>helps to *cause* some of the on-edge improvisation.
>One attempts to simulate this in recordings.  Even though it will sound
>exactly the same on replay, there has to be enough human irrationality
>into the performance to make it feel fresh and repeatably rich-textured.
>one merely gets all the notes right in an objective manner, the result
>sounds antiseptic and doesn't stand up well to repeated listening.  The
>result happens if one over-edits a recording...it doesn't feel real
>It might as well be a machine playing.  (The reason we keep listening to GG
>recordings is that he was a master at providing a rich texture and a sense
>of fresh adventure: there's something to hear and pay attention to every
>In a piece such as this Mozart concerto, where the performer *is* supposed
>to improvise new notes as well as playing the written notes, SuperConductor
>has no imagination.  It just goes through reproducing everything it sees
>according to its recipe.  Such a performance doesn't repay close listening;
>it only superficially sounds OK.  The program also does not recognize that
>the exact same notes at different points in a composition have different
>purposes (for example, the way the aria of the Goldberg Variations sounds
>different at the beginning and end of a performance).  A human performer,
>having lived and aged through the course of the performance, does play
>identical notes differently in repeats.  The audience has lived and aged,
>too, and needs something different the second time.
>It's the irrationality that makes good performances breathe like living
>things.  It's a carefully controlled willingness to let tiny random things
>happen in the moment, the spark of creativity.  The good musician has a
>whole range of "correct" interpretive parameters to choose from as needed,
>not just one.  It's a fantastic experience when a performer allows herself
>to discover new things about a composition *during* a performance, as it
>unfolds: a sensitive listener can sometimes sense when this is happening.
>Computers don't have imagination or feelings, they don't sense meaning, and
>they don't learn from experience.  That's why computer programs will never
>be able to give performances that sound like live musicians, at least until
>they are able to adapt from moment to moment to the situation.  Somebody
>to build an artificial flexibility and randomness deeply into the program,
>allowing them to simulate human irrationality and adaptability.  Then they
>will sound perhaps as good as boring uninspired musicians.
>It's still not what the composers intended, unless the composers were
>writing explicitly for mechanical reproduction.  (There *does* exist good
>music of such a type, for example Conlon Nancarrow's studies for player
>piano.  Nancarrow makes mechanical precision a virtue rather than a
>liability.  Let the machine play polyphonic rhythms of 3 against 7 against
>11 while accelerating at a rate of 2% per minute.  That's what machines are
>good at.)
>Bradley Lehman, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl
>Dayton VA