Saturday, September 08, 2012

guitarists on other musicians, a few thoughts on Ana Vidovic and how guitarists react to her

I have a couple of her albums and I've enjoyed listening to them.

I notice that it's often enough people discuss her looks in comparison or contrast to her playing.  I've seen and heard a few people say her playing sounds mechanical or without soul.  Some have said her playing of some works is so fast as to be unmusical.  Now I think I might agree that she takes Walton's Five Bagatelles a bit on the fast side but does not the word "bagatelle" itself suggest a certain lightness and frivolity.  We wouldn't expect five bagatelles by Walton to be played as though they were Britten's Nocturnal, would we?  Vidovic's spry and perhaps even light take on Walton seems appropriate to the works, even if a bit fast.

As to occasional claims that her Bach is too fast and lacks expression ... please, guitarists, go actually listen to violinists play these works.  Vidovic's performance is swift but not even that much swifter, in terms of tempo, that Szigeti's famous recordings from about half a century ago.  I have more than a handful of CDs by Hilary Hahn and Hahn's performance of the E major partita is at least as lively.  There's room for dispute among Bach fans but a guitarist's idea of "too fast" is likely to be "lively" or "buoyant" or "assured" for someone who grew to love the partitas and sonatas for violin played by the kinds of musicians for which Bach actually conceived the works.  If Vidovic's aesthetic crime was simply playing Bach at around the tempo that many violinists play his work at then, well, her crime is that she's playing the works in a way that may not be the norm for guitarists.  More power to her as far as I'm concerned.

Now I'll admit I'm not a huge, huge fan of Torroba.  His work's all right and I don't question her ability to play those works in a way that will have fans of those works happy.  Torroba's a bit light and blissful for my taste.  Alert readers will know that I have referred to Haydn enough times that they may be tempted to ask, "What gives?"  But they probably won't because Haydn is more significant historically than Torroba.  Not all apparently happy, light and frivolous music is of the same substance, just as not all minor key music is necessarily profound.  It is one of the infatuations of the teens and early 20s to imagine that minor key music is more substantial or emotionally profound or honest.  It may just be that the neural network of the adolescent brain is still chemically predisposed toward emo outbursts and thus has not worked out what people learn in their 30s and 40s that writing minor key music is not necessarily as tough to pull off well as major key music.  Or that has been my experience from my teens and twenties.  The experience of others may be altogether different.

All that to say, Matanya Ophee has said that most guitarists play repertoire that amounts to lollipops.  If what you want to play is lollipop repertoire and your audience wants to buy that then there's no problem.  If some may suggest that Vidovic tends toward lollipop repertoire and her image is tailored to fit this then they can say this ... though I would think a person should be at least mildly cautious about this.  See, she's a professional and she's an artist whether what she does in the arts is something you would approve of.  I liked her work enough to buy at least two of her albums and respect her artistry enough to have run a work by her.  If it turns out to never be a piece she'd be interested in playing that's fine.

I've met a few professional musicians who have respectfully differed with Vidovic's interpretive approach on a few things without questioning her overall competence or artistry.  Let me repeat, professional musicians.  Amateurs ... may be another story.  For people into show business trivia you may recall that for a while some people in the media circuit tried to see if they could gin up some "tension" between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.  Kelly eventually remarked that he and Fred had never had the chance to work together but knew of each other's work and respected it.  Kelly made a dry joke that Fred was the patrician while he was the proletariat.  The idea being, for those who may have seen that footage, that Kelly was not going to put down Astaire for having a completely different conception of dance as art.

To stick my neck out slightly I absolutely detest the music of Wagner and have found most big name Romantic repertoire to be a little hard to tolerate.  But I respect the repertoire.  Just because I find myself squirming during some works by Schubert or Chopin doesn't mean I can't respect the significance of the repertoire.  Mahler often drives me up the wall and yet countless people adore Mahler's music.  Now if a blogger like Jim West declares Mahler to be a hack, and declares that when demons in hell play for each other they play Mahler and when they play for Satan they play Wagner, I can laugh reading those comments.  Jim West as a pastor and biblical scholar and he gets to have his opinions.  Personally I enjoy Haydn's work more but that's because I like how Haydn thinks and I like how Haydn found a way to synthesize the academic and "street" music of his time in a way that serves as a compelling prototype for what may be called "fusion" experiments in the early 20th century.

Now it also happens I share West's dislike of Mahler and loathing of Wagner.  But, see, the thing is I'm a composer and a musician so for my discipline it is important that I know who Mahler and Wagner are and understand their works enough to engage with that work as part of my own discipline.  Jim West, as a pastor and biblical scholar, goes out of his way to read and grasp the work of various authors and theologians he may often disagree with.  I distinctly recall him pointing out that while he greatly dislikes the theology and ideas of N. T. Wright he'd never bracket Wright in with a guy like Rob Bell.  That is, you see, the sort of respectful disagreement or annoyance scholars can do for each other within a field.  By extension, as a composer I can respect the ideas of music I can't stand even if I still think some of those ideas are just plain stupid.  No, I'm not going to name names here.  I will say that there are some composers who do not so much develop their ideas as repeat them endlessly so as to beat you into submission.  That's clue enough for you.

I have spent my life (which has neither been very long nor short) working on the idea that I don't have to presuppose a set of instruments or styles must be a given way.  I recently composed a sonata for banjo and guitar because I don't see any reason there can't be a sonata form written for banjo and guitar.  Whether or not I can persuade musicians to play this sonata or if it needs revision due to idiomatic difficulties remains to be seen.  I trust you get the idea that there should never be such an obstacle to writing a sonata for banjo that beings with the idea that "Such things ought not be done."  There's no reason not to do it and the reason to do such a thing is that if it entertains and makes people happy and brings musicians together in a collaborative way for something that might be a little unusual, that's a reason to try it.

Now, back to Ana Vidovic.  I can understand controversies over scholarship and research.  It matters what you do or don't establish on scholarly grounds about this or that topic.  You want to find out what he facts are.  Who, what, where, when and why (how, when applicable).  This was drilled into my head in school as the fundamental set of questions to ask when covering a topic and that gives you a big clue as to what my academic discipline was, doesn't it?  I'm with Ophee on the problems of importing Romantic virtuoso frippery into music that is not Spanish music.  To the extent that Vidovic may get complaints for playing Baroque music in a way that fits how violinists play Baroque music I just don't see where guitarists have much ground to complain.  Sure, people can say her performances sound "like MIDI" but I doubt most of those people actually work with MIDI so very, very often as to notice that humans phrase things even when they phrase musical lines in ways you may not agree with.

If a musician is able to make a living performing, recording, and teaching I'm not going to begrudge them that.  We've been in a bad spot economically, haven't we?  Who am I to begrudge a professional her opportunity to work even if I somehow didn't like that work?  If the person is doing stuff that is legal, doing that work in a professional way, and able to pay the bills then if I'm not into that myself I will normally be content to let things be.

There are, clearly, cases in which I will strongly object on intellectual grounds or personal conviction about how any number of things get approached in certain settings.  It's not lost on me that 90% of the traffic to this blog is in some fashion connect to just those reservations about a specific non-profit religious institution.  So I'm hardly saying that live and let live is the only way to ever go about things.  Careful readers will have noticed I make a distinction between those who advocate what I consider objectionable and those who enjoy or benefit from those things in some fashion and who are not themselves necessarily the same as people I disagree with.  I may find Wagner detestable on musical and personal grounds but if you enjoy Wagner's music I'm not going to say you're evil.  I'll just make a point of being in some other room if you're listening to his work and it's in my power to be somewhere else.

If in the grand flow of history and civilization Vidovic manages to be a minor musical celebrity in the world of classical guitar let's not dogpile her as being some mediocrity because we think we can do better or we are sure we know of musicians whose musicality we like better.  In the realm of classical guitar we're all pretty much nobodies.  You name "John Williams" and you'll see that most people think of that guy who wrote music for films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws. As significant as Segovia's legacy is for us as guitarists beyond the world of six strings he's a non-entity. Sorry, but when the bulk of one's musical education is among symphonic musicians, pianists, and vocal performance majors you start to realize that the most famous guitarist of the 20th century is still nothing more than a footnote compared to Rite of Spring or the development of dodecaphonic composition or the development of jazz and blues.. Keep enjoying Segovia's records, of course, let's just remember that he filled what must still be considered a niche market.  This doesn't make him unimportant.

By extension, if someone were to be dismissive of Vidovic's stature as an artist or belittle her for playing lollipop repertoire or catering to a marketing image that involves simple and aesthetically pleasing outfits, aren't most people playing the same old pieces most of the time?  Vidovic has at least commissioned a few new works.  Whether or not you like those works is a bit moot.  When she plays stuff I like I'll get her albums and if there's stuff I'm less than thrilled by I've got the option to not buy.

Some people like her music, some people don't.  I think her work is okay.  I'm glad she's been able to play music professionally for so long.  That these sorts of debates about Ana Vidovic's looks and repertoire or Eliot Fisk's tone may be yet another indication of how impoverished discussions can be regarding guitar literature.  I mean for the times I've seen those discussions happen I keep wondering, "Is someone else going to point out those infuriating parallel perfect fifths in measure 4 of system three in the fugue in E flat minor that Igor Rekhin wrote for solo guitar?"  I mean I admire Rekhin's cycle overall but I've got too much of a choirboy in my still to let some of those voice-leading problems go without comment.

Now that may seem pedantic for a guitarist and composer to talk about (and it totally is) but it's a matter of discussing the art of counterpoint itself and some case studies and it happens that beyond studying classical guitar I've got a background in choral music. So I'm saying here that the average guitarist may know so little about the art of polyphony he or she may be apt to think that any melody that has an accompaniment must by definition be a manifestation of counterpoint--it's not the goal of this post to disabuse those guitarists of their ignorance of the distinction between homophonic music with accompaniment and real polyphony (Chris Kachian is right to have written that truly polyphonic music is rare on the guitar). My broader point, I trust you've seen, is that this sort of discussion and debate about music itself can be a more interesting and pertinent way of discussing music then talking yet about what dress Ana wore at her latest recital and how she keeps playing these warhorses.

If that's a problem to you then composing new repertoire is an option.  I don't see what it has to be either one or the other.  We need advocates for the old as well as the new and the fact that it's possible to do both isn't a huge sticking point for non-guitarists.  Last fall I went and heard Hilary Hahn play a ton of new pieces, some of which I liked and some of which I can't even remember. I liked the Higdon concerto just fine and look forward to hearing whatever Penderecki has written for her.  You know what?  She still plays Bach and Mozart because she's smart enough a musician and businesswoman to know that you don't fill concert halls doing just one or the other.  I haven't heard the new album yet (money's an issue with me again).

Hahn is another woman who plays music who "could" be sidelined for how she looks (I'll say it, I think she's absolutely adorable). I've read reviews that have said her rendering of Vaughn Williams sounds robotic and inhuman.  So it goes.  When she plays Schoenberg's violin concerto or the Ives sonatas or commissions something from Penderecki I don't think there's a guitarist alive who could say she's not engaging serious repertoire and making an effort to commission new work.  Who are the guitarists who are doing that comparable level of work?  What would be the guitarist equivalent of Mutter playing something by Dutillex or Wolfgang Rihm? Which are the works in the guitar literature that have a comparable place to Schoenberg's violin concerto?  See where these rhetorical questions are going?

Even if I didn't enjoy anything Vidovic has played the stuff that concerns me as a composer and concert-goer will never be improved by talking about how her playing "sounds like MIDI" (because it doesn't) or how she plays stuff that seems light (once again, look up the meaning of "bagatelle").  Mozart's music seems insipid to me most of the time and yet he's considered profound for some reason.  Does that mean I never listen to Mozart?  No, in fact Hilary Hahn can get me enjoy his work because, as some people put it, her take on music is remorselessly brainy and cerebral.  For me, at least, that's sexy.  For some people music has to be about the "heart" or the loins without dealing with the mind and for others the mind is central.  There are types of music that are made to bluntly assault the sensory organs from the pineal to the prostate gland (and there are folks who listen to music for that kind of experience; there are types of music that are hyper-cognitive to a point where ideas can seem to be all that are going on in a kind of meta-musical rumination on possibilities of form.  The music that engages us across our lives will be more fully orbed than that.  That one particular musician and her repertoire does not do that for you doesn't mean she has not attained that communicative capacity for others.  Even if one were to finally declare a composer or musician to be second or third rate even Robert Craft could say of Vivaldi that his work may be second-rate but we can't really listen to all Bach all the time.  Or as the author of Ecclesiastes once put it, there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven.

Besides, Vidovic has a job, right now I can admit that I envy that. May she have a long and prosperous career doing what she loves.  I'm okay with that.

1 comment:

Paul Hardy said...

Will you please stop saying all the things I wanted to say, but doing it more eloquently?! :)

Brilliant - have to confess I like Wagner, even if I can't get along with Mahler at all