Why reconsider the possibilities of interpretation

The literature on performers’ interpretations of classical music is largely about Werktreue (Goehr 1992) and Historically Informed Performance (HIP).

HIP is a movement that, based on the second half of the 20th century, focuses on recreating the performance practice of e.g., tempo, improvisation and period instruments under which historical works were created. HIP applied to baroque music added the music a surprising freedom, at least seen in the light of the interpretive approach called Werktreue.

Whether Werktreue is in fact more literal than the interpretation practices of earlier times is doubtful (Sung 2011), or it is at least difficult to document. Probable our period is also characterized by some general characteristics, not least because recordings from the early 20th century can document those basic behavioral parameters in relation to rhythm, simultaneity, expressive freedom, etc. have changed markedly. Grieg played Grieg differently than we play Grieg today. In fact, the interpretation strategies are so fundamentally different that with today’s perspective they could give rise to questions about Grieg’s musicality, or alternatively our – habitual – notion of musical right and wrong (http://www.chasingthebutterfly.no). That today’s recordings do not resemble Grieg’s own interpretation of Grieg is perhaps not so strange when many, especially musicians, question whether a modern recording is an interpretation at all. According to The Problem of Perfection in Classical Recording (Blier-Carruthers 2020), modern recordings are an immense beautification through digital possibilities that include not only editing but also mutation of the original recordings.

We could be much more adventurous in our exploration of them [music works] if our thinking about performance was more flexible. (Cook, 2013) 

Interpretation or not, the last 50 years of perfected studio recordings have changed our expectations of interpretation for better or worse. In order to be able to compete with the studio recordings, the musicians have become correspondingly more focused on having all the noted details in the work presented adequately and well-articulated. But there is also a darker side to this, such as the zero-error culture of studio recordings. Avoiding mistakes has perhaps become more important than playing interesting.

The process of musical meaning-making is a personal one, rooted in the operation of mirror neurons, with music perceived as an analogy for human experiences. (Taylor, 2020) 

The traditions of Werktreue and HIP, can be seen as opposites of each other, but none of them are based on the performer, but on the work or its performance history. This is where our project begins: What happens if our starting point is the performer, the performer’s skills and understanding of the music rather than a historical or cultural tradition. Is a more explorative and personal involvement possible, and will it lead to an understanding of the music that is more in line with the musician’s time and place? And how do we find new criteria for quality that supports a more open-minded attitude toward the outcome of a given piece.

  • Blier-Carruthers, A. (2020). The Problem of Perfection in Classical Recording: The Performer’s Perspective. The Musical Quarterly, Volume 103, Issue 1-2
  • Slåttebreck, Sigurd: Chasing the butterfly. Recreating Grieg’s 1903 recordings and beyond. Online publication. http://www.chasingthebutterfly.no
  • Cook, N. (2013). Beyond the Score Music as Performance. Oxford University Press
  • Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary museum of musical works: an essay in the philosophy of music. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.
  • Sung, A., & Fabian, D. (2011). Variety in performance: A comparative analysis of recorded performances of Bach’s Sixth Suite for solo cello from 1961 to 1998. EmpiricalMusicology Review, 6(1), 20-42.
  • Taylor, A. (2020). Death of the composer? Making meanings from musical performance. Music & Practice, Volume 6