At last, the great debate of modern music returns. In a recent Prospect, Kate Mossman bemoaned the lack of technical aptitude and its concomitant boundary-shaking in British music. Similarly, in the Observer, Nigel Kennedy railed against the passionless exposition of Bach by modern practitioners.
Mossman notes that the Americans, with their love for demonstrating the work they put into things, have no problem with learning an instrument, practising, getting bloody good at it, and then playing it. They have contemporary music schools like the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles (of which, I must point out, I am an alumnus), which are directly vocational in approach – they give you the tools to be a professional musician. They wear their learning like a badge. We Englanders have always tended towards Castliglione’s concept of Sprezzatura: effortless brilliance. We are never happier than when a natural talent such as David Gower throws his wicket away wafting outside off stump because it is proof that he doesn’t practise, simply turn up and plays – when he got it right, no more elegant player. We love Cook because he scores runs aplenty, but he isn’t elegant, he works too hard. This is why we are so conflicted about Kevin Peterson. When at his peak he plays like Gower – all instinct, effortless grace and simple perfection. He takes risks and when it’s his day, they pay off. But KP works as hard if not harder than any other batsman. And we resent that. His hard work ought to make him a machine – admirable but dull.
The analogy of cricket and music may seem rather odd, but they share certain important characteristics. Well, mainly one. That’s timing.
I’m an avid, if not too skilled, cricketer – top score 78, which says it all. When I’m ‘in the zone’, I’m actually not a bad batsman. I was, when active, a bloody good guitar player. When I was in the zone, I could terrify people.
In cricket, the ball is like the note – when you’re in the zone, you know exactly where the centre is, and you can do whatever you want with it. The muscle memory from hours of practise pays dividends. You think sound, it comes out of your guitar – you think boundary, and that’s where the ball goes. If you think about the plectrum, or the fingering, or the note or chord, it may work, but it’s in spite of you – if you think of the shot, you run the risk of playing everything beautifully, but missing the ball.
Technique allows your knowledge to become real – your feeling to be made concrete.
Technique in itself is only one part of the battle, but it’s a vital part. And it ought not be forgotten that great technique allows for ‘simple’ music to be played beautifully, too. The astonishing album that Robert Plant and Alison Krause released a few years ago is a case in point. The musicians were utterly top-drawer. Not one of them was trying to prove anything to anyone. All the album consisted of was some great songs played by musicians who really appreciated both songs and band-mates. They were having a great time, simply being perfect. Effortlessly. All the effort had long since been expended, and all they were left with was music. And how.
Nigel is right about one thing (at least). Being too prescriptive about music is just dumb. The ‘authentic’ brigade may well produce good stuff, but to suggest that they know how the composer intended the music to sound is as daft as the ‘new bibliographers’ who sought to reconstruct the author’s intentions. Chances are the author didn’t know, either. I won’t even get onto Shakespeare.
Bach is, I feel, a special case. His music is so pure that it transcends instrumentalisation – it’s all about the player’s interpretation. For all Nigel’s efforts, Jimi Hendrix only really works on the electric guitar – and even then only when played by Hendrix himself. Hendrix played the instrument, his music came from his resources.
With Bach, it’s all about the music – the true instrument that Bach is played with is mankind.