CMS discussion group 2: creativity & self-expression

On 22 February 2021, the second weekly meeting of the Chamber Music Scotland opened by discussing amount of creativity within the work of a classical musician today. More than perhaps any other musical genre, the classical “musical work” is prescriptive, with the composer (or sometimes editor) deciding on the notes that musicians play – the pitches, rhythms, tempo, instrumentation. In performing mainstream classical music today, most of the creative element is in how we interpret works – the myriad choices concerning colour, rubato, dynamics, balance.

Of course, there are differences across classical music. Solo repertoire and chamber music offer far more freedom in interpretation and the ability to curate programmes, including the choices of how works are chosen, presented, and framed. There are differences in creative freedom across orchestral playing, between the restrictive nature of being a rank-and-file string player, compared with the wind or brass player, who more often performs a single part and adopts more of a chamber music feel in their sections.

There are also differences in contemporary music, with scores ranging from very free to extremely detailed and prescriptive. Improvisation certainly forms a central part of the arsenal of contemporary music groups, from the interpretation of alternative notational forms such as graphic scores right through to free improvisation.

Early music offers different types of creative freedom. Over the centuries, the balance between composer and performer has shifted, with the composer gradually taking control over elements previously considered to be within the realm of the performer. Within the 17th and 18th centuries it was a necessity for instrumentalists to be able to extemporise – from realising accompaniment from figured bass (a system where harmonies are indicated through numbers over a bassline), to free embellishments of melodic lines, improvising cadenzas, or extemporising over ground basses and dance tunes. For the most part, composers were also performers, and improvisation (particularly at the keyboard) formed a spectrum with their compositional work. 

In my experience, beyond early music courses there is very little improvisation within classical music education, either at university or music college. Whilst we might attend harmony and counterpoint classes, combined perhaps with some hands-on keyboard skills, there is generally little attempt to integrate these skills into our practical work as performers on other instruments. Several members of the discussion group noted that they have only found this kind of creative freedom within other genres such as traditional music or jazz, and others noted their own reluctance or fear of improvising. I think that if we are entirely dependent on notation for our music making, we do miss out on something very fundamental. Why shouldn’t we improvise around structures from classical music? Surely being able to improvise say a basic sonata form would give us a different understanding of structure and form, and perhaps a greater flexibility and spontaneity, even when performing from notation?

On the other hand, classical music offers lots of perhaps less obvious chances for creativity. One attendee noted that their practice regime was itself a creative outlet, involving constantly creating and developing technical and musical exercises. By extension, teaching often involves much of the same activity.

A central point of discussion was the concern that audiences often don’t get to see or hear our creative process, only the finished product. One attendee described viewing a Salvador Dali exhibition containing a selection of the artist’s rough sketches and drawings, which offers a very different perspective – how they viewed and interacted with their subjects, their rough working, their mistakes. Whilst these lack the impressive display of a fully constructed work, they have another more intimate beauty. Is there space for anything similar for musicians? What would this entail?

Over the current pandemic, there have been far more videos on social media of musicians presenting more informal playing – even including excerpts of individual practice or works in progress. (My personal highlights have been those by violinists Nicola Benedetti, Hilary Hahn, and Rachel Barton Pine.) Is it possible to integrate this type of work into a concert schedule? Often when we speak at concerts, we concentrate on the musical work or the composer rather than our process of putting together or developing the piece. On the other hand, “open rehearsals” often feel more like a slightly under-prepared performance rather than a real insight into the creative process. Another attendee asked if we really want to present this type of material: is it self-indulgent? Does glimpsing “behind the curtain” remove the magic of live performance?

An idea I really liked was to have “audiences in residence” the way we do with ensembles – an opportunity for developing that trust and rapport with a single audience who can understand the process but also see the finished result. Festivals are perhaps the closest we get to this – that flurry of activity over a few days concentrated in a single place, with audiences, ensembles, and promoters rubbing shoulders at concerts and usually at the bar afterwards.

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