The Role of Analysis: A Different Angle

A couple of weeks ago, David Smooke picked up a topic that had also been on my mind: how important is analysis to the performance of a new composition? My thoughts have been spinning on this topic since then, so I wanted to approach it from a slightly different angle.

First of all, I think the word “analysis” sets up all kinds of assumptions that do not necessarily apply to many forms of music. For example, in college I spent an entire semester preparing a performance of Annea Lockwood’s piece for snare drum and voice Amazonia Dreaming. There is basically nothing in that music that can be analyzed in any traditional sense of the word; the snare drum is played in numerous unusual ways using chopsticks, toy marbles, and bare hands, the voice part is spoken(ish) vocalizations, there are large swathes of improvisation, tempos and durations are partially determined by the performer. It’s a fantastic piece, and it can take innumerable directions depending on who is performing it. It took a solid three months for me to fully understand the piece, and I decided to perform it from memory. Learning the piece well enough to play it without the score made me realize that internalizing a composition physically in some substantial way is the key to truly successful performances. Similarly, analyzing Steve Reich’s Piano Phase is not really going to improve a performance of the work. What will help is having a solid handle on the visceral experience of the slow phasing process. No form of intellectualization can take you there—all that’s left is practice. Performing any music well requires a deep physical connection to the music in addition to an intellectual understanding of what is happening within the work. Plenty of jazz performers have both of these elements going on in spades.

Obviously it is not always possible for classical musicians to memorize a new work. But the process of memorization brings with it the need to “analyze” the work in such a way that the inner connections of the music are clear to the performer. In many cases it’s not the clear-cut analysis that we learn in school, but rather a more intuitive waking up to the inner life of the music through the physical act of playing it. Although as a composer I am quite focused on the analytical elements of a new composition during the first stages of development, after that I let go, spinning material derived from that content. In my experience, performers find a lot of useful information in that more intuitive music—information that I didn’t realize was even there. It relates to the structural underpinnings, yet it’s different. Does the performer need to know every chord progression or tone row or rhythmic formula that makes up the basis of a piece? It certainly can’t hurt, but I don’t believe that knowledge will result in a great performance without a physical connection to the music itself. What serves as “understanding” for the performer is not always (I would venture to say rarely) the same as for the composer.

This interesting article cites research that musicians who feel that their instrument is an extension of their physical body experience less performance anxiety. This makes a lot of sense, and I think that idea pertains also to the performer’s relationship to the music they are playing. Cellist Joshua Roman is one musician who I know for a fact is inextricably bound to his instrument—it might as well be another limb. Or rather, in a performance setting, it serves as his voice, and he prefers to perform as much as he can from memory, stating that music stands are just barriers between himself and the audience. His mission is communication. It never ceases to amaze me how much he can tease from even the simplest piece of music. When we work together, we don’t talk about what type of scale a passage employs, or to what chords those arpeggios are referring. We work on the most effective methods to communicate the musical ideas in the piece to an audience. Does he understand the music? Oh yeah, he gets it. Do I care how he arrived at that knowledge, or whether he is fully conscious of the underlying foundation that I so carefully built? Not so much. It’s like constructing a piece of furniture—the point is the full experience of the work, not the brand of nuts and bolts that hold it together. If the small pieces are sufficiently sturdy, they automatically do their job, leaving room for other considerations.

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