Sunday, May 13, 2007


I hope I didn't offend any pet-owning fans of House, Haydn, and hot summer days with my last post. (It's one of the annoying things about blogging - you feel like you're only as good as your last post.) For the record, I have good relationships with people who enjoy all of those things, and actually consider those contrarian tendencies to say more about me than the objects of my disaffection.

Anyway, I suggested a few posts back that it would be interesting to "speed up" Maurizio Pollini's already dazzling take on Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrouchka. The point is to explore what we're (I'm) listening for in such virtuosic music. Is it just the sheer excitement of the sounds, or do we need to know it's a legit, real-time performance? We pretty obviously don't care if the performance has been cut and pasted from multiple takes, but this takes editing to a new level. And, by the way, the fact that I could do this so easily shows how easy it would be for any performing artist out there to do the same with his/her own recordings. (See Hatto, etc.)

I think there are two larger points: 1) On the one hand, we should be careful not to lose sight of the fact that the meaning of most classical music is not just objectively encoded in the sounds we hear. We care about such things as who is playing, how old he is, how famous she is, what we know about the difficulty level, what kind of technique the pianist has, etc. 2) On the other hand, our commitment to this sort of "honest" performance has probably closed us off to all sorts of new expressive possibilities afforded by digital enhancement. (As I said before, pop music doesn't get dragged down by this sort of thing.) We're probably better off being honest, but, at a minimum, we're missing out on some fun.

Here's an excerpt from Pollini's actual (we assume) recording of the Danse russe from Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Now listen to it "played" 5% faster, 10% faster, 20% faster, and 40% faster. At 5%, the difference isn't that noticeable; at 10% it still sounds believable to me, if otherwordly. 20% is pretty unreal and 40% is just kooky. Of course, in some ways this piece is an odd choice for my experiment because there's not much fingered passagework, which can obviously be played faster than the sort of octaves and double-notes that predominate here.

Here's a bit of Signor Pollini playing Chopin's Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 10, No.4. Let me just mention that, having struggled through this etude myself many times, this recording already seems unreal. If some anonymous pianist posted this online as his own MP3, not only would I be suspicious about it's being stolen; I'd wonder if it had been artificially accelerated. With so many more new notes per second, the Chopin gets kookier even faster than the Stravinsky. Here's Chopin/Pollini plus: 5% , 10% , 20% , 40%. 40% is a far cry from hearing "the real thing," but I do get a kick out of it.

Strangely, my other interest in this process comes from my enjoyment of things that are ridiculous. I realize that some will object to this whole experiment as ignoring what's musical about this music. There's little question that Chopin+40% becomes extremely mechanical (some would say that about Pollini in general), but what's wrong with admitting that we musicians enjoy technique for technique's sake sometimes? To go a little further, I enjoy hearing the impossible for impossible's sake. Here we have something that would truly have been impossible for Chopin to have heard. What would he have thought?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Chopin would have thought "Now THAT's what I had in mind!"

There's a lot to be said for responsive modern pianos. :-)

The 40%-er was just hilarious!

- A