I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Authenticity and Technique vs. Taste

I actually don't want to write about "authenticity" in musical performance in this post at all, but to be fair, I feel it's necessary to define the term as I choose to use it:

authenticity: a quality of performance that is true to some ideal, whether it is to a past performance or to one's own creative vision, i.e., "authentic to one's self."

The term has been used for decades to describe what might be better termed "historically informed performance practice." It should be noted that we cannot be authentic, say, to Bach's performance, for any number of reasons (never heard him, don't have his same instrument, he never necessarily played a piece just one way, etc.).

HIPP performances since the 1970s on record have varied in quality and reception. The "second" salvo which seemed to come a lot from England, on labels such as Archiv, by artists such as Pinnock or on Decca by Hogwood, seemed to be lean compared to fuller-orchestral performances, and they espoused any warmth by way of vibrato or overtly expressive playing. There are still groups today that play in this vein.

It's a hard thing to discuss, and more recently we've been able to talk about it not so much in terms of authenticity (again, what is that?) but as a style. I have a favorite reviewer who often calls out ensembles by their nationality which I find humorous because I get where he's coming from. (England: reserved; Italy: extrovert.) I'm not European, so I have little association with nationalities and general statements of character among nationals. Yet, the generalizations seem to stick at least some of the time.

Technique is something that's far less subjective than, say, style. Technique is about playing the right notes, playing the right rhythm, and the actual physical act of putting your fingers in the right place, etc. As a pianist before my teens, it was the part of piano lessons I hated the most, where to put my fingers. But in terms of professional music making, it's many times the foundation to getting a recording made (or going professional). There's an expectation you can play the notes and adhere to the norms for your instrument, the period of music you're playing, etc. I remember auditioning once for a piano professor and him telling me that "you don't play Bach like that." I knew that, it was on a piano. :P

I'm a huge fan of the HIPP movement and what I've heard in concerts and recordings. But I am also not religious about it. I own and listen to Bach on the piano. I do believe in authenticity, too, in that today's musicians are slaves first and foremost to their own artistic aims.

HIPP performances, I believe, are best in that they get us, but even more so the performers, to live in old music to better understand it. I have often used the phrase "live in the sound world of… [name your composer]." I'll get back to this.

Style is something we can imitate. But it has to originate from something, whether it's a historical inspiration, the sound of another performer, or a way of playing based on something extramusical (say, to fit a dance). Style is perhaps difficult to talk about, but it's more easily recognized. I am not sure the music fan could easily describe how something gets "jazzy" with words, but when you hear the music to begin to swing, that "style" is easy to identify.

The reason for this post is to respond to something I was challenged with today; it was a question from a friend on how to react to others about their interpretation of other performer's abilities. But then as I read a review by the same friend, and he admitted it was "difficult to write," I realized he was struggling with the same difficult mixture of musical concepts. Authenticity, style, technique, and taste.

Most people don't care, but when you hear a musical performance, there are different conceptual layers at play. I might not even get them all in this quick discussion, but they include:

  • text (what's transmitted on the page in music),
  • technique (discussed above),
  • authenticity (literally, the choices the performer(s) are making about the music),
  • instruments (and/or voice qualities),
  • matters of creativity and taste

At the end of the day, my first choice in who I want to listen to on a record of, say, Corelli sonatas, is intimately related to what beverages are chilling in my refrigerator. I want the best I can acquire. The difference between the wine in my fridge and the one in yours is largely a matter of taste. It's also, for the record, a matter of economics, access, and previous exposure.

My friend disagreed with another friend about the musical taste of a professional musician they both know. I am confident they didn't talk about taste, per se, but disagreed about the musician in question being "good." Taste, as it turns out, is important in the performance of baroque music. How you played something, what you added, and the emotive cues you communicated meant something to the audience. The argument soon came to a deadlock because they couldn't really disagree on the points they were trying to oppose: the musician in question had good technique; she was likely authentic, she read from good quality texts, and she had an instrument that passed muster. "What do you mean she isn't good!? I think she's great!"

You might argue that what I'm really talking about is the style. To me, style is what I hear in the audience, and taste is one element by the performer that can lend music a style. I can like that taste, but I'm guessing I really like the style, as the taste may be beyond my own perceptions and abilities (i.e., I can like the way you play vibrato on the violin, but I can't actually do that myself, if you were to hand it to me). I might be getting overly technical, and if I am with peril, we can simply eliminate style for the time being and call it taste.

So, let's get back to the HIPP comment, I made earlier. You can read about how to play the HIPP way, but there is something learned when performing music. This is, I have found, difficult for non-performers to understand. Learning about music is ideally done through performing music. There's something difficult to describe that you get back once you start making music. That experience, using an old instrument, using the old bows (or footings, say on an organ), can inform you about the music, maybe even the sound or the way to approach technique. In the end, however, you're going to have to make decisions about how it ultimately is going to sound. You can't escape adding in your own contribution, your own creative, or artistic, essence. I'm calling this taste.

My friend, I think, had a hard time reviewing a concert because he found the performer's taste not evenly applied among the pieces performed (fast ones great, slow ones, boring). But I also think for him, it was the taste of the composer. Having heard the performer, a real HIPP expert if there was one, I too grew sleepy during the slow movements. Then I looked around. I realized this music was dead in a blackened theater. It needed to live in a palace like Versailles. I closed my eyes and imagined the colors and light twinkling from within one of Versailles' grand halls. Through my imagination, the music seemed to gain wings.

Talking about taste is difficult for us. To say someone lacks it is insulting. It's also hard to handle: whose taste is better? I think we can agree that given taste, there isn't just one right one way to perform music. Likewise, we can enjoy a variety of foods, not just one favorite dish.

Yet, I think taste is what divides the great performances from the good. The musicians applied better taste to the ones we favor.

Music for a While - L'Apreggiata

Schiff on Bach (on piano)