The Big Picture: Thoughts on Narrative in Interpretation

Hailed as a “modern guitar polymath” (Guitar Review), Daniel Lippel lives in New York City. He is an active recitalist, chamber musician, and recording artist. He is the guitarist for contemporary music ensembles ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) and Flexible Music, and the director of the independent recording label New Focus Recordings. His recent performances include tours in Brazil and Germany, and at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and the National Gallery of Art.

The Big Picture: Thoughts on Narrative in Interpretation

by Daniel Lippel

Music, like dramatic theatre or film, is a temporal art form. No matter how experimental the form of a composition, how static or how manic, the experience of it unfolds in time, and the meaning and magic of individual moments within that piece derive their significance from their relation to moments that come before and after. The great interpreters have always known how to weave a narrative with a composition and draw us along with them to cathartic heights and around intimate corners. We live in a fast paced age that challenges the patient experience of anything unfold­ing in time, much less a performance of a complex composition. Stylistic trends have always evolved with the ethos of the age, as they should. But a trend towards prioritiz­ing the local moment at the expense of the larger narrative undermines concert music’s greatest asset, its capacity to tell a story. In this article, I will explore some specific ways we as musicians and listeners can ensure we are accounting for the rich temporal and narrative aspects of music making, through treatment of structure, sound, and rhythm.

There are many wonderful performers on the current scene making music that is dy­namic and responsive to the narrative arc of the score. But I have observed the tendency to lose the forest for the trees enough times in myself and in concerts I have attended to become convinced that this is a challenge that we are all up against to a certain extent, trying to balance a plugged in lifestyle with the peace of mind and calm that great music demands. In light of this challenge, I thought it would be a valuable exercise to deconstruct a few key components that can help give an interpretation greater shape, so as to call upon these elements in moments when we find ourselves needing something to take us deeper into a score.

The illumination of the structure of a piece is the most powerful tool we have for communicating the whole arc of a composi­tion. From dynamics, to rubati, to tempo fluctuations, where we find ourselves in the overall narrative of a piece informs us about the quality of any given expressive moment. A composer may indicate that a dissonant chord at the end of an exposition section is to be played forte, and the written dynamic may be the same when that same chord reappears in a corresponding moment later in the piece in the recapitulation. But the expressive content of the chord will not be the same as when it occurred earlier, because of the long journey that we have heard since its first appearance. A keen listener will not hear the chord the same way because of what has happened in the interim, but without an engaged performance and interpretation, an opportunity might be lost to underscore where we are in the musical journey. Conventionally, one might expect to play the chord with more emphasis when it reoccurs in the recap, but of course this is a discretionary decision, and the freedom to interpret that forte marking in context is the essence of interpretation. The same prin­ciples can apply to ritardandi or accelerandi, or even rubati (the push and pull in the rhythm of a phrase) in repeated material; the unfolding of narrative that naturally occurs in music, being a temporal art form, implic­itly suggests a hierarchy of moments and thereby decisions about how to underscore those moments and their relationship to other moments in the piece. These interpre­tive decisions are particularly important and consequential in relation to cadences (at least in music where cadential harmony plays a key function). The establishment of a hierarchy of the various cadences in a piece through the treatment of tempo, dynamic, articulation, and timbre has an enormous effect on the clarity of interpretive narrative. Depending on the performer, this process can be an entirely analytical one where decisions made in advance with the score are executed in performance, versus an experien­tial one that involves inhabiting the narrative of a performance in real time and responding accordingly. Most players combine these two approaches to one degree or another.

One particular caveat does come to mind, and that is music that intentionally defies narrative. For instance, Morton Feldman’s deeply meditative and truly minimalist music (though he is not considered a “mini­malist” per se) strives to draw a listener into a timeless experience where conventional temporal relationships begin to blur. In much of Feldman’s music, it would not be appropriate to add a significant ritard to a phrase simply because it was the last one, or the penultimate one, and so on…. Narrative simply is not functioning on that level in his music, and undoubtedly one can apply the same rationale to music written from the same point of view. Even considering the actual “minimalists,” of whom Steve Reich and Phillip Glass are the most promi­nent, uniformity of articulation, tempo, and dynamic are often key to preserving a certain sheen over the texture that illumi­nates the phrasing techniques that are integral to their work. The experience of music like this is still temporal—it must be as we are hearing it in time—but the performer is not invited to play an active role in communicating that revelation. Most repertoire in the Western canon though, across the spectrum from early music to Romantic works to contemporary scores, does invite the performer and the listener to actively engage with its narrative trajectory.

Another crucial parameter in the communication of narrative in music is sound and timbre. Many performers have disassociated sound color from expressive content, and timbre has become a static component of their playing instead of a dynamic one. It is as if we are being extremely careful to make a beautiful sound all of the time, lest we sound as if we do not have control over our instruments. Others have chosen a more powerful sound across the board, in an attempt to inject constant excitement into their playing and to make a certain impression. In both cases, the force of our personality is shaping what ought to be a specific issue, tailored to the expressive demands of the moment. Consistently silky tone does not always serve the music—some moments cry out for a more visceral attack, others a sound that is thin and pointed. Those contrasts lend more expressive meaning to the beautiful dolce sounds that may come later. By fearing a bad reaction to any local moment in which we are not making the most beguiling sound possible, we are missing the opportunity to use timbre as another powerful tool to conjure a broader range of expression through contrast.

Rhythmic integrity is another crucial component of cohesion in a piece of music. Whether the piece is in a moto perpetuo texture or much more freely notated, most scores are extremely specific in their rhyth­mic notation, and in almost all cases, fidel­ity to that notation will be an important tool in communicating the unique narrative of that specific piece. This is not to say that rhythmic freedom and flexibility are ineffec­tive. But that freedom must be developed in relation to the originally notated rhythm and meter and then explored after the origi­nal gesture has already been internalized, so that there is a relationship between that rhythm and the ones that came before and after it. When rhythm is treated extremely loosely in order to facilitate clean execution of a passage, the performer is prioritizing the impression of their technical prowess over the rhythmic integrity of the passage. In a context where there is a prevailing pulse, even if the meters are changing, sac­rificing the rhythm for facility completely kills the flow of the piece, far more than a small buzzed note or mistake. Ultimately, as interpreters we are servants of the original composition, and so our role is to strive to realize that conception, not to play it safe to make sure that we don’t look bad if we buzz a note. In a context where the texture is free, hearing some rhythmic logic and continuity in the underlying pulse glues the composition together. In many ways, rhyth­mic consistency is even more important in less pulse-oriented contexts, otherwise each gesture can become an island of sorts, unrelated to those before and after.

Attention to fine detail and local brilliance is a crucial and wonderful element of concert music. But these details seem to me to be less endangered at the moment than those aspects of music that draw listeners into the overall story of the piece. Concert music awkwardly exists in a media saturated society that is increasingly driven by spectacle, acquiescing to the impatience of consumers. So it finds itself in a branding battle to recast its unexciting reputation. There have been attempts, some laudatory, others unfortunate, to enliven concert music in various ways that would inject buzz into the scene and attract larger and younger audiences. Somewhere in this mix, I fear, the art of patiently shaping an interpretation over time may be taking a back seat. The anxiety of losing audience share to media that is increasingly about immediate gratification threatens to create a music scene where performers (and composers) are afraid to lose their listeners at every turn. Instead of trusting the listener with the patient accumulation of musical moments that add up to a magical whole, musicians are using various parameters to try and hold the listener in a state of constant bedazzlement. Bedazzlement is not to be undermined, but sometimes local bedazzlement must be in service of an interpretation that is globally earth shattering. We reconnect to the essence of what we are doing when the shimmering dolce melody, brilliant virtuoso scale, and powerful block of cadential chords are exquisite details in the overall experience of a dramatic, narrative work of art unfolding in time. (Learn more about the author)