Creating more Authentic Performances – Strings By Mail Blog

Creating more Authentic Performances

Written by Guest Blogger Laura Oltman:

Lecturer in Music, Classical Guitar, Princeton University
Co-Artistic Director, Lanciano International Guitar Seminar (www.lancianoguitar.com)


Lanciano SceneryLanciano

What is the tempo and affect of the blues?  Who dances a square dance or clogs and what are they wearing?  Where are they dancing?  If you are a U.S. citizen or resident, these questions probably evoke vivid images of the people who perform or dance to the music associated with these questions.  You know the general mood of the performances, the socio-economic status of the participants, the likely geographic area where this music or dance might have originated, what it looks like, even what it feels like.  You may have even played the music and danced the dances yourself.  In other words, you are intimately familiar with the cultural context of the music and what it expresses.  It has a cultural meaning to you that is profound and almost instinctive.  It would be hard for you to play it in a way that was totally out of character because you would find the result to be inexpressive and unsatisfying.

Classical music players are faced with a particular and difficult challenge in that they typically must interpret music that is recorded only in print.  The creator writes the sound in notation so that it can be reasonably accurately reproduced by instrumentalist in any place at any time, which could mean a place very far away or a time in the distant future.  The re-creative artist, being the player, may have little or no sense of the cultural context of the music he or she is playing.  Of course, this is why music schools offer so many courses in music history and performance practice and this is what keeps musicologists in business.

Even with the best music education, it is still extremely difficult to imagine a cultural context from the distant past or from a foreign country.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make every effort to try, and YouTube, dance experience, and travel can help you succeed.

In this day and age we now have the 24/7 cultural encyclopedia known as YouTube, where you can see practically any kind of music being performed or danced.  It can be invaluable to see a dance performed to music you might be studying, to see all of the contextual aspects mentioned above, i.e. tempo, mood, affect and place.  For example, much music played on classical guitar comes from Latin America, an area of the world few residents of North America and even fewer Europeans have visited.  Unfortunately, this fact is often reflected in peculiar and uncharacteristic interpretations of music from Latin America on the guitar.  However, YouTube is a pretty good resource for researching the roots of music from this region since much of the Latin American music composed for guitar is relatively new and related closely to the contemporary cultures of countries in Latin America.  There is a lot of video and audio information about this highly relevant and recent cultural history available on YouTube.

Aside from YouTube, what are some other ways to study cultural context outside of music school?  What about dance lessons?  It is a great way to learn how to play a huge amount of music (waltz, minuet, mazurka, samba, tango, etc.).  When you actually have to move every part of your body to a type of music you quickly learn the limits of tempo, the stresses of the measures that are reflected in the steps and the mood of the dance.

Of course, the best way to learn cultural context is to travel, if you are lucky enough.  It could and probably should be more of a priority for a young musician, because in a matter of hours spent in a distant and foreign land, you can learn more about cultural context than you can in years of study from afar.  You can even learn a lot about music of antiquity by visiting the places of its origin, because some of its original context remains in buildings, language, food and social attitudes.  You can learn a lot just from the climate and the physical appearance of a place. For example, an excellent opportunity exists for experiencing the cultural context of some of our greatest renaissance and baroque music at the Lanciano International Guitar Seminar in Italy, which takes place in and around buildings and castles dating back to the Roman empire.  The city is steeped in the culture of some of history’s greatest music

Lanciano International Guitar Seminar

Once you understand the profound importance of cultural context in the performance of composed music, you will have a new and more informed approach to all of your musical studies and a much more rich experience of the music you play and perform.

Our Guest Blogger, Laua Oltman, is also actively involved in these institutions and activities.

Classical Guitar Instructor, Lafayette College
Co-Founding Director, New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes (www.mannesguitar.com)
Co-Founding Director, Raritan River Music (www.raritanrivermusic.org)
Laura and partner, Michael Newman, perform as The Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo (www.guitarduo.com)

3 thoughts on “Creating more Authentic Performances – Strings By Mail Blog

  1. “Classical music players are faced with a particular and difficult challenge in that they typically must interpret music that is recorded only in print.”

    They “MUST interpret music that is recorded only in print”.
    => No, I disagree. There is no “must”. There are numerous guitarists who have blossoming careers by NOT playing the usual stuff that is in print: Roland Dyens, Simone Iannarelli, Štěpán Rak, the Assads, Arthur Kampela, etc.

    => In fact, almost every successful guitarist from before 1900, was playing mainly his own works: Yes, I’m thinking of Sor, Aguado, Carcassi, Mertz and many other guitarists, who’s works are today steralized to boring braindead interpretations by professionals (and students alike), who are not capable of engaging with music in an intuitive manner, but who are instead only capable of moving their fingers according to the dots on paper (the so-called “score” or “music in print”) and do so with such vehement accuracy, that the resulting sound is just one thing: boringly square.

    “The creator writes the sound in notation so that it can be reasonably accurately reproduced by instrumentalist in any place at any time, which could mean a place very far away or a time in the distant future.”
    => Disagree. The creator creates to evoke emotion.
    This has absolutely nothing to do with putting it into notation. If the creator does put it into notation, he/she’ll quickly notice that it isn’t easy, since the notation that we have is incredibly limited rhythmically. By putting the work onto paper it looses everything: its charm, its rubato, its freedom. So the notation has quite little to do with the original intent: to evoke emotion. The notation is a limited steralized version. But the professional guitarists today, they see it as gospel. To be followed to the word, by all accounts, always!

    “The re-creative artist, being the player, may have little or no sense of the cultural context of the music he or she is playing.”
    => Rather stupid, if a guitarist is playing music that he/she does not understand. I say: don’t play that stuff. Play something that you do understand.

    “Once you understand the profound importance of cultural context in the performance of composed music, you will have a new and more informed approach to all of your musical studies and a much more rich experience of the music you play and perform.”
    => Who cares about cultural context?! All the audience wants is to be moved. But the audience will not be moved, by guitarists who stick to the score, like ‘flies to shit’. Neither will the be moved by guitarists who have travelled the world extensively and know a lot about history and historic sites, etc. Nor will they be moved by guitarists, who copy exactly what a great latin-american musician is playing.
    Because, do you want to know the truth?
    Music is expression and self-expression and truth. If you are a typical bread-and-butter guitarist of the USA, Britain, Germany, etc. chances are big, that you don’t understand at all what music is about in the first place.
    But not to worry. Those countries have great systems ready for you: conservatories and music-schools etc. Just enter the system, and conform to it. Play what’s on the score, and exactly. Don’t ever diverge. Now there’s a nice guitarist. Pat on the back.
    (Oh and don’t forget to write program notes, that write about the music you are playing. Graciously sprinkle it with the phrases like “authentic” and “cultural context”. Yeeeees… delude the audience, in the same way you’re deluding yourself. Now there’s a good boy.)


    1. I like those critical comments and can relate to them.
      Music does NOT need primarily external measure and yardstick of what it should be like. Instead a personal involvement with music is what really matters. No amount of travel and youtube-consumption, will help a musician with a personal involvement.


    2. Yes. That’s a succinct criticism of the whole authenticity movement: Many, who were operating under the authenticity movement were seeking truth, but did so, by following the letter and word literally. Hence the whole movement was grounded on false ideals — that musical is absolute and their ideal of its absoluteness (score and limiting formalistic reductionist research on e.g. context etc.) was to be conformed to. A complete failure!


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