the democratic ensemble

In a comment yesterday, Thomas D. rightly identified as problematic my provocatively not-annotated use of the word and concept “democratic” in combination with chamber music playing (see my post about rehearsal culture). Thomas writes: “What is ‘democratic’ chamber music playing anyway? In reality, one part is almost always musically leading (not always the same part!) – and there is no such thing as an artistic compromise.”

Let’s take a closer look.

A classic method to make a work team understand that true collective input significantly enhances the quality of the result is to give this team a test on a completely unknown subject: I remember that our Baroque ensemble once had to answer several pages of questions about lifeboats, knots and anchors. First, the test is attacked by each member individually, who has to answer the questions, without a dictionary, just like they feel the right answer might be. Then the whole group works through the questions, by means of a collective discussion, and the answers are then given according to democratic principles. Naturally, the result achieved by the entire group is, in terms of measurable correctness, strikingly better than even the best individual one. Surprisingly, though, I have seen a whole group of musicians, including myself, being fooled by this result. All of a sudden it seemed clear that any individual attempt to dictate decisions about, say, phrasing, tempo, character or expressiveness would be principally inferior to working out these questions collectively.

Some musical decisions certainly fall into the categories ‘better’ or ‘less good’; conservative minds would even use ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ The problem is that, unlike in my earlier example of the lifeboat questionnaire for a group of seafare dilettantes, the majority of typical ensemble rehearsal issues cannot simply be solved with logic. Similarly, in a situation where people have to deal with lifeboats in a professional manner, logic might help to solve certain issues along the way, but the consistency, quality and correctness of the major decisions are guided by knowledge and experience. Deciding about the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ in classical music requires knowledge and a secure grasp of traditional values or, alternatively, access to a complete authoritative set of personal ones. Logic is unlikely to be much more than a bystander in solving such issues.

The real problems begin when a musical decision, seen within a certain context, quite clearly is ‘wrong,’ while nevertheless the resulting performance has its charm, or artistic ‘rightness’. Countless examples from performances of the classical and romantic repertoire come to mind. Rudolf Serkin’s recording of Beethoven’s Bagatelles op. 119, for example, is full of moments where I believe that the notation clearly indicates articulations, accentuations, or a melodic flow that are quite different from Serkin’s choices. Yet, this recording stands out as one of the most personal and beautiful ones of the pianist. The problem with judgments about the effectiveness of democratic cooperation is that they do not measure the beauty of the answers but their correctness.

For clarity, I emphasize that beauty and any form of ‘correctness’ in music do not principally exclude each other. It is only the idea that a democratic cooperative approach should lead to better artistic results that is false. Most of the time, the opposite is true. During the democratic process, every individual creative input gets weighed against everybody else’s views; it thus becomes a creative fragment that informs an average solution. There might well be such a thing as collective creativity, but outstanding artistic results cannot possibly be achieved that way. Finally, spontaneity in performance likely will be slowed down by everyone’s avoidance to hurt the other’s feelings or to violate the group code. In other words, musical expressiveness resulting from this work-method is inherently flat.

Luckily, no such thing as a democratic ensemble exists, as Thomas D. pointed out. It would be a relief if musicians acknowledged this simple fact.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: