April 7th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Free trade agreements leave us even more dependent on China

EDITORIAL Why Russia re-elected Vladimir Putin

CANBERRA OBSERVED Empty seat last vestige of minor parties' party

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Liberals take power but plan for none for SA

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Sexual exploitation at Oxfam symptom of culture of death

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM General protection gives a false sense of security

PHILOSOPHY AND CULTURE On celestial politics

GENDER POLITICS Trans ideology awash with big money from big biomed and big pharma

REGIONAL AFFAIRS Taiwan stands up to Beijing's bullyboy tactics

CINEMA Outstanding film follows St Paul to his death in Rome

HUMOUR An Appetite for Diamonds: Porphyry Volpone investigates

MUSIC Power playing: Technique v musicality

CINEMA Peter Rabbit: More Bugs than Beatrix, but lots of fun

BOOK REVIEW We're doomed; but we're not alone

BOOK REVIEW Subcontinent set for Asian century


NATIONAL AFFAIRS The deeper causes of Australia's social malaise

GENDER POLITICS Queensland proposes transgender birth certificates

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Power playing: Technique v musicality

by David James

News Weekly, April 7, 2018

In classical music and modern jazz, at the risk of being a little simplistic, there tend to be two types of performers. One is what I call the “Olympic athlete” musician, who has such a high level of technical proficiency that listeners are mainly impressed by the prowess. The other type of musician emphasises emotional expression; technical ability is enlisted in that project rather than being an end in itself.

In classical music perhaps the best example of the “Olympic athlete” musician is flautist James Galway (pictured). His technique is on an extraordinarily high level, in part because he spent hours a day practising only one note until he became skilled in centring each note so precisely that he was able to achieve exceptional resonance.

The result is especially evident in his low notes, which cut through the orchestra in a way that almost no classical flautist had previously been able to do. Facility became the key to his appeal. Listeners were impressed by his mix of resonance, heavy vibrato, precision and speed.

Trouble is, in this writer’s opinion, Galway is resolutely unmusical. His versions of Mozart are especially revealing. His heavy, idiosyncratic phrasing, in which almost every line is to some extent played with a degree of rubato, means that he captures almost none of Mozart’s delicacy and elegance, let alone his humour.

Compare this with the less technically accomplished but vastly more lyrical and refined playing of Jean-Pierre Rampal, or Aurele Nicolet, and one can hear the difference between the technically focused musician and the musically focused performer.

The distinction can be found in all instruments. Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, whose performances of Beethoven sonatas are perhaps closest in spirit to the composer’s intentions, was not noted for having exceptional technique, but he was conspicuously superior to many classical pianists whose technique is arguably at a higher level.

The same applies to Romanian Dinu Lipatti, whose performances of Bach have a beauty that transcends technique, especially in his final performance.

There are, of course, classical musicians who combine superior technique with great expression. In piano, that could perhaps be said of Alfred Brendel; on cello it is probably true of Yo-Yo Ma.

It should also be noted that to become a solo performer on any classical instrument – to graduate beyond being an orchestra musician – requires an extremely high level of technical ability. But once that technical ability has been acquired, there is a choice to make: whether to make the technical mastery an end in itself; or to make it a servant to the performer’s expression. It is usually very evident which way the performer has jumped.

The difficulty of the artistic challenge should not be understated. To acquire such technique it is necessary to practise eight hours a day over many years. Regarding such effort as merely a means to an end, just a first step, is no easy thing.

In jazz, the distinction between the two types of performer is, if anything, even starker. Many, if not most, jazz improvisers are seduced into trying to impress audiences with their technique, which usually entails playing too many notes at high speed.

This is especially problematic in saxophone playing, where the dominant influence of the frenetic John Coltrane encourages imitators to play at extreme speed. What few of the imitators seem to notice is that Coltrane, whose roots were in blues playing, always had a deep, underlying swing, even when at his most rapid. They almost never reproduce that.

Another instructive comparison is between trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Gillespie was undoubtedly technically superior, but just as evidently musically inferior. He could play faster and more brilliantly, but he never approached the expressive range of Davis, let alone his aesthetic invention.

Another trumpeter, Chet Baker, had even less technique – sometimes it was outright poor – but he was able to achieve great expressive results and is often more listenable than Gillespie.

It is not overstating the case to say that the art of becoming a mature jazz improviser is learning not to impress with technique and instead to take listeners on a musical journey.

In genres that demand an extremely high level of technical proficiency – it is not really the case in popular, rock or country styles – learning to “discard” technical proficiency in order to achieve greater musicality is a great mental challenge. But unless it is done, the results are usually unconvincing.

David James is a Melbourne musician (flute) and writer.

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