Excerpt from Sandbox Percussion about Interpretation. By "Fifteen" Questions
“We're not trying to mimic somebody else’s interpretation. We're trying to learn what could be possible in any interpretation.“
When did you first start getting interested in musical interpretation?
Jonny Allen: The concept of interpretation first really came across my radar in college. Up until that point, I was mostly concerned with playing the music as faithfully as possible. This often meant playing as similarly as I could to recordings I found.
Many of my musical experiences were in the drumline of a marching band, where interpretation is all about precision and consistency. Dynamics are measured in the number of inches your sticks come off the drum, rhythms are meticulously subdivided and played with the utmost exactitude.
I actually think this was a healthy first step, but in college I realized how much further the subject of interpretation goes. Can you have a unique interpretation? Should you do that and if so why?
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances captured your imagination in the beginning when it comes to the art of interpretation?
Victor Caccese: During my time at a music conservatory I became increasingly amazed at how interpretation could be experienced across many different genres. My father was a pianist and great admirer of Glenn Gould. I was amazed at how different The Goldberg Variations sounded between his two recordings from 1955 and from 1981. I never knew that a piece of music considered a classic could have such drastic interpretations.
Glenn Gould of course takes it to the extremes, but I was also amazed at the art of interpretation in performances by different jazz artists such as Hiromi and Steve Coleman. Of course this was an interpretation of a different kind, one that had a certain spontaneity.
As a young percussionist, I became attracted to compositions and performances by Sō Percussion, another percussion quartet based in Brooklyn. There was a freedom that came with their music making that I found incredibly liberating and comforting as a young musician. Encountering Matt McBane’s music and specifically having the chance to record and perform his piece Bathymetry opened up even more possibilities for interpretation.
Matt does a brilliant job of finding a balance between meticulous notation and allowing room for freedom and interpretation by the performer. This was particularly apparent in the recording process of Bathymetry, as we spent a great deal of time in the studio experimenting with things such as instrumentation, pacing and mixing possibilities.
Are there examples for interpretations that were entirely surprising to you personally and yet completely convincing?
Ian Rosenbaum: I love to experience performances of pieces that I know well, but re-imagined in a way that I never considered.
Two great examples are the Bach violin sonatas and partitas, and the cello suites. These are incredible pieces of music that have been re-interpreted countless times, both on the instruments they were originally written for and as transcriptions. It’s a testament to how great these pieces of music are that they can support such a wide degree of musical expression.
Recently, I’ve really enjoyed some creative transcriptions of these pieces, like Chris Thile’s mandolin arrangement of the violin sonatas and partitas, and Johnny Gandelsman’s violin arrangement of the cello suites.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to interpretation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?
Victor Caccese: In Sandbox Percussion, we work closely with composers on new works. We eventually receive a notated score and are then tasked with interpreting that music to the best of our ability. The workshopping process with a composer is rather involved, so for us the role of interpreter starts from the very beginning. In this sense we are developing our own tradition and practice for interpretation that feels very current and significant.
Percussion chamber music is quite new as a genre, so it is the close collaboration between composer and performer that helps to develop a catalogue for this unique instrumentation.
What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to interpretation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?
Ian Rosenbaum: The hardest thing for me was trying to figure out what I was “allowed” or “not allowed” to do with a score.
As a classical musician, you are trained from an early age to bring an incredible amount of respect to the written score. Composition is an incredible process – it is unbelievable to imagine that a composer started with a blank piece of paper and eventually came up with the piece of music that you are listening to – and a huge part of a performer’s job is to faithfully execute what they see on the page.
But, after you can execute what’s on the page, the last part of your job is to figure out what you as the performer can bring to the experience. How can you take the emotion or feeling that is clearly notated, and bring it to life?
I learned to figure this out through deep collaborative experiences with composers – every composer that I know is excited when a performer brings an interpretive idea to the table. Our notational system only goes so far!
In many cases, the score will be the first and foremost resource for an interpretation. Can you explain about how “reading” a score works for you?
Victor Caccese: Reading a score is a process that we in Sandbox Percussion think of in two ways.
First, we may receive a score for a piece of music that is new for us but has seen many performances. In these cases we approach each new piece with an open mind. If faced with a problem or challenge in a score, I ask myself what the simplest and clearest way is of overcoming that challenge and achieving a musical goal.
Second, we may receive a score for a piece of music that we helped develop in collaboration with a composer and has yet to be performed. At this moment, the process of “reading” a score starts from the very beginning. We have the opportunity, along with the composer, to experiment with different notational ideas that achieve clarity and efficiency with conveying musical intentions.
One of the key phrases often used with regards to interpretation are the “composer's intentions”. What is your own perspective on this topic and its relevance for your own interpretations?
Jonny Allen: Those are words that come out of my mouth often. Trying to understand and internalize the composer’s intentions is at the core of any musician's interpretation. I think the process of interpreting a piece is a process of aligning your own intentions with the composer’s.
I’m in the lucky position of often playing music by living composers. Our recent album with Matt McBane, Bathymetry, is a great example of this - he was present nearly every step of the way, through the rehearsal and recording process, and was able to weigh in directly as we shaped our interpretation of the piece. When it isn’t possible to have the composer in the room, understanding the composer’s intentions can be as easy as a phone call or an email. This is much more difficult with composers who lived centuries ago.
In either case though, having a good sense for music history and performance practice is an essential ingredient for good interpretation.
When you have the score in front of you, what's your take on taking things literally, correcting possible mistakes, taking into account historical aspects etc?
Victor Caccese: I almost always start from a place of taking things literally. Can I achieve the composer’s musical intention? If I feel I cannot then I may come to a series of conclusions. If I have the luxury of playing a piece by a living composer then I can simply send them an email to clarify certain questions or discrepancies. I may come to the conclusion that I simply just need to practice more in order to accomplish what is being asked of me. This happens most often.
Just because something may be difficult does not mean it should be a burden to perform. A composer living or deceased never wants a performer to feel uncomfortable during a performance of their music. I do whatever I can to perform exactly what is written on the page while still taking ownership of every sound that I am making.
Read "Fifteen" Questions article in full here.