Thursday, September 11, 2008

PBDB Book Review Dept.: Sound in Motion

Sound in Motion: A Performer's Guide to Greater Musical Expression. By David McGill. Indiana University Press.

Having introduced everybody to the influential and important American pedagogue and oboist Marcel Tabuteau in my last book review, I thought I should review a couple of the books that focus on his teaching and playing methods. Certainly one of the most informative and entertaining of these is “Sound in Motion,” by Chicago Symphony principal bassoonist David McGill. While not a student of Tabuteau himself, he is a Curtis grad who was exposed to Tabuteau’s methods through his own teacher, Tabuteau student John de Lancie, and through his general influence in the Curtis and Philadelphia communities. The book is a well-written and opinionated treatise on almost every aspect of the art of musicianship, taking as its basis the methods of Tabuteau, but moving well beyond into discussions of auditioning, intonation, and an extended section on the Baroque performance movement.

His discussion of the Tabuteau system takes up the first half of the book, and is definitely the most approachable of any I’ve read. He organizes the chapters of this section around core musical concepts - rhythm, harmony, motive, and musical function - showing how Tabuteau’s concepts can help organize and structure each facet of musical analysis. His frequent and clearly organized musical examples are especially effective in showing the many ways that Tabuteau’s system and clarify the musical structure of any line. He shows both idealized examples that work perfectly in the Tabuteau system and real-world excerpts that show that no perfect, all-encompassing “rules” can ever completely define how to approach musicality.

In the second half of the book, he moves gradually away from Tabuteau and into his own views on a vast array of musical topics. A section on specific issues of woodwind playing then moves into a long section headed, appropriately, “Controversy.” In this section he lays out his views on vibrato, tone, intonation, ornamentation, and engages in a long discussion on Baroque performance practice. Without going too extensively into his views on any one of these topics, I would characterize his overall musical worldview as conservative in character and evolutionary in outlook. He idolizes the style of the early- and mid-20th Century Romantic master performers such as Fritz Kreisler and Maria Callas, and has a dim view of most, if not all, of the Baroque performance movement. He makes many valid points about some of the more dogmatic and thoughtless exponents of Baroque style, but in my opinion goes way too far in his criticism, often getting more than a little strident and polemical as he goes after even the very idea that performing on original instruments can be musically equivalent to performance on modern instruments, much less superior:

The baroque performance practice movement of the late twentieth century resurrected many of the original instruments used centuries ago. It is interesting to hear what these extinct instruments sound like with modern players... It can also show us quite clearly why these instruments were improved.

Note the use of the words “extinct” and “improved.”

McGill’s is not an unusual view among many musicians, and few can deny that the rich tradition of performers like Callas and Kreisler are priceless resources for us all to draw from as performers. McGill seems reluctant to consider that the alternate styles that come from Baroque instruments - that indeed come from the very nature of these instruments - can be as enriching and profound in their way as more Romantic styles can be in theirs. He is clearly an intelligent person and a strong advocate for his position, but I come away from the second half of his book with the feeling that he views the evolution of ideas of phrasing and musical expression that differ with the late-Romantic styles of Tabuteau and Callas as distasteful, unnecessary and even dangerous to music. From the section on his recommended listening:

When I tell people about the recordings of the musical artists whom I most admire, I am often met with the question: “Yes, but who do you like who’s alive?” It is disconcerting to hear this question because I believe that, through their recordings, the great performers of the past are as alive today as they ever were.... Their greatness is not related to fad or fashion. It is timeless....

McGill sees an evolution of musical ideas through history (peaking with artists of the early and mid- twentieth century) that, in an almost Darwinian way, led to “better and better” musicality. However, this approach neglects the role of culture and society in musical style, and can turn changes or developments in style - which are real and important - into “improvements” that mean that what came before is by definition inferior.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It has been some time since I have seen any book on musical style and phrasing this good. While I encourage readers to seek out a variety of views on the topics he lists in his “Controversy” section, none of them should be a reason to turn down the opportunity to learn from Mr. McGill. Thought-provoking, well-organized, and well-written, his book is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to seriously apply themselves to learning greater musicality. Indeed, McGill’s most important point throughout the book is that, by studying the structural elements of music, and by analyzing the core principles that guide great performers like Tabuteau, we can apply basic principles to our own phrasing that can dramatically improve our musicality. Interpretation is not primarily about “feeling” or “talent,” he writes, but about study, logic, and hard work:

Musical expression is not just the posession of the chosen few. By virtue of our innate intelligence and human capacity to express and feel our emotions, we are all born with the potential to be musically expressive... The real talent that leads to musical expression is intelligence. The development of expression is the development of the intellect.

This smart and inspiring book is one that any serious music student or performer should seek out and read.

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