I am in awe of anyone who can perfectly reproduce a performance.
I’m not just talking about concert pianists or ballet dancers. Marching bands fascinate me. E spent her high school years playing clarinet in a marching band, and it just blows my mind that she not only had to reproduce intricate music with her breath and fingers, but also hit the mark on choreography at the same time.
A famous anecdote of mine is that when I auditioned for an was cast in my first play, Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest, I thought that you didn’t have to learn your exact lines in theatre. I thought you learned the general semblance of them and then just sort of did some improv from there.
I’ve spent my fair amount of time on stage since that first time, but always in plays or in rock bands. I’ve repeated performances of many monologues and songs, but I’ve never been under the illusion that I am performing a note-for-note, beat-for-beat replica of an original. It’s not in my nature as a performer. Even at my most controlled I introduce many tiny deviations into every moment, both intentional and unintentional.
(This, I think, is part of my fascination with the process of film acting – not that two of your takes will ever been seen played on top of each other, but that you must be consistent enough for the performance and energy of any of your takes to match up with another one.)
I think that fascination with perfect reproduction has a lot to do with what I enjoy classical piano recordings so much. Orchestral music is beautiful, but it’s the product of dozens of people working together to create something greater. Intellectually I know each player is a highly-trained perfectionist, but the pessimist in me insists that there could be many tiny variations their performances could be masked by several others.
That’s not the case when you watch a single person seated at a piano. They are performing a high wire act with no net on an unforgiving instrument with no slurs or bends. The piano is both dynamic and impractically linear. Despite the potential for massive polyphony, you only have ten fingers and two feet to control it – and you can transform yourself in a 12-piece orchestra where each one of those appendages does its own distinct work.
I first heard Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’ocean” just a few weeks ago, in the trailer to Call Me By Your Name. I watched it because I had heard so much about the indelible performances in the film, but for the first half of it I couldn’t concentrate on the people. All I could hear was the music.
When I hear most piano music I can almost visualize the notation dancing and alive, the staffs rolling past with notes lighting up as they’re played. I couldn’t do that with “Une barque sur l’ocean.” I couldn’t picture individual notes or those twelve appendages. Even before I knew the name of the song, all I heard were great rolling waves of notes and a wash of blue green color.
Given my vivid reaction to hearing it, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the song was from the impressionist period of composing, nor didn’t come as a great surprise to learn that Ravel was a contemporary of Debussy (who I love). Yet, it wasn’t enough just to know the song and the composure. I had to see it played. How could two hands, ten fingers, and two feet create that rich, roiling sound?
Even as a connoisseur of watching performances of seemingly impossible piano music I cannot conceive of how anyone can reproduce that work in a consistent, reliable fashion.
How can they even learn it? How did Ravel even manage to notate it to begin with?! Every measure has so many notes tumbling through it, constant, rolling arpeggios of 32nd notes in the left hand for minutes at a time. I can sit at a piano and imitate this style in brief ad lib, but I cannot fathom trying to reproduce even a measure of it faithfully and in rhythm.
I’ve watched a lot of recordings of this piece in the past few weeks, and I’ve come to appreciate that the pianists I’ve seen are perfectly reproducing a work but never simply imitating a performance. When I am in a play I focus on the words, and when I am in a rock band I focus on the feel. They are focusing on the notes and dynamics, but they are not robots. There are other elements of each performance that vary greatly, both in what we can hear and what we can see.
I feel a difference between the trickling version of the song in the trailer versus Pisakenko’s more crisp version, above. I can hear his physicality in the song, and in watching him play it I am occasionally pulled out of the hypnotic trance of the music by his intensity.
Compare that Pisakenko performance to this Martina Filjak version. I think there is a difference in feeling that goes beyond the inferior sound quality. It’s not about watching a woman play it, or the pensive, almost dreamy faces Filjak makes in her performance. It’s the slightly more deliberate pace she takes in the opening, a sense that her hands are discovering the notes as she plays them.
Filjak has just as much power in the muscular middle section of the song, but it still has an aquatic blue feel to it, whereas Pisakenko’s same passage sounds like brilliant flashes of lightning to me.
I doubt my piano skills will even progress to the point that I can play any of this song, nor do I think my ear is nuanced enough to provide any kind of meaningful critique of these performances. Yet, Ravel is an impressionist – his music is meant to be more than an exercise in the mathematics of rhythm. And I can say for sure that these different versions of the song all make me feel and see something very different from one another.
If anything, it just deepens my sense of awe at the performers.