Imitation or Innovation

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I've been having some jazz piano lessons recently in preparation for a project I'm working on in 2013 with The Prince Consort and British jazz pianist Jason Rebello. His Make it Real is a personal favourite and he's also recorded some great tunes on Alyn Cosker's album Lyn's Une  and some super-slick solos as part of Sting's band. Emma Pomfret has just written an article in The Times on this kind of cross-genre collaboration.

When I had my first session, I was quite obsessed with which notes I should play on which chords and how I could create melodic figures out of nowhere. But one of the main things that Jason talked about was jazz 'feel', and he said that this is often the crucial element missing from many musicians' initial attempts at the genre. 

He told me to develop this skill by listening to a jazz track that I loved - I picked Freddie Freeloader from Miles Davis' A Kind of Blue - and not only to transcribe it from the recording, but to play along with it to such an extent that I am precisely aligning what I do with what Wynton Kelly does on the recording…all the accents, all the dynamics, all the phrasing, all the tiny differences in rhythmic placement against the beat. 

The idea is that when you have practised in this way enough, something clicks, and the imitation becomes part of your own style and a natural part of your playing. A bit like putting on another musician's jacket until you complete absorb their style, and can then draw on it for yourself.

Classically trained

This is at odds with a statement you hear frequently regurgitated in interviews and conversations with some classical musicians:

'I don't like to listen to any recordings, until I've worked out my interpretation of the piece in case I copy the recordings.'

Well, I disagree. I quite like listening to recordings before I play something. Not just to hear how the piece goes, but also to get ideas from other musicians and to discover any performance practice issues that there might be. And yes…with the intention of 'borrowing' some of those ideas for my own performance. I would never copy in performance one entire interpretation from someone else, note for note, rubato for rubato, since a major part of being an musician is to bring something new to the table.

But I'm interested to know what would happen if I took the approach mentioned in the first paragraph in the practice studio, and tried playing along with legendary pianists such as Rubinstein and Horowitz, playing a piece as if I were in their shoes. Easier said than done of course and I would be delighted if someone said to me accusingly…'well, you played that just like Horowitz'. Fine by me, that'll do! It is a subject that has wide-ranging views, as this excellent Gramophone piece from Mark Wigglesworth demonstrates.

Learning through imitation

In reality, taking ideas from a recording is not dissimilar to how you might be taught to play the piano in the first place, even if you don't realise it. I remember studying the Rachmaninov arrangement of Kreisler's Liebeslied, and my teacher telling me very specifically how to place the second beat of the waltz early and the third beat a fraction late, to give it an extra lift.

When I first tried this it sounded contrived and self-conscious, but as I practised it more and more, it became a part of my interpretive artillery, and a skill that I could draw on when I approached another piece that was similar. Listening to, and imitating, a recording is not a lot different; but instead of it being a teacher demonstrating to you in a lesson, it's a recorded performance.

What I find interesting is that we classical musicians are always trying to sound improvised when we perform, and in order to do this we try to steer away from listening to other people so that we are totally individual; but if you go to the jazz pianists who improvise all the time, their freedom comes from imitating, assimilating and only then…innovating.

An improvised performance

There's also the question of performance practice and history. Sometimes when you look at a score certain things are not necessarily clear-cut and obvious. Take, for example, the ending of Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie where it's not clear by looking at the sheet music whether to line up some notes with other notes. Do you align the triplets in the right hand thumb against the dotted semi-quavers in the RH upper part or do you make a difference between the two rhythms? You could play it either way and no single way is right or wrong.

Why not check and see what Alicia DeLarrocha thinks about it, or what Vladimir Ashkenazy's view on the subject is? You can gather these together and make a more informed decision for yourself, based not only on your own convictions, but also based on the performance history of the piece. And I'm not talking about performance practice in a tie-dye shirt, and socks and sandals kind of way; I'm talking about sitting down and listening to performances you respect, and thinking 'I'd like to bring a bit of this into my own playing'. For the record, here's Evgeny Kissin's choice (at 12:15).

A borrowed voice

One of the things I love about Stephen Hough’s performances are not only his brilliant and immaculate pianism, but also his respect for the score and also recordings, particularly if they are recordings by the composer. He mentions in his sleeve notes for his complete Rachmaninov Concertos CDs that Rachmaninov in his recordings often took much faster tempi than are generally performed nowadays and this is reflected in Stephen’s own performance.

I know that in this case, Stephen intentionally did not listen to the actual concertos that he was recording as he was preparing them, and that his awareness of Rachmaninov's style was something that he had accrued after many years of listening to his recordings of lots of repertoire, but nevertheless I think it’s insightful if stylistic elements from the composer’s own playing come through in modern performances. Here’s Stephen performing the opening of Rach 2 as an example.

I'll leave you with an eloquent analogy from the literary world, where the T.S. Eliot beautifully captures the positive dynamic between influence and innovation:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take; and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
'Philip Massinger', The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot.

By Alisdair Hogarth,


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And there is also a link between improvised performance and unprepared performance, in terms of the positive spontaneity it creates, as my Linn Music Moment demonstrates:


Improvisied performance is really the only way to show the sound if you ask me

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