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Playing it like it is

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I was on the verge of ditching AppleMusic because its algorithms continually failed to understand what music I like and, for my part, me not being bothered to train it by clicking “Like” and “Dislike” and pretending to have any agency over what appears in my NewMusic mix every Friday when I know full well garnered data must already show exactly what I listen to, when, how often and for how long. “The more you use it the more accurately its suggestions are” it promised, but either AppleMusic is more simple than I imagined or I have hidden depths. Or shallows.

To my surprise, Last Friday’s New Music Mix unexpectedly threw up the Andante con moto of Beethoven’s Appasionata Sonata played by Claudio Arrau in a previously unreleased 1959 recording. The piece was filled with drama but the drama was that of the music – which, Beethoven being Beethovern – wasn’t lacking in it, but it was without any drama added or emphasized by the pianist to state their personal connection with or interpretation of the music. It was oddly refreshing, as if I was hearing it for the first time, unembellished and unadorned. It was wonderful. Even so, I’m still slightly wary.

I’m wary because one of the reasons Beethoven’s music never disappears is that it can be reformatted and reinterpreted to suit the taste of the times (in much the same way anything Le Corbusier said or did). This is either proof of genius or our current working definition of it. Beethoven symphonies can be blown up and played with double orchestras as Victorian concert goers demanded, or they can be downscaled and daintily played with antique instruments as was popular in the late 20th century, or they could be transcribed for solo piano and played and enjoyed in front parlors in the late 19th. Somewhere amongst all this an essential musicality remains. Certain artists may exaggerate certain aspects of it and make us hear something anew and but my suspicion is that these new interpretations merely fit the prevailing taste of our times for novelty. But how can we ever tell if we’re hearing something anew if all we’ve ever known is a succession of persons putting their own spin on it? Either we’re all driving this bus or nobody is! We’re stuck in an endless cycle of reimagining without ever knowing the reference.

This is what I noticed about that 1959 Claudio Arrau recording, or at least that movement. Arrau played it like it was and didn’t bring anything to the piece that wasn’t there already. If we compare it to what we’re used to hearing, he seems to be downplaying it, almost to the point of the performer being invisible, transparent, but I suspect this is just us noticing an absence of showmanship, “individuality” and “personality”.

But was the Claudio Arrau recording really lost I wonder? Is it really possible for a major radio station to misplace a major recording by a renowned pianist in his prime? Or did it just not fit the taste of the time? The word “restrained” in this contemporary description suggests so, and wonders if it will really fit the taste of our times when a tortured and thundery Beethoven with wild hair still best fits our image of the composer.

Some other famous concert pianists active around 1959 were Glenn Gould (1932-82), Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991), Sviatoslav Richter (1915-97), and Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982), all of whom and in their own way made audiences feel as if they were hearing a particular piece as if it were the first time. Since then, it’s what we’ve come to expect of concert pianists. “What they bring to the work” is one of the qualities by which they are judged. Concert pianists are routinely praised for their style and individuality they bring to pieces and performances. It’s what we want. Glen Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was astounding. It made people hear the music as they’d never heard it before. I think Lang Lang’s recording of Rhapsody in Blue is pretty exciting, as is Ilya Yakushev’s recording of Prokofiev’s War Sonatas and though this may just be my preferences, there might be an element of “the taste of the era” involved. Victorian era concert goers surely had opinions on whose overblown performances of Beethoven’s symphonies they preferred. During his lifetime Claudio Arrau was also praised for what he brought to performances and of Beethoven in particular – but just not this time.

Sometimes, what an artist brings to a work has little to do with artistry and everything and nothing to do with the artist. It made me think Joan Sutherland who may have been a better coloratura soprano than Maria Callas who, in the minds of many, imbued dramatic roles with her own personal drama. Many will disagree and say Maria Callas definitely brought something extra to the job and I agree – she did. But did it add to the music or distract from it? Did our knowledge of Callas’ life intensify our perception of the “actual” onstage drama? Probably.

When Maria Callas was going to sing the part of the poor peasant girl in Bellini’s opera La Somnambula [The Sleepwalker], director Luchino Visconti suggested she wear some fabulous necklace. Callas is said to have asked, “Why should I wear this when I am playing a simple peasant girl?” Visconti replied, “The people aren’t paying to see a simple peasant girl. They’re paying to see Maria Callas play a simple peasant girl.”

The necklace stayed and entered history, or at least the history of directing operas.

Art. The image of a painter one hundred and fifty years ago was of someone living a somewhat louche existence, unconcerned about material wealth and possibly slightly unhinged, if not clinically deranged. For the past fifty they’ve been media savvy social commentators with an eye on the market. As for composers, we don’t really have tortured composers in the league of Schubert anymore but, occasionally, singer-songwriters will turn their personal demons into marketable music before succumbing to drugs, fame or both.

And so to architecture. Contemporary architects are coy about their personal lives but, just like concert pianists this past half century, are expected to bring something new to every job their office business development team snags. The big question is, media and publicity obligations aside, WHO IS ASKING ARCHITECTS TO REINVENT EVERY NEW PROJECT? Is it the architect and, if so, are they composer, interpreter, performer, or artist?

  • If it’s interpreter, then of what? Genius loci aside, site conditions are only one part of the brief, even though they’ll be the conditions against which the output will be photographed and, by extension, judged. Me, I have no problem with this definition of architect as a faithful interpreter of tangible site conditions.
  • If it’s composer, then a piece of architecture can appear in splendid isolation in visualizations that don’t even depict the reality of site conditions. This is why virtual architecture is sufficient to sustain a media and publicity ecosystem of free content. It’s often disappointing to see these things built. Something’s very wrong if the image of a building is more appealing than the experience of it but let’s not talk about Post Modernism this week.
  • If it’s performer, then site conditions and other aspects of the brief (but especially the budget and the profile of the project) are the raw materials the architect has to perform with. Large budget high-profile projects suit the architect performer. [Do we even have any other kind of architecture these days? Or architect?] Architects have been known to create problems in order to show how cleverly they solved them.
  • If it’s artist, then consumers of that imagery have the right to ask whether or not it’s good art. Opinions of actual users of that artwork may differ but that’s not the field on which this particular battle is won or lost. Ultimately, it might be media consumers who are demanding architects reinvent every new project. Somewhere, amongst all this, buildings get built and inhabited or otherwise used but that’s by the by. Lastly, and not to be forgotten, if it’s art, then is it good art? Or, to question Ma Yansong who claims feelings are facts without being told anything of the factuality of those feelings. Mr. Ma learned all too well from Zaha Hadid Architects where, according to your source, he either learned a lot (and went on to copy is the implication), or “did a stint” (and decided he could do it better for himself). The truth is probably a bit of both.

In the end, does this concept of playing it like it is have any meaning for architecture? Probably not. It’s what everyone claims to be doing anyway, esoteric as it may be. [Oh I’m sorry you didn’t understand I was dealing with the site context esoterically.] We’re still in some weird Postmodern Mannerist era where projects are regarded as opportunities for displays of virtuoso invention. I’m struggling to think of examples of playing it like it is. Ignzaio Gardella’s 1958 Casa della Zattere is one. It’s the result of an architect looking and listening to the site and letting it guide him.

My only other example is Highland Design‘s 2011 House in Aoto. It’s not as precious a site as Gardella’s but it’s been approached with the same curiosity and the same desire to use the building as an opportunity to unite the streetscape rather than fragment it. Playing it like it is, could just be another way of saying unpretentious, or whatever the opposite of ego-driven is. It’s genius loci for sites with no genius, and a far more useful concept.

Nobody can say for sure what Ignazio Gardella did with Casa della Zattere. We can only follow his train of thought from surviving drawings. Gardella is “not taught” and so not studied. The building has been ignored by historians, presumably for it not fitting into any known interpretation of history other than the Italian post-war approach (as practiced by Asnago & Vender) of knitting into “what’s already there.” But even that went against contemporary orthodoxy of the time, as represented by Gio Ponti and the Politecnico di Milano set.

I didn’t want to think the author of the above image was a student so I was glad to learn it was artist Dionisio Gonzales, but as commentary on what I don’t know. Hopefully it’s a statement of what not to do but I doubt it, given the capacity of Gardella’s buildings to annoy a certain type of architect and historian. Even so, I wish Gonzales hadn’t chosen Gardella’s building to make his point whatever it was. It doesn’t seem to say anything that Daniel Liebskind’s 1996 proposal for London’s V&A Museum didn’t say.

The only difference between the two is that Gonzales is asking us to imagine a Venice in which one extremely worthwhile building with much embodied intelligence and artistry didn’t exist. I don’t understand why anyone would want to do that but I can guess. My hunch is that retrospectively tidying up history to eliminate inconvenient buildings that might once have suggested a different approach, increases the sense of inevitability with which we regard the artifacts of our present, and the processes and systems by which they came into existence.