The Mazurka Project
Should the scholarly study of music be connected to the experience of playing (or listening to) music? Most non-musicologists would say yes; Professor Nicholas Cook is one ‘ethnologically inclined musicologist / theorist' who agrees. In the last fifteen years or so, Cook's intellectual position has been to broaden the academic study of music from its then fashionable base in analysis (generally called theory in the United States ) to something that also expresses music's nature as something performed, enacted and experienced.
What may seem to the general reader obvious and laudable is not always thus regarded in ideologically traditional circles. Cook himself gleefully cites one critical barb that referred to his ‘contribution to the decline of Western civilisation.'
I met Professor Cook and one of his colleagues, Craig Sapp, in Sapp's office at Royal Holloway, University of London . Sapp, whose background includes both piano performance and physics, is the principal researcher on the Mazurka project, one of the four overseen by Cook in his capacity as director of "CHARM" (the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music).
The Mazurka project (which came to prominence through its role in exposing the faked Joyce Hatto recordings) aims to investigate as many as possible of the recorded versions of Chopin's Mazurkas, to use this set of pieces as a vehicle for developing an analytical ‘toolkit.' A set, in other words something broader and less conventional than a single work, but with a common, distinctive rhythmical basis, and not so extensive in size as to be unmanageable. A toolkit – taking variables such as tempo and dynamics and finding ways to represent them that can be generalised to look at any repertoire.
As well as looking at the numbers and data that he collects from the recordings and generating graphs and written conclusions from this, Sapp also generates innovatory ‘pictures', which he has called timescapes and dynascapes after the feature they illuminate, of each performance. Many such examples can be seen on the Mazurka project website.
By comparing one picture to another, performances can be compared, and indeed also correlated with the average of all performances. Questions about where performers speed up, how they interpret the mazurka rhythm in different parts of the piece, how much rubato they use and so on can easily be answered. Also, it should be noted that these ‘-scapes' are representations of the performance that are intuitively easy to understand, unlike academic analyses, which are, in Cook's words a ‘highly evolved discourse distant' from the experience of performing or listening, in other words, difficult to understand unless you are trained in its own analytical language.
From a listener's perspective, the research concretely demonstrates all kinds of observations that seem intuitively true – there are ‘schools' of interpretation, especially around Horowitz and Rubinstein. In the case of some mazurkas at least, the recording most like the average of all recordings is Kissin's. And recordings are generally getting slower, not because the pianists are ageing, but for reasons that may be linked to the nature of modern recordings, or just the evolution of the performance tradition.
In the future, I speculated, and Cook and Sapp agreed would theoretically possible, we might be able to look forward to being able to identify by computer –or even simulate – the performances of individual pianists, to delineate the ‘creative DNA' of individual artists. Or, at a level of greater detail, analysing how chord weighting and legato (when one note is released relative to the next), give different effects of tone colour.
The battles about whether the computer belongs in the humanities were fought and won a generation ago. We should applaud research that gives rigour and computational certainty to the inexact, subjective and even wrong-headed form of listening that is music criticism, even if that aspect of writing criticism that is itself a form of literature remains immune to the march of precision. It is not as if this greater certainty invalidates E. M. Forster's legendary description of Beethoven's Fifth in Howard's End, or Thomas Mann's representation, in Buddenbrooks, of what goes through his protagonist's mind during listening to Wagner opera.
In the case of the ‘Hatto' mazurkas, Sapp of course had long realised they were copies of another version, but was spared the decision of when exactly to go public and automatically put into question the many other ‘Hatto' recordings, by the story breaking anyway. In their article on the subject on the CHARM website, Cook and Sapp wrote extremely diplomatically and graciously of the need for the scandal not to overshadow the sterling work of the real artist Joyce Hatto. Analogously, it is important to say, just because it's the sensationalist value of the Hatto story that has enabled more people (including to me) to find out about CHARM, we should not be blinded to its significant, wider purpose as an intervention in musicology, in how music is studied, written about or discussed.
To give an example of CHARM's scope, the other three projects ask questions like, ‘How do singers express emotion and how can we measure it (using a corpus of Schubert songs sung by different artists)?' ‘Do we listen differently to historic recordings than we do to modern ones? (Are we moved in the same way, do the technical shortcomings make us think the performance is better or worse?)' ‘What conditions influenced how recordings were made in a given historical place and time?' or ‘Can we liberate the concept of the motif from how it is currently used in score-based musical analysis?'
CHARM is, however, is in the third year of five, after which it will metamorphose into a new centre with a (less acronymically euphonious) title acknowledging its wider interest in performance of all kinds: the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice. Meanwhile, what is most exciting in theoretical terms about its present and future work is simply the convergence of how we listen and how we talk about it.
Illustration above from Gramophone Apr 2007 p.26
CHARM home page
CHARM page for the Mazurka project
Mazurka Project's own website
CMPCP home page (successor to CHARM)