Monday, July 19, 2010

A Musical Argument; Wispelwey and the third suite Courante

"The Cello Suites are definitely not primarily melodic music," said cellist Pieter Wispelwey in an interview with Tim Janof, "their style is rhetorical, speaking rather than singing." Wispelwey did not deny the "wonderful lyricism within certain notes, slurs, or motives," but drew a distinction between the style of writing in the cello suites and the "aria-like singing" that appears in other instrumental works by Bach.

Giving attention to the rhetorical side of these suites pulls us away from the atomic thinking that is a source of endless fascination in learning Bach. Wispelwey's concept was dramatized in a short film called "The Kitchen Suite," filmed by Paul Cohen in 1994.

Wispelwey performs the third cello suite while Liat Steiner performs a mixture of domestic gestures and dance. It is fascinating to see how much dance she can imbue into ordinary domestic gestures, and transitions from one world to the other are wonderful. The choreography, and basic idea for the project, came from Aletta Schreuders.

I am particularly interested in the Courante, but will start just as the Allemande cadences to set the context [7:15-10:36].

Steiner's character seems to think of a creative compromise to engage her intense and focused partner. She brings him a cookbook to entice him into domesticity. She even brings it to him on a music stand as a way of creating a bridge into his world.

Wispelwey's character windshield-wipes the book from his stand. Never a good strategy. Wispelwey is great in this scene...and he gives the rest of us hope for a film career.

He begins to play the Courante as a rhetorical expression of musical argument. I have never heard this movement played this way and find it strangely convincing. Wispelwey points the descending arpeggios and descending scale segments so that they land at the bottom of each gesture--often these passages are played with the middleground melodic connections in mind. He also gives each bowing a crunchy weight to create energy.

Steiner's character registers the impact of anger in slow motion, bursting into flamenco inspired gestures during the pedal tones on V/V [8:08]. The musical repeat of the opening section [8:20] employs a repetition of the movement: slow motion, this time with a tracking shot until the pedal tones gestures take place.

The second half of the dance [9:00] opposes the first half with circular body motion and strongly vertical arm gestures, followed by more reflective gestures after the cadence in A minor [9:15] that is announced as the cookbook is thrown to the floor. The dominant pedal inspires rapid room-crossing movement then gets "two points" for the music-stand takedown.

The repeat of the second half begins as a parallelism [9:46], but begins to seek resolution after the A minor cadence [10:03]. The argument is unresolved.

Bach wrote dance music that was not intended to be danced. It was a dance of embodied movement. Wispelwey continues to make the case for hearing the music in rhetorical terms, and this film was a creative way to explore the relationship between rhetoric, movement and sound.

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