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Photo: T. Oda

Every work of music needs an interpreter to give it life, interpretation being the crucial component in performance by which every artist is ultimately judged. How is an interpretation arrived at? What takes place within the mind of the performer? Can interpretation be learned?

There is no single ‘solution’ or correct way to interpret a piece of music. I do not believe that interpretation is a matter of ‘godly inspiration and mystery best left alone.’ Rather, it is an intricate combination of processes–a complex mixture of logic (knowledge and thinking), listening, and responding to the music, Most certainly, imagination and creativity play decisive roles in making these elements of interpretation interface.

Simply stated, music communicates a message that can be received and internalized by the listener. The successful interpretation of a work has everything to do with the clarity, insight and power with which this message, or story, if you will, is conveyed to the listener and its consequent impact.

When I was a youngster, my mother told me that I must “always tell a story” with my music. When I was eight years old and played Bach’s Chaconne, the story I told, about “my little dog who died and went to heaven,” is now only a charming anecdote; a story in music is not that simple. From early on, I knew that this was not what my mother meant. In fact, it was absolutely a last resort when she had to encourage my imagination with a tangible plot and name-able characters. A musical story has a dramatic line without an explicit scenario. It is a musical journey in which the experiences (or stories) of the listener, the player, and their surrounding worlds come together.

The role of an interpreter is indeed an important one and one that I take very seriously. Learning to think plays an important role in the developing artistic and communicative process, although it is not the only factor. The performer must first understand the format, the shape, and the construction of the musical work. This is a basic given but it is often ignored. The work must then be interpreted so that the logical components can be communicated in a musically coherent manner. This takes time, patience, trial-and-error, and experience.

When a musician looks at a score, he or she tries to de-code the intentions of the composer as printed on the page. Because there are many ways to interpret, or to execute, these markings, from the start there exist individual ways to express them.

In my teenage years, as I tried to find the best way to interpret music, I listened to performances by other artists, read written analyses of music and watched musicians discussing their points of view in particular works. It was still beyond me at that point to know that there was no simple way to ‘achieve’ interpretation. That it was a case of complicated, interwoven micro-processes rather than a single method was a difficult lesson to learn. I listened to many recordings—particularly of vocal literature—-trying to get under the skin of the performers, to breathe along with them, to understand why they did what they did and how they came to their interpretations. I also asked myself why I reacted as I did to particular performers or performances. It was never my intention to imitate them but I wanted to know how others did what they did.

These days, when I think about interpretation, I am often struck by how closely related it is to language acquisition, capacity, and creativity. We know that children learn to speak at different speeds. Some speak early, others later, while this is not necessarily an indication of later success or talent, or of their ability to learn a second language. Some individuals have a great flair for learning several different foreign languages while others spend much energy just getting to the point of feeling comfortable with one. This is not to mention still others who have more than one first language (mother tongue). But most importantly for the point of this essay, we all speak differently—even when we are telling the same story—because we each have a distinct way of choosing words, combining then and delivering the message. The same goes for listeners who also receive the message in their own distinct ways.

The ‘facts’ of music—as they appear on the composer’s score—are like the factual information of a story, the words, the paragraphs and so on. In reciting it, each story-teller has a unique vocabulary and a distinct emotional temperament to tell the story in his or her own way. And of course, the story-teller’s personal experience influences how he or she tells the story.

Furthermore, language, like music, cannot be learned in solitude. Much is achieved through interaction. The art of language, like music, is malleable, never formulaic, always situational, while following certain basic logic. In speaking a foreign language, when one is keenly conscious of grammatical correctness, the speech, although it may be error-free, often does not sound idiomatic because it is constrained and unnatural. In order to be creative with a language, one needs a certain degree of care-freeness that does not challenge the basic rules. Similarly in music interpretation, the basic rules must be well-ingrained but the interpreter must be free from worry of offending by breaking or stretching them.

Creativity also takes place as the performer listens to and assesses moment-to-moment developments. In other words, the performer must maintain a flexible mind to respond to and reflect the challenges of infinitely-changing situations. For this to occur, certain basic knowledge and logic must exist. So interpretation is a cyclical process where logic and creativity influence and react to one other.

The most important characteristic of the interpretive process is its infiniteness. For the artist, it is also crucial that in performance, the interpretive process be carried out with full conviction. While the search for the elements of an interpretation is on-going, there can only be one way of presenting the music at any one point in time. Performers need experience to gain the self-confidence to present their interpretations with assurance.

A performance, even by the same artist, cannot be a carbon copy of another. Every performance, be it live or recorded, has the potential to move us, performers and listeners alike, in new and profound ways and to transform our awareness of the experience of being.