“Life is a complicated game that helps time pass swiftly.”
Claude Lelouch, filmmaker
For the first time ever, an internationally-acclaimed orchestra conductor has taken some time to talk to us about his perception of time. Or maybe we should say tempo!
And now: MUSIC!
"The choice of tempo is often dictated by practical factors, which ought to be prioritized in performance."
Aaron Carpenè, conductor from Perth (AUS), harpsichordist, organist, pianist and early music specialist, has forged a unique path in today’s music performance panorama. The combination of a profound knowledge and performance experience in 17th and 18th century European music and the desire to interact with some of the world’s great and unique performing arts traditions has led to the creation of the pioneering projects Opera Bhutan, a critically acclaimed intercultural operatic performance of G. F. Handel’s Acis and Galatea in the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan that incorporated traditional Bhutanese music, dance and costume and Japan Orfeo, an integration of Monteverdi's first operatic masterpiece and Noh Theatre, Nihon Buyo, and Gagaku music.
Interview questions: Aaron Carpenè
By Allison Zurfluh
in exclusivity for Swiss Timing
Allison Zurfluh : As a conductor and professional harpsichordist, in what way does the concept of time shape the way you approach music?
Aaron Carpenè : You could think of music as the organization of sound in time, so obviously time has an important role to play. One has to become a master of time-keeping to be able to manipulate it. Liberty with rhythm and metre generates expressiveness in music that distinguishes an interesting and moving performance from a boring one.
AC: One of the tasks of a conductor is to set the tempo of a piece of music which basically means setting the speed as required by the music. Interestingly most of the Italian terms for tempo that are universally used in music, such as allegro, vivace, adagio (happily, lively, at ease) do not actually refer to speed per se but rather the manner of performing the music. So, time in music, the tempo, should not necessarily be dictated by the mechanical time beating of the metronome but rather by a persuasive metric energy that effectively communicates the nature of the music.
J. S. Bach is reported to have said that to play the keyboard, one must simply hit the right keys at the right time. When playing in an ensemble or with an orchestra the ‘right time’ must be a synchronised concept shared by all participants! When performing as a soloist, the ‘right time’ is not determined by being in time with other performers, but instead can experiment with personal rhythmic flexibility. There is a genre of music in the early French harpsichord repertory I find fascinating that is notated in a manner where note durations are left to the performer. The non mesuré preludes by the composer Louis Couperin indicate neither metre nor rhythm, leaving the performer to express their own personal sense of time management. Each performance hence can experiment with rhythmic nuances that can create differing shades of expressiveness leading to a unique interpretation every time.
Recently I had the experience of confronting vocal music by Claudio Monteverdi, one of the great Italian early baroque composers, with traditional Japanese court music or gagaku in a production of the opera Orfeo. Both musical expressions provide a chance to manage music independently from a regular rhythmic beat. In Monteverdi, the recitar cantando style, engages the composer to set speech in rhythmic note values that reflect a more or less natural speaking rhythm while the performer must deliver the notation in the most natural way possible.
The composer is careful to set fast rhythmic values to express excitement, agitation, anger while slow notation can express amorous languor or grief. The management of tempo then is very much related to its power of moving the listener according to the emotional and dramatic content.
Gagaku music similarly is not a slave to a constant and regular beat though in a different way to Italian recitative compositions, the tempo is governed by the so-called breathing rhythm, where the performer’s management of breathing determines the progress of the music through time.
The effect was powerful as this music gave the impression of being suspended in the air and was used to create the atmosphere of the Underworld, surely a place where time has stopped still.
AZ: Do you feel that this relationship with time, or rhythm, impacts your personality or artistic vision?
AC: The choice of tempo is often dictated by practical factors, which ought to be prioritized in performance. Once I heard Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in a very reverberant church in Rome at such a fast speed that it sounded like rush hour on the autostrada. I am sure the conductor was thinking of the tempo that he had used in recording the piece where an appropriate recording environment is able to exalt the clarity of all the parts. It’s also very important to get the tempo and rhythm right in dance music since the dancer’s steps are contrived around the speed of the music. Or sometimes in rehearsals I get a menacing glare from a singer because the tempo may be too slow making them run out of breath before the phrase is finished.
AZ: In your opinion, is there a correlation between music and sport?
AC: To ‘hit the right key at the right time’ implies that there must be muscular precision that is the result of many hours of training/practising and a high degree of mental concentration and stamina. That surely must sound familiar to any serious sports person!
In an orchestral or ensemble situation teamwork is fundamental in a parallel way to team sports. There may be a nominal leader, but in reality the leadership is handed around at any given time to any member who may have a particular role to play that must guide the rest of the group.
AZ: Are you a timely person?
AC: There are two issues here, the employment of time and the perception of time. After many years living in Italy I still haven’t rectified my bad habit of being on time instilled in me from my Australian upbringing!
Perception of time is influenced by the sun clock - the passing of hours, minutes and seconds, the biological clock - how our bodies mutate with the passing of time according to biological laws and what I call the cosmic clock. Think about infinity. Time which has no beginning and no end, stretching as far back into the past as into the future beyond what is possible to imagine. But at the same time think of the division of time into infinitesimal parts: that is another expression of infinity. Within the mere space of a single second, we experience an infinite number of infinitesimal time lapses. Where do thoughts and ideas come from, that go on to influence our actions? They leap out from a single point of infinity and I think they come from a place where no time exists. It’s interesting when I’m in that space, time ceases to be an inexorable ticking away of the clock and turns into an unmeasurable liquid state, a bit like a prelude non mesuré, the realm of thoughts, ideas, dreams, the welcome escape from the ultimately ineluctable shackles of the passing of time.
AZ: In what way do you use time to interact with an instrument, a singer?
AC: I like to challenge and be challenged. Often in questions of time, rhythm and accents there can be more than one solution and it is always a delight to discover together with colleagues new and interesting ways to make music. When there is this creativity a different atmosphere energises the musicians giving the performance an edge that wouldn’t occur with routine playing in time.
AZ: Do you have any thoughts on the concept of time in your profession as a conductor and musician that you could elaborate on?
AC: I’m always trying to play a game of tug-of-war against a constant regular beat, seeking out the nuances of rhythms and accents that give expressiveness to music. Time in music, which is rhythm and metre, has to be studied meticulously in order to understand how to control it, break its rules so that the music can achieve its role of taking us to a higher sphere.
AZ: Thank you, Aaron, for your time, which as timekeepers we know is so precious!
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