Interpreting Kapustin

Comments and “discussions” under YouTube videos playing Nikolai Kapustin’s music always relate to the jazz/classical dynamic.

My video has received comments from every extreme (trolls included). At one point, I tried engaging a user who thought my performance was too strict to the score and therefore very boring and dry; he thought that I should add more rubato to make it sound more humourous and spontaneous (lots more, like in this performance).  Jokingly, I asked him if I should add an improv section.  He replied: “Definitely not!”  Apparently, it’s okay to change rhythms and tempi, but not notes!

Really, I wasn’t interested in how he thinks it should sound; I know how it goes. It’s pretty clear to me how ‘oom-pah oom-pah’ sounds in the stride/swing tradition.  Adding rubato completely contradicts my intuition.  How could our interpretations be so different?

I touched on this previously in my post When Traditions Collide:

I’m convinced that when discussing the jazz tradition and the classical tradition you have to recognize differences on a cultural level…Our minds and bodies have been trained to reflect different priorities in making music.

If we’re using a language analogy, it seems that Kapustin has written stories that alternate English words with Mandarin.  Maybe Mandarin is too extreme… Italian is better!  Sometimes his pieces uses more English than Italian and vice versa.  If this is the case, how do you approach performing his music? How do you approach listening when you’re only familiar with one language?  What happens if you’re bi-lingual?  Do you accentuate the English or the Italian?  Can we all get along?

The problem is that if you (the performer) interpret something as jazz, while listeners interpret it as classical (or vice versa), your rendition will sound so perverse and blasphemous that listeners will never forgive you for it.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t tolerate performances of this piece with rubato.

Side Note: Keep in mind that although I’m focusing on rubato, swing, stride and groove, this dynamic applies to every subtlety that differentiates the two traditions.

Kapustin’s music is tricky because it can alienate listeners on three levels.  First, are the compositions themselves; some people just don’t like this hybrid music.  It’s not quite classical and it’s not quite jazz.  Because it doesn’t seem to work with either tradition, listeners have a hard time identifying with it.  I’ve played Kapustin’s music for colleagues before.  Many respond with: “This is cool, but I couldn’t listen to it frequently; Kapustin doesn’t quite get it.”

Second, are the actual performances; If listeners hear the composition as “jazz” but the performance is more “classical,” they’re not going to enjoy it, no matter what.  There is no amount of education that will fix this.  You can’t combat their intuition.  This is where describing these differences as “cultural” is most appropriate.

Lastly, if you’ve crossed these two hurdles, you’ll then be facing listeners and criticism that comes with any sort of performance.  That deserves recognition.  It means that your listeners aren’t associating with generic terms.  It’s not jazz, it’s not classical… it’s Kapustin!  This brings me to my final point:  What’s the best way to approach performing Kapustin’s music?  For starters, I think we can all agree that because his music doesn’t fully identify with either tradition, describing it as “jazz” or “classical” misses the point. I think it’s best to abandon these terms and label it using nothing other than Kapustin’s name.

Another side note: Because this music is all notated, without improvisation, I’m going to assume our goal as performers is to seek out better interpretations of his work.

In my opinion, nobody has interpreted this music better than the composer himself; his playing exemplifies a beautiful, and perhaps ideal stylistic balance that is critical to interpreting his pieces. Oscar Peterson and Rachmaninoff may deepen a performer’s perspective, but relying on them exclusively will result in very shallow performances.  Therefore, I would propose that a performer ignore both camps and start with imitating Kapustin; let his recordings inform your interpretation. Over time, you’ll evolve and diverge, but Kapustin should be your foundation.

As long as his music is labeled as jazz or classical, it will always suffer from problems of identity.  So, why don’t we start something new?  Compose and perform new works from the first Kapustin School and spread the word!

It’d be the only way to break away from (or perhaps unify!?) these generic terms.  It’d also may be the best way to make his music more mainstream.

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