hey man, slow down
by pieces of moments
It’s never a surprise, but always a surprise, to me – even after well over 20 years as a musician – what a difference choice of tempo makes. More shocking still is that the tempo difference can be ever so slight and yet alter the entire character of the piece. Gosh, I love that. The minutia is intoxicating, no? My long term tempo project has been the Bach Partita No. 6 in E Minor (BWV 830). The way I hear it in my head is yet to be exactly matched in reality, so I play it slightly more quick, relaxed, abrupt, languid, fishing for the tempo I hear in the ear of my subconscious (if only the ear of my subconscious could make up its mind, too, that would help the process).
However, I am noticing an overall trend setting in that as I get older I generally appreciate the perspective offered by taking a slower tempo. Now, I don’t care to get into the philosophical or psychological reasons for this shift right now (though I certainly have ideas) so I’ll cop-out by saying like Kipling that’s it’s just so. I mean, Glenn Gould did. Exhibit A: the two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. In the 1955 version the opening Aria is played at a quick little clip compared with the 1981 version, which is far more luxurious in its absorption of space and time. The sieve vs. the sponge.
So, you know, Christopher O’Riley (host of From the Top, my until-the-bad-economy-kicked employer [see post below]) has made a name for himself out of being a “classical” pianist who performs transcriptions he has arranged of songs by Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, and most recently, Nirvana. Yes, Nirvana. Now, before you go running and screaming check this out: tempo.
The original version of Heart Shaped Box is pretty fast paced. Chris’ version is much slower. Honestly, I like Chris’ choice of tempo much more. Don’t mistake me, I adore the original version just as much as anyone, but the slower pace transforms the mood of the piece from vapid astringency to transcendental austerity, and in that space the intrinsic melancholic beauty of the song stands out much more starkly.
Nirvana’s tempo (astringent)
Chris’ tempo (austere)