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Kim Kashkashian explores the nature of rhythmic performance at SFCM

The opening measures of Mendelssohn's Allegro non tardante
The opening measures of Mendelssohn's Allegro non tardante
from IMSLP

This week violist Kim Kashkashian has returned to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to participate again in the Chamber Music Masters series. Last night, as part of her one-week residency, she led at Master Class that was open to the public. I always try to follow Kashkashian’s visits, particularly for the opportunity to observe her coaching technique. She has a singular gift for drawing upon full-body expressiveness and scrupulously chosen verbal observations to supplement demonstration through performance. During her visit last season, I was particularly struck by how her coaching could focus on the moments of silence in the Andante movement from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 590 string quartet.

Last night the topic that most interested me was rhythm and the role it plays in the opening movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 12 string quartet in E-flat major. When one examines the theoretical literature, one discovers that rhythm receives far less attention than such topics as counterpoint and harmony. Indeed, the very approaches to rhythm are diverse, seeking foundations in areas such as the stress patters of poetry (The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer), hierarchical subdivisions of a basic pulse (A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff), and even Maury Yeston’s “stratification” approach, based on the foreground-background concepts of Heinrich Schenker. Both students and serious amateurs might end up thinking that rhythm was another example of an elephant being grabbed by blind men encountering different parts of its body.

Kashkashian took a more direct approach, using the score pages to launch a Socratic dialog. She asked what the time signature of the Allegro non tardante in that string quartet movement was. The answer was simple enough: common (4/4) time. After a brief pause, she said, “It sounds like its in two.” After another pause, she said, “What do you think is the difference?”

It was quickly apparent that the answer was not that four beats to the measure is twice as many as two, and this allowed her to get into the point she wanted to make. This was that rhythm is not simply a matter of counting off pulses as one might do when counting the fence posts while driving down a rural road. The purpose of a bar line is to establish a sense of where the downbeat is; and, in performance, that downbeat is always best defined by the upbeat that precedes it. When there are two beats to the measure, there are no intervening beats between downbeat and upbeat; when there are four, there are two such intervening beats. The number of those beats provide the listener with a sense of the flow of time; and the nature of that sense is what most of us have agreed to call “rhythm.” The lesson could then focus on which techniques of performance best served to clarify the upbeat-downbeat relation that the composer had in mind.

This can get very tricky when one is dealing with composers like Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, tends to be more of a straightforward “four-square” composer. Indeed, it is because he is so straightforward that overlooking those upbeat-downbeat relations can ruin the performance of his music, taking some of his most expressive phrases and making them sound routine, if not banal. In this respect Kashkashian also called attention to Mendelssohn’s frequent use of streams of eighth notes. From one point of view, these appear to be little more than the clicks of a clock keeping the ensemble playing in time. However, when viewed in terms of rhythm, Kashkashian called these passages the “engine” that governs the flow of time by the entire group.

The result was a coaching session that provided far more insight into the subtle nature of rhythm than could be found in any number of theory books, reminding all of us on audience side, once again, that practice must always take priority over theory.