Playing by heart: an extraordinary journey

Once again, the Chiara Quartet has finished another season.  As I look back, this has been without a doubt the most extraordinary year in our artistic life.  Many amazing events have occurred such as the Grammy nomination for Jefferson Friedman’s 3rd Quartet from our album on New Amsterdam.  However, the core of what made this season amazing was the blossoming of what was the seed of an idea: performing by heart.

Playing by heart is not a new idea.  Pianists have been doing it as a matter of course since Clara Wieck Schumann first received acclaim at the age of 13 for performing her entire programs from memory.  Soloists are expected to memorize concertos, and a few ensembles have also undertaken this task.  Most notably, the Kolisch Quartett performed all of their repertoire including immensely complex works such as Berg’s Lyric Suite by heart.  The Quartetto Italiano performed Beethoven’s Quartets by memory.  Today, Eighth Blackbird performs much of their repertoire by heart as well, occasionally with choreography.

The Chiara Quartet has been slowly but surely moving away from using music for our performances.  We have now gotten to the point where it feels uncomfortable to use music at all!  I recently gave an interview to about The Chiara Quartet’s process of moving towards becoming a quartet like the Kolisch.  A link to the full interview is below, here is an excerpt:

Arts Fuse: When did you start doing this? Was it one person’s idea?

Gregory Beaver: We first began playing by heart a year and a half ago. We had recorded the three Brahms String Quartets and his Op. 111 G Major viola quintet with Roger Tapping over the course of four years, very deliberately and carefully learning and rehearsing each piece, but we were not satisfied with the final recording. After many discussions, we took the financially risky step of abandoning the five years of work that had gone into that recording and to start over from scratch, choosing instead to record all four works in a single year’s time.

Roger graciously agreed to have another go at the project with us. As we were rehearsing the C minor and A minor quartets, we all felt that this needed to be a step above the last time we recorded. We grappled with several possible ideas about how to do this. None of them felt quite right, and the stress of rehearsing at the highest possible level was quite high. Hyeyung Julie Yoon (our second violinist) ultimately suggested that we make a serious attempt to record the quartets from memory, and things have spiraled from that point.

Playing by heart was not a new idea to us. We saw Eighth Blackbird perform in their Merkin Hall debut from memory, complete with choreography on the stage. Jonah [Sirota] performed the slow movement of the Debussy Quartet by heart when he was a student at Greenwood Music Camp, and we have all performed individually from memory many times. We had even performed a movement of Mozart’s “Dissonance” K. 465 quartet from memory on a whim in a performance for school children after one of them asked if we could play anything without music stands. However, this is very different from committing to prepare an entire piece by heart in advance of the performance.

Arts Fuse: Do you all have, in general, good memories? (I ask because I had a fabulous memory—I’m a harpist—until I was 40. The gift has all but disappeared over the past two decades.)

Gregory Beaver: Actually, no. There is a large degree of variation in each member’s natural ability to memorize. Some of us have incredible long-term memories, with the ability to remember entire pieces years after we first worked on them, and others have to struggle to remember notes a week later. However, the act of performing from memory has been equally challenging for each one of us. No single member has a monopoly on either surprise memory slips or perfect recall in performance.

One of the things I have found most incredible is watching my colleagues all come together from such different angles to the same place with memory. For me, it’s humbling to be a part of every performance we give by heart, and I’m very grateful that we have decided to do this and that I get to be a part of it.

Arts Fuse: Does it take much more rehearsal time?

Gregory Beaver: Yes and no.

For our earliest experiments with memory, it took about three times as long to learn a quartet. The first and most important thing we did was establish some ground rules. No one would be expected to memorize, and any member could veto playing by memory at any time in the week before the recording. The same was true of performances. This guarantee of safety really helped us work through the difficulty of figuring out how to memorize as a group.

In the beginning, we had to perform a piece seven or eight times before the memory settled. Now, it takes us about the same amount of time to memorize a work as it used to take us to learn the work initially, but the level of performance is far deeper than we have grown accustomed to in our work with music. When we memorize a work, it front-loads the stress and deep exploration, so that by the time we reach our first performance we’ve cut out those six or seven performances it used to take to learn pieces.

For this reason, we recently decided to drop our ground rules. We’ve grown comfortable enough with memorizing that we will be playing all of our repertoire by heart starting in the 2014–2015 season, and our first big project will be performing by heart the six quartets of Béla Bartók in two concerts.

To read the full interview, with discussions of the challenge of memorization, our recent program at Harvard with Ravel, Dutilleux and Debussy quartets, and the process of playing by heart, click on the link below.

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