Expression and Interpretation
The heavenly metaphor is etched deep into musical and artistic culture. We talk of performances as being “inspired,” of performers as “playing like angels.” Both listeners and performers can experience a sense of wonderment at the apparently unpredictable power of some performances. Listeners are not, of course, privy to the hours of deliberate work and shaping that performers can devote in preparation. But even performers sometimes surprise themselves and are unable to explain or predict why one performance is routine and the next performance of the same piece is “magic.” Why is this so?
The crux of expressive performance is in nuance. Nuance is the subtle, sometimes almost imperceptible, manipulation of sound parameters, attack, timing, pitch, loudness, and timbre that makes music sound alive and human rather than dead and mechanical. It is a vital component of every musical genre, from the “swing” of jazz and pop to the uneven three-quarter beats of a waltz. We do not have very good everyday language for describing nuance, for capturing and notating it (Raffman, 1993). This is the reason that many aspects of music performance have to be “handed down” from teacher to apprentice through performance practice (i.e., demonstration and imitation). Our nuanced behaviors are also peculiarly susceptible to factors of which we may not be fully aware: our moods, our memories and associations as well as the subtle gestures and expressions of those around us.
Nuance is a subset of expression. Expression encompasses all changes in parameters that do not actually change the identity of the musical sequence. Expressive performance is also how performers display the deepest and most personal aspects of their work. It is the primary manifestation of their musical creativity and