Interview with Peter Sulski

Upon reflecting on ideas about this project, I wanted an interview with a person who has extensive performance and recording experience along with having strong opinions about music and the music industry. Because of this, I chose Peter Sulski.

Peter Sulski shared in his interview that he is a classical violist who has been playing for forty years in various professional groups (including the London Symphony Orchestra for seven years) playing classical music and chamber music (Peter Sulski Biography, 2014). He has also been a faculty member at the Royal College of Music and Trinity College of Music and Drama (Peter Sulski Biography, 2014). Peter has also been involved extensively in teaching music, especially to encourage participation in younger generations.

Peter’s experience with recording is also extensive. He explained in this interview how he has seen recording change over the last several decades from a tool for the progression of the careers of individual musicians to a tool that is a bought and sold. He described recording as being much more basic thirty years ago. Peter explained that recording in those years was more straightforward and that a musician would just have to hope that a recording was done well. Peter explained that these recordings would be distributed by the artist themselves to show what they could do. Peter also described recordings as “something tangible (that musicians would create) in order to make concrete proof that they could play well.” I agreed with Peter that so much of the work of music performers is intangible and I could see how there would be a need to make something tangible. Uses of recording from thirty years ago that Peter described made sense to me and seemed like they benefitted the music industry by allowing artists to showcase their work effectively and efficiently.

I also brought up ideas about historical authenticity with Peter. He described it as a “loaded question,” as a lot of performers do. Peter however brought up ideas that I’d never heard before in the complex discussion about historical authenticity. A recurring theme throughout Peter’s interview is that he really considers the most authentic version of a piece of music to be the score. Peter sees live performance as the more authentic than a recording, but still less “authentic” than the score. He finds that so much of what gives live performance value is the focus of the performer and the performer’s ability to absorb the music in a meaningful and valuable way and to communicate that interpretation to the audience without deviating too much from what is written in the score.

I found Peter’s view to be straightforward, which in questions like those of authenticity, is a really good thing. The score is, as Peter says, the most tangible and unmodified, and therefore the most ‘authentic’ version of a piece of music. But one question I was left with was that the score isn’t a performance of the piece. It’s where all the existence of a piece begins, but in my mind, it may not be a direct representation of the music itself because the score is not sound. The score is the notated version of the piece, and for many listeners including myself, there would beed to be an actual performance or recording for something to be considered a version of the piece.

I also was curious to see what Peter thought about how the omnipresence of recording has changed participation levels in live musical performance like school ensembles or individual instruction on a specific instrument. Peter commented that he believed that it has discouraged musical participation, but that the continuing participation of the younger generation in music is what keeps music alive. Peter also has a lot experience teaching young kids music and encouraging participation in organizations like Neighborhood Strings, which is a program through the Worcester Chamber Music Society that puts together free lessons in violin, viola and cello to young people of Main South in Worcester, Massachusetts (Worcester Chamber Music Society, 2014). Peter noted that today’s technology has created a disconnect between what music young people can create, on a computer for example, and what’s actually possible on a physical instrument.

I found this comment by Peter intriguing. Up until this point in this project, I had never considered how electronic music could change how the next generations of musicians compose and play music. Technology has changed almost every aspect of our lives in the last few decades, but I never considered that technology could result in a shift away from instrumental music and towards electronic music as Peter described. This shift will most likely start a whole new debate with questions of authenticity, expression and artistry.

Peter also commented on how the omnipresence of recording has changed our musical climate. “I think this is a terrible thing. I think it cheapens music, personally. I think a lot of people would say that this is very much of a minority view… But I think that the more noise there is, the less pure my music is.”

I found the way the way Peter connected recordings to his own work very interesting. Framing these ideas in terms of “purity” as Peter did was a different way to look at how recordings and performance interact that hadn’t been explored in this project. Peter described this interaction as a contaminating and harmful relationship to his own work. I took a more macro-level view through this project and looked at how recordings change the way we think about musical performance, not how we feel about how recordings could harm personal performances and art as Peter explained.

Peter does agree with a central premise of my project, that modern recordings have created unrealistic expectations for performance. “I haven’t felt that personally but it’s been talked about a lot. In some ways it’s maybe helped create more of a star system in which people are looking for more technique. Technique has really gone up. What people would often complain about now is a lack of character in people’s playing… It’s a big question.”

I found Peter’s ideas here interesting because they connect so well to wider issues involved with the commercialization of today’s music. Not only has music become a commodity, but because of this, the way we look at performers has changed too as Peter described. Peter even mentioned that some bands are really just thrown together by music producers. Peter also talked about the well-known inverse relationship between technique and expression. Many people, including Peter, feel like as technique increases, personal expression must decrease.

I also asked Peter about the role that recordings have played in his musical education and professional life. He commented more on how recordings have helped him become a more informed player, but that he really does believe that recordings are more harmful than helpful. “Even though I’ve made recordings and delved into that, I’m so against recordings. Being able to experience that history (in older recordings) is very inspiring for me but generally in the way I approach music recordings have no impact on me whatsoever. I just use the score and friends and colleagues.”

Peter’s perspective about appreciating recordings for their historical value and just their historical value was a new perspective for this project too. Peter looked at recordings more as artifacts or snapshots in time that could help us as modern musicians make better decisions about our current performances, but Peter really was against the idea of recordings as a primary sources of music itself.

In conclusion I asked Peter if he thought that live performance tried to achieve perfection because of the increased pressure of recordings. “I don’t think I think about (perfection) at all (when I play). I just think about being true to the score. We try to think about trying to be clued in with each and other and be in tune with each other’s gestures… There are so many variables all the time. It’s a total concentration.”

Throughout this interview, Peter seemed to believe that the music as written in the score was something that we all ought to be true to and that it was the performer’s responsibility to communicate with the audience in a live performance. Recordings didn’t seem to fit well into his thoughts about what music is, what it could become and what role it serves to us as artists and as humans.

 

Literature Cited

 

“Neighborhood Strings.” Worcester Chamber Music Society. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2014. <http://www.worcesterchambermusic.org/education-outreach/neighborhood-strings>.

“Peter Sulski Bio.” Peter Sulski : Viola – Violin. N.p., 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2014. <http://petersulski.com/bio.html>.

Sulski, Peter. Personal Communication. 11 Apr. 2014.

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