Thursday, December 21, 2006

First Times

There’s something special about mom’s recipes. No matter how many times you may try one of these dishes at restaurants with the greatest chefs in the world, there’s always going to be something dear about the way mom makes it at home; it seems to just suit your palate better.

Why is that? Is it because your mom is the best chef in the world? Probably not. I believe it’s a psychological effect that occurs based around “first-time conditioning”, in which opinions of something are formed based on the first experience with it, and it’s hard to alter those opinions. Mom’s macaroni and cheese is what macaroni and cheese is supposed to taste like – it’s the first macaroni and cheese you ever had. These opinions are formed in the absence of anything to compare against, and, as a result, they are by definition treated as “the best”. In some cases, these opinions are elevated even higher because of where they can take us – remembrance of childhood or other important associations.

I believe the same can be applied to our experiences with classical music. The first time you hear a piece, be it live or on recording, your mind will be conditioned against that performance; it becomes the definitive version of that piece, including tempos, accents, tonal qualities, etc.

An example from my experience is with Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto. The first recording I ever heard was on a record with Dmitri Sgouros at the piano. I still love that recording, though most don’t even recognize it in the list of the great performances, including Argerich, Horowitz, Rachmaninoff himself, and now Ansdnes. When I listen to that of Argerich and others, I can recognize how they are all unique and can make a case for greatness, but I still just love that Sgouros recording – it’s become the definitive recording for me, with just the right tempos (Argerich is known to play a little fast), my preferred cadenza (with most don’t perform), great accents, and overall sound.

But there is a trap we can fall into as a result. In classical music, we know that each piece is an interpretation of a score. Therefore, upon first listen, we are conditioning our ears against someone else’s interpretation of a score. Since there is no “definitive” or “true” performance of any piece, by conditioning ourselves in this manner, we often close our minds (and ears) to other interpretations we might hear later and can fail to appreciate the greatness of these other recordings (“it’s just not the same as Sgouros’!”). In relation to a previous article I wrote, it’s important to appreciate multiple versions of these pieces, each performer with different interpretations of the written score. Therefore, beyond simply trying to listen to as many recordings of pieces as possible, we must be sure to keep an open mind about all of these interpretations – the first version you heard might always have a special place in your heart, but it may not always be the greatest.


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