Blues, Gershwin, and the Art of Slow

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

In an age where speed is valued so highly, this article suggests an alternative approach to develop more rewarding, satisfying, and expressive performances through George Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’. The Man I Love features on the ABRSM and LCM diploma syllabi, and tends to be performed rather quickly. What can blues, The Deep South, and Bessie Smith teach us about performing this piece, and about performance today?

The Information Age and the Need for Speed

It’s 1989, and tens of thousands of people are gathered with champagne and beer, and hammers and picks. One journalist called it ‘the greatest street party in the history of the world’. Nervous, guards were met with ‘Tor auf!’ (‘open the gate’) as the Berlin Wall was pecked and bulldozed. In the same year, the first commercial internet connection emerged, named ‘The World’. Information and speed became virtually synonymous in this bold, new, and fast age.

Fast-forward two decades, and Brits are spending two days in each week online (according to The Independent). Questions of governmental and commercial controls – and concerns about information sharing – were once again reshaped in 2020. Opinions on online communications were discussed at length in isolated households across the globe, and interest in decentralised platforms reached a frenzied state.

Controversy seemed (seems?) rife, discussion on focus and direction scant, and ‘anxiety’ became (almost) a buzzword. Civil unrest was channelled onto our screens, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement captivated audiences across the globe. Amongst the uncertainty, we could be sure of only one thing: that the Information Age was (and is) in full swing.

Information and speed are the new steel, railroads, and factories. Our perception of speed founded on the Industrial Age seems a slow and distant memory. This new speed is everywhere: the speed of information.

The Deep South: Slavery, Heat, and Slowness

Let’s rewind the tape by over two centuries to the 1800s: The Deep South. The seeds of the American Civil War are being sown, and Abraham Lincoln would become known as the President who freed the slaves. The heat on the cotton fields beamed down on the slaves working the crop, reaching temperatures of around 100 (35oC). Working conditions were appalling, and the ethics surrounding slavery resonate and ripple around the world to this day.

The conditions of working in such heat meant that direction, focus, and pacing were paramount to survival. The speed of the modern age would have been unfathomable – and Blues was born.

The Blues Third, and Embracing the Indefinite

Blues music has numerous manifestations throughout history, including evolution into rock and pop. As a result, a meaningful definition can be challenging to articulate. Perhaps it can be defined as: expressing a state of sadness or melancholy.

Its character is often mournful, soulful, and even sexy. Moans and hollers give blues its tonal, timbral, and dynamic character, and it is often a challenge for those of us who are deeply scripted in Western classical traditions to perform blues with ease, with comfort, and with meaningful expression.

Vocal styles are prominent in blues, and we classical pianists often have much to learn from blues from a historical, instrumental, and stylistic perspective.

We’ll focus on just two aspects (or two challenges) now:

1) The blues third

2) The ability to play behind the beat

Regarding the blues third, the expression is felt through the singer’s skilful execution of hovering between the major and minor third. We pianists often struggle with this indefinite sense of pitch for two reasons.

The first is that our sense of pitch can feel quite fixed – after all, we are at the behest of the relatively fixed pitch of the piano. The second is that we have learned that the major and minor modes are opposites – one expressing happiness and one expressing sadness. In blues, the music hovers within an aesthetic of soulful joy and deep sadness.

On the second point, our sense of rhythm is often constructed by our theoretical understanding of meter – i.e. judging were the beat falls, counting out loud, and using the metronome. Slaves did not use metronomes, nor did they construct a Western understanding of piano pedagogy. In order to grasp this, we must listen with intent to feel the lag of the beat – not merely to play slowly, ‘in time’, or with rubato.

Bessie Smith: Slowness as Focus

For these reasons, it’s important that we listen to and feel lots of recordings by blues singers in order to better assimilate the style.

The slowness in this recording by Bessie Smith singing ‘St Louis Blues’ is incredibly painful, and the expression somehow feels wonderfully out of place today:

Playing at a slow tempo with meaningful expression enables us to develop and to focus our tone, our colour, and our timbre in ways which can be more challenging to attain at faster tempi. I hope this recording inspires us to find focus in areas of uncertainty – namely the expression of pitch and rhythm – in ways that may initially feel uncomfortable to us, but which will lead to more expressive, informed, and enjoyable playing.

Blues and Gershwin: Soulfulness and Interpretation

Many of the recordings of ‘The Man I Love’, are often played fast – in a sort of ‘Liberace’ style. Of course, few musicians today have what Liberace had to offer the world, but Liberace appeared much later than blues, and so a performance in this style may seem out of place. It’s true that Gershwin’s own recording of Rhapsody in Blue is very brisk, and so music that is inspired by blues does not have to be played slowly.

I’d like to suggest an alternative – one that seems to have gotten lost in the course of Western art music. This piece sounds wonderful when played slowly.

S’wonderful, in fact!

Sorry… couldn’t resist – but if the music did in fact derive from blues, this is something we should consider in order to find a soulful and meaningful interpretation. Also, it’s marked ‘Slow and in a singing style’ at the top, so it’s a bit of a no-brainer!

Here is my recording of the work - recorded at Forsyth, Manchester - which I hope offers a starting point for those learning it for their diploma, or more generally:

Speed and Value

We’ve established that the speed of information is highly valued today, so if you’ve read to the end then thank you, and I hope you’ve found it of value. I believe this piece offers us the opportunity to really slow down, experiment with colour, and to focus our efforts in a meaningful and expressive way.

If you value your practise time and would like some further insights into Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ – including tips for overcoming the expressive and technical challenges – then you’ll find my video tutorial below.

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