Writer John Gardner describes good fiction as being a dream that the author takes us into. For it to be a potent dream, it needs to be both vivid and continuous:
“vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is we’re dreaming, […] our emotions and judgements must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion”
Doesn’t a great musical performance operate in the same manner? It needs to be vivid, full of color and local inflections, while being continuous, having a sense of direction and purpose within the larger musical structure.
When the two balance the music holds us within its rapture, just like a dream.
“What music do you listen to?”
“Me? I listen to all types of music.”
How many times do you hear this? Does that really answer the question? If someone asked you what books you like to read, you wouldn’t say all books, right? Because I’m sure you don’t read microwave manuals along with Jane Austen.
You couldn’t possibly listen to everything. Everything means nothing as far as I’m concerned. It’s too vague and leads us nowhere into understanding another’s musical taste. Any opportunity to learn about a new artist is crushed. The conversation goes elsewhere. So what can we do?
How about flip the question? To go back to books: instead of asking what books you read, we usually ask someone what books has she read recently. How about we ask that with music? “What have you been listening to lately?”
This way, nobody can say “everything”. This way, somebody can get specific about the music he enjoys. This way, everybody has a better chance to connect with each other through music.
At rock and jazz concerts the audience applauds not only after a song but during one. That boisterous bridge that builds back to the chorus or the sax solo that sizzles with intensity brings out a joy that can’t be contained. It’s a knee jerk reaction to something that resonates within us. All we can do is clap and shout and make funny noises. That’s fine.
But at a classical concert? Any outburst is looked down upon: hold your applause until after all the movements. The audience is not allowed to show any outward enjoyment of a piece. That could be distracting to the performer or other listeners.
That’s not a concert. No, that’s a museum: a museum where we observe things of the past with a reverence and distance. It’s a sterilization of the outward joy that music brings to many. Not only that but the music is desecrated. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony becomes something dead that we observe in a glass case, not as a living ruckus of a beauty that makes us cheer and weep and lets us know we’re alive.
Music wants to be free of the past and take ahold of the present. Music wants to be loved. When the crowd goes crazy at a punk show it’s in response in the moment to a music that they cherish deeply. Now, I’m not asking for you to encourage mosh pits or screaming uncontrollably at the next piano recital you attend.
I think we should consider not being afraid of outwardly loving music. This (non) clapping culture has been indoctrinated in the classical world. It’s time to question its relevance: why do we have to hold our applause until after all the movements?
I had detested hip-hop until I discovered the craft that producers like J Dilla honed and possessed.
I had hated country until I heard guitarist Bill Frisell play country with a purity that drew me in.
It wasn’t simply hearing a good artist of a genre but hearing the right one. As a listener I look for craft and purity in anything I hear (amongst other things).
We all have things we hear for. So before you ignore an entire genre, think about taking the time to look for the artist that fits your sensibilities as a listener. It sounds simple enough but I think we dismiss it for something even easier to say: “I listen to everything but…”
Musicians often hear compliments about a performance: “Great job! That sounded great!”
It’s wonderful to hear but I think sometimes we drown it out in the waves of insecurity and worry that engulf us as performers: “Am I doing the right thing being a musician?”
What I think musicians need to hear is this: “Thank you so much for doing what you do. The world is a better place because you put music into the world.”
Perhaps that is what we should tell musicians who mean so much to us. Consistent and excellent performance is a great goal. But mattering to the world because of your music…
For all the hubbub about getting it out there, music can really be an introverted art. We sit on pieces like hens. Our coop is an isolated entity, often taking its form in a practice room or a bedroom. We patiently wait until they’re ready to hatch but in the process smother our work with doubt and nitpicking. The pieces are never ready and therefore we never are.
So what? There comes a time when the pieces have to hatch. The music has to break out of its introverted egg and rattle the eardrum of someone other than yourself. Sometimes the pieces aren’t ready at the time of hatching: a phrase is flubbed in performance class, the recording sounds like it was done in a public bathroom, the band messes up the ending. So what? A baby chick doesn’t walk as soon as it hatches. Why must your music be perfect before it’s shared into the world? Over time, after constantly putting our music out there, we will improve, learning how to walk and then how to fly out of the nest.
The most important thing is getting music out there: putting your music online, going to an open mic, volunteering to play in a performance class, playing your music for friends and family. Even if it’s for one person, that act of letting your music out into the world is a posture changing activity if we can consistently do it (once a week?)
As they say, if you truly love something, give it away.
Realizing pieces as a performer is like translating a famous work of literature. Translators aren’t dismissed for what they do. No, they’re commended for it. These people bring works of inherent importance to our intention that wouldn’t of been possible for impatient language learners like myself.
A translator’s work is by no means just copying words down. By transporting a piece from one language to another, translators have the enormous endeavor of creative decision making: omitting words and phrases that the author’s style would not allow, assuming words and phrases that would strengthen the text more than a simple translation would allow, how the sentence structure is layed out, and on and on and on! It’s paradoxically simple and complex at the same time.
Don’t musicians make the same decisions? A score is like a text. Of course there are sometimes phrases and dynamic markings laid out, but it’s largely the performer’s creative decision making that bring a piece to life. Performers take the language of the sheet music and translate it into sonorous glory.
Musicians are translators too and share in the generosity of giving what we love to the world to love too. We find beauty in the score and want to share it with the world in a language that we all understand: music!