In Italo Calvino’s “The Levels of Reality in Literature”, there is a brief section which exposes on the tiers of authorship. Calvino uses the example of Flaubert and Madame Bovary. Flaubert takes on two roles. The first is Flaubert the author of the complete works (so far) of Flaubert and the second is Flaubert the author of Madame Bovary. Flaubert the second is a condensed reflection of Flaubert the first.
What if we went one step further? There would exist a preface of a preface if you will: Flaubert the zero is the entire human of whom Flaubert the first, the author from who Flaubert the second writes Madame Bovary, is made of.
Theatre director Peter Brook cuts to the heart of his craft in a similar manner. In “The Empty Stage”, he writes: “There is always a new season in hand and we are too busy to ask the only vital question which measures the whole structure: Why theatre at all? What for?”
That is what Flaubert the zero is about. We can strive for better technique because it brings out the music, but unless we have a reason for bringing out the music, why music at all? We must examine the process and reason for learning an instrument. This extra step, Flaubert the zero, is a crucial crossing of the gap between the process and purpose of learning and performing music in the first place.
Concerts can be a lot like a hit and run. The music collides with our eardrums and then disappears. It’s usually the only time we listen to the pieces on the program. We’re left in awe or confusion and then forget about the music. Any chance for meaningful and lasting connection is gone.
Composer Alban Berg sums it up poignantly…
“The performances are for the most part unclear. And in particular the public’s consciousness of its needs and desires is unclear. The consequence is that the works are valued, respected, praised and welcomed, or disregarded, censured and rejected, all on account of one single effect, which proceeds equally from all of them: on account of unclarity”.
As much as I hate to admit, music doesn’t speak for itself. As musicians we have to give voice to the voiceless: the works we perform. Playing the music is only part of it. We need repetition, explanation, anything that can help the audience develop meaningful and lasting connections with the music.
Fighting Berg’s unclarity is a musician’s priority.
Between 1918 and 1921, The Society for Private Musical Performances existed in Vienna. Founded by Arnold Schönberg, it served as an avenue for new music to be presented to a curious audience.
Their three precepts are just as relevant if not more so today:
1. Clear, well-prepared performances
2. Frequent Repetitions
3. The performances must be withdrawn from the corrupting influence of publicity; that is, they must not be inspired by a spirit of competition, and must be independent of applause and expressions of disapproval.
Ornette Coleman’s tune “Sleep Talking” takes a nod from the opening melody of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
Stravinsky’s opening melody takes a nod from a tune from a folk anthology by Anton Juszkiewicz. And Juszkiewicz surely took the melody from someone who took the melody from an older generation and so on…
The degrees of reference (or theft) aren’t unfortunate (lest someone copies someone else’s work!), they’re beautiful.
One melody forms a knotted family tree, stretching from the roots of Russia to the branches of African American free jazz.
There are more trees to find, to climb, and to nurture to help it keep growing. And hell, maybe we can plant trees of our own!
Just the other day I heard a singer using the opening melody of The Rite of Spring as a warmup.
This seemingly trivial moment opened some mental floodgates…
Of course we’re limited to our instrumentation. There is no singer in Stravinsky’s Rite. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience the ecstasy of playing the opening melody if some of us don’t own a bassoon.
Playing music written for other instrumentation can be eye opening, letting us explore the vocabulary of a composer we couldn’t otherwise and gain more familiarity with our own instrument.
Please don’t be a tourist.
Please don’t just learn a piece without diving into the composer’s life, his contemporaries and influences inside and outside of music, and what was going on during his time.
To just play a piece and move on is like going to Paris to visit the Eiffel Tower and go home afterwards.
Sure we can visit the landmarks, we can play the pieces, but they are only the tip of beauteous iceberg we call music. We should try to dive into fully committed or not at all.
In order to prove that paternal injuries were not inherited by offspring, biologist August Weismann proceeded with an experiment. He cut off the tails of a group of mice to see if their offspring would not have tails. Sure enough, the offspring had tails. He tried again with this second generation, cutting off their tails. Same result. The third generation underwent tail shortening and, like the other generations, the fourth had normal tails. This went on for eighteen generations of mice and each of its offspring had tails. Weismann proved his point.
Usually with a piece we’ll perform it a couple times. When we get the desired result two or three times we drop the piece and move on to more repertoire to perform. It’s as if we got to the third generation of mice and thought the point was made.
But what if we had the persistence of Weismann? What if we kept a piece in our repertoire for longer than seemed normal? Would its beauty and artistry be as emphatically obvious to everyone as Weismann’s results eighteen generations later?