…the ice melting still has light – Linda Hogan

January 12, 2016

An author was asked about the idea[s] behind her new book. She - Fred Vargas - replied that though she planned her books and set out to write about certain things the words themselves directed the work in the end. While working she found certain phrases wound up on paper and forced the work to follow. You don’t plan for these things and these phrases that get down on paper create new expectations. These unplanned phrases direct the narrative flow.

I find this to be true in performing music. The strength of a note’s vibrato, the timbral nuance or the speed at which one releases a note all imply certain things. The ability to hear and respond to these details is an important tool in the classical musician’s skillset. While playing with others these details telegraph subtle changes that are predictive, we intuit the when and how of the next notes, and this ability keeps us together. It is far more difficult to play with a prerecorded track without a metronome [or click] than with someone else because this sensitivity unfolds in real time. When playing alone these same kind of details suggest ways we must alter the phrasing, a shortened note can mean many things, but the force behind it creates more specific expectations.

We are taught to value the ability to hear music internally because having a clear idea of the pitches and rhythms will allow us to learn the music faster and better. We first imagine the sound and then send out the necessary cybernetic signals. The process of internal imaging allows us to posit the music in different ways, allowing our musical imagination to try new things. It is also possible for composers to imagine music that cannot be played, exercises designed take the imagined sound further.*

Sometimes when I try to learn something from a recording my brain seems stumped but my hands know what to do. In a completely non-musical context I watch my wife knead bread and think about how much knowledge is in her hands from the years of rolling dough. Our hands move with acute sensitivity, as if they have their own body of information. They need to be included in our approach to learning and performing and have a role to play when it comes to these serendipitous moments. Sometimes they know exactly what to do, how to shape a set of notes, how to reimagine a phrase and we must follow.

*I am told that John Dowland’s piece Sir John Langton’s Pavin for solo lute or Spem in Alium, the 40 part motet by Thomas Tallis are examples of this.