This blog has been dormant for so long, I almost forgot it existed. Now seemed an excellent time to weigh in, as I have been thinking a lot about Ben Johnston and his explorations in extended just tuning, having recently written about him for the American String Teachers’ Association publication. Also, Kepler is deep into SQ No. 6. With yesterday’s recording session, we passed the half way mark on the third and final disc of the quartet cycle.
Some experiences change us. I know that the 11 years I spent playing in Marimolin transformed my understanding of rhythm. The same is true after 12 years of playing Ben’s music. I am certainly a different person and a different musician than I was before.
Playing Johnston has been like traveling to a new universe. It may seem distant, but it is tightly coiled inside the one we know – as close as a breath – or a couple of cents, which will open a door into new, undreamt of dimensions.
Talking to Ben about his life in music, one gets the sense that ultimately, his quest has been spiritual in nature. His work is an attempt to infuse meaning into life through the composition and practice of music. I ended my article with the following quote from Ben,
“There are two approaches to life. One is linear and melodic – the hero’s journey. But there is another – the vertical, harmonic way – concerned with perfect relationships. I have grown to find this a much richer experience. It is the same in music. I don’t mean to say that I am a better person than others, and therefore this is better music. But I do believe that working with this music has the potential to make me a better person. This is true for anybody who deals with it. If it is used right, it has that sort of potential. It’s not just a question of what the composer has put down on paper and how accurately it is realized. It’s a matter of finding meaning, and what actions this meaning might invoke.”
Steven reminds me that this is exactly the kind of gathering that would always spring up around another American master, George Gershwin. We did make our way through two of his marvelous songs that evening.
Last night I went to a concert to hear the premiere of a gorgeous piece by one of my favorite composers, Scott Wheeler. Also in attendance – Tom Lehrer.
It did the heart of this fan good.
A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending a party in which the entertainment was provided by those present. There were 2 guitars, a mandolin, a keyboard, a cello and a violin. First there was chamber music. Then, everyone sang rounds. Finally, least a dozen people – perhaps half of the revelers – got up to sing, either alone or in pairs. They offered original creations as well as old and current popular hits.
The great delight that we took in each other still brings a smile to my face.
This sharing generated a joy that went far beyond what is possible in our more passive forms of entertainment. Of course, before technology made everything available at the push of a button, active creation was the first, most important element to any such gathering – whether it was story telling, acting, singing, music making, dancing….
It brought to mind that great man, Charles Ives. Ives disliked and avoided recordings and radio, feeling that these kinds of technology interfered with the direct, experience of live music. A step down the slippery slope…
He would have loved that party.
I used to believe that everyone had music in their head 24/7, just like me. Actually, It wasn’t so much a conscious belief as something I simply took for granted.
For some reason, about a decade ago, I went outside my own little box and thought to ask several people if they always heard music too. To my surprise, the answer was no.
All this got me thinking about awareness – about how much is going on in our heads all the time. We are probably not aware of most of it.
All this mental feedback, the constant reworking and processing of ideas must have a purpose. Think about it…. We learn in our sleep. Many wonderful eureka moments are the product of lots of cogitation unfolding in the mental background….
What drives the content of our internal world?
Last year I spent several months mulling over which colors to paint my house. Literally hundreds of colored squares with absurd names like ‘gypsy love’ and ‘sailor’s delight’ were strewn about my office. After month or so of staring at paint chips, I realized that my minds eye was turning into a kind of psychedelic kaleidoscope. The obsession du jour was crowding out the music.
While preparing for an upcoming performance of Pierrot, I have been reciting the sprechstimme while practicing my own part. This is probably more entertaining for me than for my husband, trying to work in the next room.
Actually, I frequently sing while practicing, filling in missing voices from the score. Another great exercise is singing one voice in a double stop passage, while playing the other (always fingering both, but just bowing one). Doing so shows one can hear the voices independently, not just as two notes sounding together. I find my students usually can’t sing the bottom voice. As violinists, there is a tendency to listen only to the upper line.
It is crucial to play the entire score in the mind, whether it be a piece of chamber music, a sonata or a concerto. After all, as in most human interactions, it is attention to the entirety that gives real meaning and creates real connections. We probably have all had conversations with someone who is talking at us and not hearing a word anyone else is saying…. not a lot of communication going on there.
My first performance of Pierrot Lunaire is fast approaching. This is a piece I have always wanted to play, and to do so have had to learn the viola, another long-dreamt-of undertaking.
I have been facetiously telling friends that taking up viola is my latest attempt to stave off senility….. It is never too soon to start. After all, learning new things and challenging the brain is the best way to stay mentally sharp and flexible.
The most surprising part of the process has been discovering how deeply ingrained treble clef is in my mind. Those little dots are linked by bands of steel, not just to physical locations, but – more importantly – to a specific sound.
The difficulty is, with string instruments, as with the voice, if you can’t hear it, you really can’t play it…..
I have been thinking about the ephemeral nature of music. It is the art of shaping time, and, like time, it is fleeting. It may leave a memory or feeling in its wake, but it can’t be suspended.
Then there is that urge to document – to preserve everything. It is almost as if we need an external storage unit (hard drive?) to validate our existence. I also like memorabilia, but have found that those images and experiences that I carry in my head are the most meaningful….. whether imprinted without effort, or approached mindfully.
These memories can be simple or complicated: feeling the physical perfection of my own existence as a 10 year-old on a beautiful spring day; the image of a glacial lake nestled high in the mountains, looking like the eye of a peacock feather; or holding my daughter for the first time.
Perhaps this documentation is driven by the desire not just to remember, but to be remembered. As Lord Byron wrote in first canto of Don Juan, in answer to the question “What is the end of fame?”:
To have, when the original is dust, A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.