Hit Pause on Perfection
For me and many others, one of the main and eternal aspirations of a musician is to break down the physical and mental barriers to genuine expression. Last night, listening to my friends perform as I’m often lucky enough to do, I had a thought as to what one of these mental barriers might be. When we play music, we have in our head a concept of the performance we want to create. To put this roughly in terms of Platonic idealism, we have a concept of the ‘ideal’ form of a piece which we then strive to reproduce in our material world of change. But too often live performance remains only a faint shadow of our ideal interpretation, because the latter plays in our mind in sync with and more loudly than the sounds we actually produce. And this is why listening back to our own recordings can be so illuminating and so disappointing; suddenly we’re stripped of the comfort blanket that is the illusion that we’re doing justice to our sound concept, and we’re left naked with only the inferior product of this concept in the externally audible world. So, aims for the next time I pick up my cello: 1. Turn down the volume or even hit pause on the ‘ideal’ performance in my head in order to truly listen to the living sound. 2. Be reassured that, in music, there are infinite versions of the ideal (so a work of music, as a concept abstract in the material world, can’t strictly exist in Plato’s world of ideas anyway). 3. Play loudly enough to be heard in Indonesia; surely one culture will find my tuning system ideal.
The Silent Musician
This afternoon I sat in an orchestra rehearsal in my usual place but, because of injury, without my cello. Even though the rehearsal did, of course, have my concentrated attention, my thoughts drifted to a note I hurriedly made on a list of vague, potentially ‘bloggable’ ideas a few weeks ago (sticky notes are a great invention), which reads: ‘We need to be more like conductors rather than individual players in an orchestra, who too often see one part of the bigger picture and do not empathise’. I wrote this during a period of thinking a lot about the parallels between playing music and living the other bits of life, and how the processes should ideally be symbiotic. (Symbiosis’: A great word which I spent an age trying to recall, defined by an online dictionary as ‘a mutually beneficial relationship’, and not to be confused with ‘osmosis’ which, for some reason, I keep doing, and totally misleadingly gives me mental images of high school biology experiments on potatoes.) My experience today has finally inspired me to transfer this thought from sticky note to blog… So often we get so caught up in our own lives (our own instrument’s part) that we forget that others are sharing the same experiences, only from different perspectives. But being aware of how we fit into the bigger picture (the symphony, or whatever) may actually help us along our own paths. At the time of writing the sticky note on this subject I believed that attempting to oversee entire situations, giving equal but inevitably limited attention to each component (being the conductor), would help individuals gain the most valuable perspective. Sitting in my seat today without the challenging distraction of sight reading the music myself, however, I realised that I was in a prime position, similar to that of a musician listening back to their own recording. I was connected enough to my own part of the whole to keep track of the small but important details for which I (or rather my fellow cellos) was responsible, but I wasn’t occupied so much by this part that I couldn’t keep an ear out (or more) for the overall ‘sound vision’ or corporate goal. It’s certainly not invaluable to experience being the narrow-focused orchestral player or the zoomed-out conductor, but functioning on this middle ground between self-awareness and empathy seems ultimately ideal. On a tangential note, one more concerned with the temporal than the spacial, we should also keep in mind the teleology of a movement or complete work rather than only concentrate on the single harmony or phrase being played at any given moment. In other words, living life with our longer term goals in mind, in addition to a more balanced awareness of the environment in which we currently exist, can help us make sense of and tolerate the smaller steps along the way, just like recalling our own past patterns of mood and perspective can help us to understand the present and anticipate or dictate the trajectory of our future. So, as ambiguous and motivation speak-inspired as this may sound, perhaps we should all try to live our lives as the Silent Farsighted Potato, I mean, Musician.
Mozart is the New Magnolia
For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why I believe wholeheartedly, though I realise controversially, that music is the superior art form. First off there are some obvious general points that I’ve always thought about, for example that dance relies on music for its existence and that music is generally more widely accessible than literature or language-based theatre. But then, whilst listening to music during my seven-hour wait at New York JFK airport for my flight to London back in May, I had a sudden thought that I’ve been revisiting ever since.
I sat listening to whatever music came up on shuffle on my iPod in the usually soulless departure lounge and watched the array of people milling around, who apparently had nothing in common except for a desire to be somewhere other than where we were, and immediately felt the sense that the people and objects within this entire space were now unified. The temporal continuity and structural coherence of the music (we’re talking vaguely ‘conventional’ music here) instantly lent the space a reassuring unity or ‘oneness’, whichever way I turned my head. It was as if music was painting my surroundings, as far as my eyes could see, in exactly the same shade but, owing to the greater complexity and emotional depth of music, the connections I now perceived between space, people and objects became far more meaningful than anything a coat of magnolia could achieve. No wonder music is used in films, worship, football games, birthday celebrations, school assemblies, etc. Its ability to bring people together and to create a (real or imagined) common purpose or identity is surely more powerful than any other means. Now to stick in my headphones and create an emotional bond with my poor unsuspecting fellow passengers. If it can happen in a rural English train station waiting room, it can happen anywhere.