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Friday, January 25, 2019

Are we really listening to music?

People are becoming way too literal.
Certainly on social media it is no longer possible to hear the tone in anyone's verbiage.

Lately, I've noticed many musicians seem to have stopped listening to the very music they are making, or are wanting to make.  At the very least, this is something I've been slowly adjusting to, almost unknowingly, during the last five years or so but only recently has it started to become clearer to me why the "how" has overtaken so much of music making.

So many seem lost in finding the "how" in order to recreate music, while no longer searching for the "why" in the music itself. The "how" is found in the score, the "why" is found by listening to the score and pondering the billions of questions that arise from all those sound waves entering our ears.

[The two words, "how" and "why", will be used quite an awful lot in this blog. In order to stay off some people's nerves, I'll just let those two words sit in sentences from here on without the quotes or italics to push home my points.]

I see this everywhere, not just in classical music. But since opera is what I know and what I most work in, I'll focus on my wonderful experiences trying to recreate these immense scores.

How something is sung - the duration, the articulation, the dynamic choices, whether trilling from above or below, following tempo markings, etc. - seems to be the point of most musical discussions for so many of us. Yes, this is important. I feel it is actually quite important, yet I'd describe these notions as artisanal, or part of our craft at creating musical moments. Artisanal craft is vital to keeping opera performances at the level of expertise needed and expected so that our audiences continue to enjoy these amazing scores.

But how is not the point.

Last year, during rehearsals for Bernstein's Candide, I was struck by the subtleties of his score. From the illusionary loss of one 1/8 note during the text "proving that this is the best of all possible worlds" to Cunegonde chasing her own laughter a few beats behind the orchestra in "Glitter and be gay", Bernstein subtly gives us deep meaning via musical notation into the subtextual lives of his characters. The same, of course, holds true for other great composers - like Mozart in Così fan tutte. The sisters should be sad that their fiancés have departed for war, but the major key and cut time signature in their act one duet suggest something altogether different. One finds connections to sexual frustration simply in Mozart's employment of the key of E-flat major throughout his works: Cherubino's "Non so piu"; Countessa's "Porgi amor"; Dorabella's "Smanie implacabile"; Elvira's "Mi tradi"; even the Pamina/Papageno duet singing about wanting marital bliss is in E-flat. These are just quick examples.

What gets missed in so many rehearsals (mostly because there's so little time to talk about the why) are discussions about why the score happens in its specific way. Why did the composer choose this key? Why did the composer place fermati here and not there? Why are we all feeling profoundly sad during a C major section? Why one measure in 7/8? Why these rests in the middle of this sentence? Why? Why? Why?

We get bogged down, entirely too much, in the how questions. How long are you okay with me holding this fermata? How fast can I take this? How will you be conducting this section? How should I pronounce this bit of text? Endless, endless Hows.

What we need are more why questions that lead to the how responses: Why the shift in tonality at precisely this point and what does that do to how I sing it? Why did my character drop out of the score's vocal lines and how can I create character choices while silenced? Why does this tempo feel slow to me but not to others and how can I continue to sing through this tempo?

The why leads us into arenas of opinion, into areas of subjectivity. Both places are no longer seen as the safest places to be. We want things to be correct. We want the music making to be comfortable and understandable. Many of us are very uncomfortable making musical choices that are hard to explain or come from some non-objective or instinctual place. Music making shouldn't have to be defended if it is honest and attuned to the why. If others aren't understanding your intentions in your music making, perhaps those intentions are not clear, not honest, or - at least in the moment - not specific enough to warrant understanding from others. The why can inform us and leads us towards the artistic creators' original mindset. Or at least, it can allow us to peer into those minds, as if looking through a keyhole of a door into a vast ballroom. We can only see bits and pieces, but at least we are looking.

The Why and the How. Both integral to making music.

Listening to music, really listening to it, should help us all to start to ponder both with equal excitement and humility. And while we are listening to the music, it's important to acknowledge that it's being made by human beings. If one wants to listen to the music, one has to listen to the people making the music and not just our own sounds and ideas up in our brains.