Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dancing about Architecture

There is a bit of tizz concerning Jonathan Biss's piece in the Guardian concerning how difficult it is to write about music. Biss's article is difficult to read, and I imagine that is E-Book about Beethoven is equally difficult to read. It is probably as difficult to read as it was for him to write.

The problem with writing about music is that our relationships change with pieces of music as we grow and change. A piece of music is not a static thing. In order to live it must be interpreted, and that interpretation, if it is successful, grabs our attention and inspires us to follow new ways of hearing a piece of music. It is difficult to hold onto a feeling, and it is difficult to name it adequately. Casting the "feel" of a moment is very hard to do in retrospect, because that feeling immediately becomes only a memory of a feeling.

Writing music can have the same issues. A phrase comes into your head. You write it down, struggling to make sure that all the rhythms are just as you thought of it. Later you play the phrase on the piano, and it's totally unremarkable. Then you try it on another instrument or in another register, and it sounds better. You bat it around, change it, give it harmony (change that harmony), and write it down anew. Perhaps it is something worth keeping, so you stash it away somewhere and hope that you can use it.

For some people this is a kind of torture. Other people find it fun. I find it fun. I also find it fun to write about music. I would rather write about music than just about anything. I find that the best way to really learn something about a piece of music is through writing about it. (I also find that the best way to understand a poem is by setting it to music.) It doesn't matter if an observation is "right" or "wrong," and it doesn't matter if by learning something new I invalidate a hunch I had before. I enjoy correcting myself. In my world being "right" is not the only way to interpret a piece of music.

I am in the fortunate position of not being an authority figure, and of not having anything to protect. I go with my carefully-thought-out hunches and take all sorts of risks by voicing ideas that I know nobody has thought of before (or at least written about) to my students, friends, and colleagues (and driving my family crazy). I do it when I write program notes, I do it when I write reviews, and I do it when I write blog posts. I don't have to worry about protecting my "image" in the musical world. I do not have an important position or a solo career. What you see is what you get with the music I write (there are no secrets except for the vast mysteries of music itself), and I take it upon myself to be honest when I write reviews.

When I was Jonathan Biss's age (he's 32) I was a very different person from the person I am today. I worked at a radio station, and had what some would consider an encyclopedic knowledge of music from all the liner notes I had read, but I had only really experienced music from the standpoint of a wind player who always played the upper voice in an ensemble. I mainly listened from the top down, and managed to miss a huge amount when I listened to music. I was an avid reader of reviews, but I had never written one. I knew a lot about baroque music and 20th-century music, but didn't really know much about classical forms because studying them had little to do with the music I played (the flute repertoire). In other words, I thought I knew something, but I really knew very little.

My real education began when I became a string player. Then everything changed. Now I hear everything differently, and I think very differently about everything I play. Every experience is a new experience.

Perhaps Jonathan Biss will, at some point, have the opportunity to step outside his position in the musical world, and maybe then it might be easier for him to write about music. If he still wants to.

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