Friday, February 14, 2014

What is it that Moves Us?

Yesterday I was listening to a radio program where people were discussing the neurological basis for recognizing beauty and being moved by it. Much of the discussion was about visual art, but music came up once or twice in the form of a Schubert String Quartet moving someone to tears. The people discussing this phenomenon (and many of us have experienced it) placed the responsibility for the beauty on Schubert.

In addition to hearing moving performances or recordings of Schubert, many of us have also experienced indifferent or technically-flawed performances of music by Schubert (as in out of rhythm, out of tune, or out of balance). The power of making music that moves people is not in the hands of the composer alone.

Had I taken part in the discussion, I would have mentioned that what we as listeners respond to when we hear someone play a piece by Schubert (or anyone, for that matter) is the way the musicians relate to the music. If I were to play the difficult Schubert C major Fantasy on the violin, I would be struggling with technical difficulties. If I were to play a Schubert Sonata on the piano, I might give the piece a lot of love, but I would also probably play wrong notes, use the pedal inappropriately, play the piece too slowly, and not be able to make the phrases sound the way I would like them to sound. If I were playing Schubert as a violist in a string quartet, I would be in hog heaven, particularly if I were playing it with people who loved playing Schubert Quartets as much as I do.

I think that the thing that moves people to tears is as much in the relationship of the players to the music as it is the way the notes and phrases relate to one another. With a great composer like Schubert (or Mozart, or Bach, or Haydn, or Beethoven, or Brahms, or Dvorak, or anyone else who has written pieces that "work" the way they should), there is more of a chance that the players will be able to relate appropriately to one another and to the music at hand.

I also believe that it is possible to give enough love to a "lesser" piece of music ("lesser" meaning either a piece by a successful composer not in the pantheon, or a less-successful piece by a composer that is in the pantheon) to make it sound really special. That has to do with the relationship of the person (or persons) to the music at hand, and I believe that what goes into a performance is reflected outward.

A recording is often a document of the love between a person or a group of people and a piece of music. Perhaps it is like a love letter, which we can read over and over (even if it is a love letter written to a stranger) and feel the substance of that love.

Attending a concert, when it is a good one, is actually being in the presence of the love that happens between the people playing and the music they are playing. It's sometimes a gamble, because not all concerts are given in the spirit of idealism we would expect. But some are, and I believe going to a concert of music that seems interesting is usually a gamble worth taking.

Listening to an audio or video recording in private is kind of like reading. It is a personal experience. We bring a great deal of ourselves into listening to recordings, because we are indeed interacting with the music, calling upon all of our experiences as listeners and as players to give the act of listening real meaning. When we read we interact silently (and anonymously) with the writer (in the case of non-fiction), or with the characters (in the case of fiction), because we understand them according to what we make of them. My Emma Bovary probably looks different from your Emma Bovary.

Listening to a performance is ideally a more selfless experience because the phrase-by-phrase relationships that happen between the performing musicians and the music is happening in real time and real space. Sometimes what happens even results from the attention of the people listening, because the people who are playing can feel the attention of the audience. Members of an audience are, in effect, part of the performance.

Remember that after watching strangers perform on a stage, they are no longer really strangers. They may not know you, but you know them. Successful films, like successful books, only give us the illusion.


David Wolfson said...

Elaine, this is brilliant. I'm afraid I am thoroughly disgruntled, because you've managed to say very concisely something I've been trying to find words for for years: why what a composer does by his or herself is not actually the making of the music.

I shall be quoting you. ;-)

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks, David. I have been trying to figure out how to say this for a very long time as well.