Sunday, March 10, 2019

Who is the music for anyway?

I was working with a teenage student on a Handel sonata the other day. While trying to get her to make things musically exciting during periods that did not have fast-moving notes, I mentioned that Handel wrote the piece for her enjoyment and as a vehicle for her to express herself. Of course Handel didn't know my student, but he knew the "audience" for his published music would be musicians looking for music to play with their friends and families. He was writing this music for people just like her.

[I also told her that I think of the notes on the page as my slaves. I can choose the tempo and the spirit. I can line the pitches up they way I want. I can decide which notes are more important, and which notes have less importance. I can also change my mind.]

Lately I have heard teachers try to inspire students to play with expression by telling them that it is their job to project the composer's intentions to the audience. There is nothing really wrong about this way of thinking, but there is something odd about it. People do write music that is concrete and programmatic (Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, for example). Instructions can be given as text, or pieces can be written in genres with certain expectations (nocturnes, waltzes, marches, lullabies, etc.) Programmatic references are necessary when writing music for opera, ballet, and movies, because the music needs to support what is happening. It also serves as a practical way to maintain the pace of the narrative. I suppose music with a text (a song, a song cycle, or a choral piece) or a tone poem would fall into the programmatic category.

I believe music for the stage is written for the benefit of the audience (as well as the benefit of the composer). A person watching a drama ideally wants to "turn off" the drama in their own lives and "escape" into the drama of the production. Sometimes composers do too.

It is different when the music at hand is not programmatic. When I write non-programmatic music I don't think about the specific emotions I want an audience to feel, but I do think (constantly) about how I want the people playing the music to feel. I want them to feel comfortable expressing themselves, and I want them to feel comfortable interacting with one another. I find that when passages do not sit well on any instrument, a lot of expression is lost, so I strive for physical comfort. I also work to organize the music so that the people who play it remain interested and engaged.

In the case of non-programmatic music, the melodic and harmonic material, tempo indications, rests, slurs, articulations, and dynamics can be written into the music. All the stuff that remains (i.e. the music making itself) belongs to the people playing the music. People listening can decide what to pay attention to. If a performing musician wants to call special attention to something in the music and people in the audience notice, that can be a good thing. Or not.

[Music involves all the senses: the sense of sight in both the mind's eye or the physical eye, the sense of hearing in the anticipatory inner ear or the physical outer ear, and the sense of touch. I think the sense of smell mixes with memory. I remember the smell of the euphonium I played one afternoon in elementary school, the smell of the pitch pipe that my elementary school music teacher gave me as a present, the smell of my flute, and the smell of the closet where I practiced in junior high. I remember the smell of deteriorating music paper, and the cigar-smoke-infused mud floor of the music shed at Tanglewood. I remember the smell of the Tanglewood practice cabins too. I remember the smell of rosin, and the way the inside of my 3/4-size violin case smelled. Taste is musical taste, of course. But it is still a sense.]

We often listen to music to be entertained, and we often play music to entertain ourselves and share with others. If a professional musician has had a lousy day, his or her negative feelings and pesky "self talk" are imperceptible to the audience. Nobody can hear the words that are in your head while you are playing, and nobody who is playing can "hear" the thoughts of the audience. Imagine the distracting extra-musical cacophony that would happen if you could.

But if the chatter in our heads is redirected towards the music at hand, people who are playing together can connect with one another in very intimate and inexplicable ways through the music. In doing so, they also connect with the other people who are in the room, and those people can feel connected with one another in the music.

And, for some people, their inner chatter might slow down. Or even stop.

These are the moments musicians live for. I aspire to write music that makes these moments possible. I imagine a lot of composers share that aspiration.