Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The sound that says love, a ramble

After my parents discarded the Zenith 87232 "Bakelite" tube radio that we kept in the kitchen, I brought it into my room. On Sunday nights I would listen to a program that played soundtracks from shows, and I would record them on cassette and play them over and over. One of my favorite shows was Applause.
What is it that we're living for?
Applause applause!
Nothing I know
brings on the glow
like sweet applause.

You're thinking you’re through
and nobody cares
then suddenly you
hear it

And somehow you're in charge again
and life's a ball
trumpets all sing,
life seems to swing
And you're the king of it all, 'cause

You've had a taste of
the sound that says love:
Applause, applause, applause!

[I eventually had to throw the radio away after one of tubes gave out and I could not find a replacement. But life goes on, I guess.]

Anyway, I loved the song because of the tune, the harmony, the way the words rhymed and the way it felt to sing them, the dynamic contrasts, the contrasts in texture, and the rhythm. But I could not make sense of the idea of applause as being the sound of love. The music itself was the sound of love to me. The applause was the noise that followed.

But I suppose there are people who really do "get" something from being applauded. Don't get me wrong, I like to applaud when I am part of an audience. It is a great physical release after experiencing the intense kind of emotional connections that music makes possible. It is a great way to "connect" with a group of people who just shared an emotional experience.

But it isn't the sound that says love to me.

Now, during the era of Covid-19 isolation, where the closest thing to experiencing the illusion of applause is to make a livestream from the place you are living, and getting "likes" and "loves" in emoji form stream upward because people in faraway places press buttons on their phones, tablets, or computers.

If I were to make a livestream, would I be looking at the emojis and feel love coming from them rather than concentrating on the music? Would it be more meaningful to me than applause? Would it be less meaningful than applause?

When I think of my childhood, my best memories are the sounds of love coming from the basement. My father practicing was the sound of love. The sound of loving sound. And I identified it as love. That sound of love was what motivated me to practice, and being able to experience the sound of love with other people was, for me, the sharing of love. Teaching for me has always been the act of trying to ignite that love of music in other people. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.

I have had students of all stripes over the years. Many of them play because of the attention it necessitates from their parents. Many parents who love music want their children to play because they never had the chance. For some of those children the act of music is part of their loving relationship with their parents: they know that when they give love through music it is accepted as a gift of love.

For some children the process of playing music has everything to do with pleasing me (their teacher). For some of those children I am just another teacher: a person to who will be discarded from memory when the student moves to another grade, and for some I am gifted with the art of showing them how to express themselves.

My best musical experiences with students happen when they reveal something beautiful about themselves through music: when they fall in love with music itself, and when they physically understand that they are in charge of making the journey from point A to point B, and can draw on their creativity to figure out exactly how they want to go.

I listened to a lot of concerts as a teenager, and I listened a lot to people playing in a variety of non-concert situations. And like most teenagers I thought I knew a lot about the world. One accurate observation I made as a teenager proves that I did have a bit of wisdom: I knew that there was a difference between those who "played at" and those who "played to."

I deemed "playing at" bad and "playing to" good. I was a teenager, and did not have the experience to understand the complexities of life or of music. I tried to figure out rhythmic ways of not sounding like I was "playing at," and found ways of intellectually manipulating phrases so that they gave the illusion of bringing someone into my musical train of thought rather than bashing them over the head with it.

Now, after a few decades of experience, I see the whole thing differently.

I know a person who loves music deeply can play with very little feeling about who is in the room, or who is listening. That person can put up an imaginary bubble, and live within that world while the music is happening. S/he can be totally engaged, and the music can be wonderful. The act of playing can be a dialogue with timbre, the length and contour of phrases, linear harmony, vertical harmony, harmonic rhythm, and the composer, withought regard for whether s/he is alive or dead.

A person "playing to" can be playing in order to seek approval, or in order to receive feelings of love in exchange for lovely phrases of music. Or a person "playing to" can be eagerly trying to engage the listener in what s/he loves about a piece of music.

Perhaps the synthesis of the better parts of "playing to" and "playing at" is way of thinking about playing “for” whoever is listening. And that is how I choose to live my more mature musical life.

The ways of life we, as human beings, have experienced over the course of recorded human history is now taking turns through blind alleys that lead to an "elsewhere" we do not have the capacity to understand. It makes me wonder about the changes happening in the collective musical "organism" (and I like to believe that there is one that unites you and me through music) during this period of isolation and into the future.

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