Ordinarily I get impatient with the interviews with pop musicians at the end of the NPR news broadcasts. But yesterday's interviewee was holding forth, bless his heart, on the terrible effects of poor digital recording techniques that clean up the sound at the expense of its full expressive, vibrant range.
He quoted Miles Davis who, hating the studio environment that ate up the sound, asked always that the doors be opened.
My recordings were made in my home, on my piano, with the microphone right inside the instrument picking up the full range of its mess, even though digitally!
I am compelled to comment on another live performance I heard recently which gave me no reason whatsoever to listen, and every reason to wish I were somewhere else. Though composed by a very "in" name-brand composer, and played by a reputable group at the end of a program that included some extraordinary music-making, this was a piece which, unlike the other compositions I commented on recently as not being listenable, was cynical in that it droned on and on with unvaried repetitions of cliches that surround us in the world of pop and commercial music.
I went to the event not just to hear the music but to socialize with friends. As often happens, some of the performances were far beyond my expectations. But this one put me in such a foul mood that I could imagine smiling or saying a single pleasant word to anyone.
Perhaps I take it personally. Yes, I confess, I do. That is how much my ear means to me. It is and has always been who I am.
That sounds like heresy. It is. I learned it from Mozart who, of all composers you might have heard of, has most unjustly earned a reputation as a composer who only wrote right notes.
I have been fascinated by his wrong notes all my life. It is time to restore in young learners and in listeners of all ages the sense of what is "wrong" in Mozart.
I am reviewing the early piano sonatas, which he wrote at 15. Many of them feature what was to become one of his distinctive devices: an upbeat that goes in the wrong direction. Why lead my ear down when you are going to go up? Isn't that a clear example of a wrong note? Why give me a whole step when my ear demands a half step? Another example of his not doing the right thing.
It is fascinating to teach an adult who is intent on getting to the music part, as she puts it. Today we spent time working on time.
Musicians experience time in many dimensions at once: the longer duration, usually the phrase, sometimes longer; the minuscule fleeting nano-second during which vibrations jostle every nerve ending calling for myriad decisions before the next pitch sounds; and the normal musical time to which you, the listener, might be tempted to tap your foot.
The better the player the less tempted you will be.
It is difficult to keep track of all three levels at once; musicians practice doing so, and it takes years.
Time well spent.
The only possible way to tire of listening to a piece of music is by hearing it only on recording. The variables involved in live performance reflect variables composed into the music and must always be there, otherwise it is not music.
Once that is accepted as the only plausible definition of music there will always be something new to hear, to remark upon.
It's odd, reading reviews in the daily paper, that so little attention is paid to the quality of listening inspired by the performance. Perhaps it is a tacit admission that listening is more complex, demands time and reflection, just as does any other worthwhile activity.
I have learned a great deal about sound from teaching a young man who is blind since birth, autistic, and developmentally challenged. His ear is his personality, you might say: it is what connects him in a meaningful way to other people and probably to himself.
There is no possibility of him learning Braille as he has no tactile sensation. He cannot use his fingertips to orient to the keys, much less to tiny raised dots on a piece of paper.
Yet I learn from him the power of sound, of the most minute gradations of dissonance and volume that give nuance to every moment of a piece of music, subject always to variability and to variation, both conscious and unconscious.
I am fascinated by the acronyms that have taken over the world of communication, all in the name of speed.
How like them are the symbols of music notation!
Playing a set of quite difficult Mozart variations, someone asked me how I knew to do with them as I do: There is no way that what I read can be written down. It simply takes years and years of confident musical activity to recognize when a scale is for real and when it is a tease; when a leap is a meaningful choreographic or vocal stretch, and when it is an inebriated lurch into almost certain disaster, if not clumsy loss of balance. The church, the court, the barnyard, the academy: they are all there, not labeled, but in their musical outfits waiting to be released from the bondage of ink on paper.
Actually, it should be the other way around: First taste, then standards.
What is taste? It boils down to a choice between "I like it!" and "I don't like it!" When music is involved it gets tricky because any music that's worth the name combines sounds that you will like and sounds that you will not like.
I just listened to half a program made entirely of pleasant sounds. I was bored out of my mind, though I recognize the good motives behind the compositions and the performances. There are far too many uglinesses associated with contemporary music and these young musicians were committed to correcting that fallacy.
But you would not tolerate a novel in which nothing happened, would you?
I once got to within ten pages of the end of a novel when I realized that, indeed, nothing was going to happen. I complained to the author, who was, of course, surprised to be challenged over that issue, when he has obviously worked so hard to make an entire novel in which nothing happened.
That is the only standard you need: The balance between what you like and what you don't like. Single sounds accumulate as do words and sentences.
Forced to listen isn't my style. Compelled to listen is.
Last night I heard a performance by some well-meaning young musicians presenting works by well-meaning composers who seem, like myself, to be rebelling against a culture in which listening has become irrelevant. Their solution is to draw attention to the silence inside of which the tiniest vibration, the tiniest change in vibration becomes the subject of the composition.
I couldn't agree more with the premise.
Please engage my conscious mind in some way even as you deal with these important elements.
Do not require of me that I sit through 20 unrelenting minutes of this new take on sameness. What's wrong with variety?
After-recital discussion last night was on my favorite subject (and I was not the one who steered it in that direction): What has happened to tone?
The prevailing tone in New York concerts is thin, colorless, without what I call traction.
One person said it is as if soloists are playing to themselves.
Another said that one of the nation's top orchestras sounded more and more like a good music school ensemble.
Both of the people discussing are long-time performers on major stages in different musical art forms, not the piano.
Do you agree that something terrible is happening?