We would all play better if we were told as youngsters that there is a difference between the two. As it is, we think of music as the pieces we are assigned, and we think that is all there is to music: learn the pieces, play the notes, enough.
No, not enough. Never enough.
I work with color in my spare time, i.e., while riding public transportation. I find it endlessly fascinating. It speaks to me, not in any organized way, but nonetheless.
Sometimes I make mistakes, even, particularly when working in light that is not sunlight. It is easy to mistake colors as it is easy to mishear tones.
On one of my cd's I end a piece in the wrong key. It is a contemporary piece, so nobody notices. The sound of the piece led me to this wrong key. The composer in question, Bartok, loved to play with that sort of sound/wit.
Note: The composition in question is available on my Haydn/Bartok CD.
Yesterday I heard an exceptional choir sing a Palestrina mass in its proper setting, a liturgy. Everything was going well until the Benedictus. It arrested me immediately into a state of attentiveness that I find difficult to describe. It was glorious.
Afterward I commented to a friend/colleague who sings in the choir on how special the Benedictus was. His face lighted up as he agreed with me: apparently it is a strict canon for three voices.
A conversation with a mutual friend brought up the difference between listening for structure and just listening. I maintain that it was the special structure that caught and held my attention right from the start. That's what I call a successful structure, for that is its purpose. Whereas, to me, listening for structure is to risk missing the point.
A young man described to me today the exact difference between a stitch and a pixel: Though one might say, he pointed out, that needlepoint is a pixelated craft, it isn't really because there are so many variables in fiber and in stitchery. But once you decide the color of a pixel that is simply it.
I think a lot about fiber, since I use it during my hours of transit on the bus and subway to craft unique items to wear or to look at. Every stitch, even the most boring repetitive kind, is rendered alive by the mixture of textures and colors of the remnants with which I work.
Then there is the light: Yesterday I looked at a recent piece by the light of the afternoon sun. It looked entirely different than it had in the morning. It was a matter of gray vs. purple.
I wish I could return to some of the "bad"performances I heard as a naïve student - some of the "good" ones, too, for that matter. Whatever led me to one or the other pronouncement was surely superficial, as I had little idea of what was happening in any case.
So much of the response to people's playing is criticism in the form of judgmental response mostly imitating the vocabulary of judgmental teachers: It is good, it is not good, it is not as good as ... fill in the blanks.
The person playing, especially if a young person, inevitably feels belittled regardless of the pronouncement, having most likely little idea of its basis in fact or fancy.
There is a newly articulated interest among music theorists regarding music written by composers with disability. I often wonder how many of those theorists have themselves experienced disability. For it is one thing to know it inside of one's own body and brain, and something entirely different to observe it in the life of another - even if one's own child.
A child born with disability experiences imbalance in one or more forms since day one. The craving for stability in such a child is beyond description.
It is a challenge for such a child to contemplate instability as an interesting, compelling, even desirable state. Yet instability seems increasingly to me to be the over-riding factor in what makes a composition compelling.
How too bad that so much instruction stresses stability, obscuring the whole point.
First of all, it is a taboo word. No one seems to talk about it.
It is, however, the basis of all my life in music. It is what attaches me both to the piano and to a cappella singing. Yet I recalled yesterday that, in my early 20's, I lacked a vocabulary to talk about it. I would have loved to say what it was about Horszowski's piano playing that mesmerized me. No words. Not a clue.
I think it is because the music world is beholden to the commercial recording industry which has done its utmost to destroy sound by over-processing it, canning it to the point where it cannot be discerned, where all we have are objects, literally: Pieces of music, rather than music.
By "words" I mean words used to describe music or, rather, the experience of music - not the same thing.
I never found it easy to locate words to name or describe my experience of musical events: something always seemed to get in the way. Perhaps it was that I thought I was expected to know what I was talking about, as if there could be only one right way to talk about the experience.
Determined not to perpetuate that particular confusion, I deliberately kept my students from developing abstract vocabularies to mask their experience. The result is glistening accuracy in their ability to verbalize the quality of what they hear.
It took a while.
It is nothing new, neither on this blog, nor in the world of art and thought. Stability is perhaps an ideal to which we and many artistic forms aspire. But it is not always a choice that we have.
Take the stability promised by the concept of tonality. We learn that a piece is "in" a certain key. What if the composer has voiced it, however, so that it does not sit convincingly in that key? And what if that key on this particular instrument is by definition skewed?
Can we tolerate the mix of in and out of whack? If not, why not?
This week's performances include an utterly magical set of Chopin Mazurkas, generated by a single tone, E. First in C#minor, then in C major, at last in C minor - yes E in C minor. It transforms the music to think of it not in terms of what key it is in, but of what note generates and binds the entire opus.
At the pool I see two young, lithe women of color. "You're dancers, right?" They laugh, happy to be recognized.
They are lucky to be studying an art in which live is the point.
I tell them how the experience of music has been ruined for many people by the recording process.
They seem to know what I am talking about.