03 December 2008

Venetian Games

Thought I saw angels but I could have been wrong.
— Ian Anderson (“To Cry You a Song”)

This week I sang Vivaldi’s Gloria amid the Framingham State College Chorus. At first I thought, Wonderful, this is a piece I have not sung since high school. But then, as I considered more, I realized that my recollection had likely gone funny: we never sang the piece in high school, but I had seen the vocal score in the chorus room there, and looked it through. It’s one of the first choral scores I read through, and had a reasonable idea of how the piece sounded, just by reading the score. This experience alone made a strong impression, and I think that as time passed, the strength of this impression somehow got muddled as a mistaken memory of actually singing the piece.

In any event, I was singing in the tenor section this week, and I had certainly never sung the tenor line before.

It being the season, we also sang some Christmas carols, and there is a refreshing novelty in singing music which you’ve been singing every year for . . . a long time, and yet finding that you need to read the music, because (say) you’ve never had to sing the tenor part before.

There’s a story of a famous pianist who had been playing the Beethoven sonatas forever, and at last was finding it difficult to make the sonatas ‘fresh’ in performance; and another pianist advised him to concentrate on the inner voices. That slight re-orientation cast the music in a new light. I had not reached any state of genuine jadedness to “Ding Dong Merrily on High” (it helps that we ony sing it the one time each year); nonetheless I benefited from the opportunity to ‘get inside’ this simple old piece from a different angle.

It was great fun to be part of such a lovely occasion for the students. For one thing, I remember the fun we had in the Wooster Chorus sing a “Madrigal Supper” or two. Music-making has always had a social-ritual aspect in my experience; when you sing or play in a large ensemble, you are both working and playing with and in a group, and part of the activity is a mode of communication strikingly unlike the more prosaically verbal means which we use far more frequently. The ‘muscle memory’ of this has been a helpful ‘grounding’ for me at various times. There are some environments where music as a performing art seems to trend instead towards music as a library science, and some events transpiring there would make Kafka proud, if he had invented them in some of his fiction. The surrealism can at times seem to assert itself as reality.

An awareness that I am asking people (in many cases, people whom I know and like) to play or sing the music, is one of the considerations informing my composition. And as a performer myself, I project sounds with my compositional imagination. Hindemith went through a period during which he would not write any note for an instrument, which he himself could not play upon that instrument. Although he must have found that a useful rubric for a time, it is at the last too restrictive.

A great many musical rules are of just such a nature: there is no absolute necessity to them, and their value lies in the artistic use that a composer may find in them. There is a rather simplistic view of music history which sees composer as successively smashing rules. I think this simplistic, because it invests an idea of too much permanence in the rules.

The rules are in a state of flux. Artistry operates beyond the rules.


PC said...

Glad you now have genuine memory. And glad it's a good one.

Karl Henning said...

Sometimes there's art to be made from Memory Gone Woolly, too, of course.


Cato said...

Memory is basically imagination: those with good imaginations often have good memories, but the reverse is not always true!

I have had too many "A" students say "I can't think of anything!" when asked to create something, no matter how simple, ex nihilo.

Poor students have occasionally shown great creativity, which indicates they just do not want to apply their imaginative power to a school subject!

Karl Henning said...

Poor students have occasionally shown great creativity, which indicates they just do not want to apply their imaginative power to a school subject!

Oh, those are shoes I've worn, too.