nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music
nothing is accomplished by hearing a piece of music
nothing is accomplished by playing a piece of music
our ears are now in excellent condition.
So said the ever-provocative John Cage. I suppose this statement could be read as a kind of nihilism, but I see it as Cage prodding the whole musical triangle (composer, performer, listener) to remember to strip oneself of preconceptions as much as possible and allow a sense of wonder back in so that there can be the possibility of Magical Musical Moments (which I will take to calling MMM… onomatopoeia-style. For the record, that is the sound that I’ve witnessed many a Persian and Indian musician emit in the moment when another musician makes a beautiful or telling musical phrase or gesture. Not advocating for that necessarily in a Mozart Symphony, but then again, why not? But I digress…) And I sense that I’m speaking to the choir when talking to Ojai Music Festival fans. I haven’t experienced the Festival before, but have heard from all accounts (including my wife, Maile Okamura who as a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, was there performing last year) that people come ready to really, really listen and live the experience. Still, at every point along the way it’s useful to reexamine the intention one is putting into the activity at hand and realize the potential to be ever more present, on all sides of that triangle.
Hmm, so I’d like to examine from the composer/performer’s side some aspects that are necessary for MMM to happen through the lens of some of the music we’ll be playing in Ojai. I see part of that job as allowing the audience its own space in the music, meaning that it’s an open dialogue, and though the composer/performer should have a point of view and the courage of one’s convictions, there needs to be space for the listener to have their own experience inside the music. So let me know when you see me (or feel free to write a response to this) what you think the listener’s responsibility is in greater detail. In the meantime, some thoughts on composers/performers…
It occurs to me that the music I love often has some kernel of daring simplicity, whether this is Boccherini, Beethoven, Feldman, Glass, Mozart, or Stockhausen, and that much of the music that our friends Jeremy Denk and Tom Morris have programmed this year and that we are playing with The Knights and Brooklyn Rider at the Festival share this characteristic. Obviously, this simplicity (which is multi-layered and not simplistic) is manifested in very different ways between these composers and the time/place they found themselves in, but somehow they have all created the sense of a relationship with time, whether it’s arresting, lulling, creating, or destroying at all levels of intensity. Let’s take the program with Morton Feldman and Luigi Boccherini. I love those two composers being on the same program! Such different languages. And yet…? Cage accused Feldman at some point of being a sensualist (I guess it’s all relative – in the context of Feldman’s time, I could understand that accusation, as I could with Boccherini within Boccherini’s time.) But that seems to simplify the matter. Boccherini was indeed perfectly happy to have his music stand still and revel in the textural joy of strings and the overtones created therein. In his theatrical piece, La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid, there are beautiful silences and bell-evoking pizzicati that disturb the silence. But this seems to be in the service of creating a sense of heightened awareness in the room. (Thank you Jeremy for allowing us to play a string-centric string composer! After Boccherini and all his predecessors in the Italian baroque era, “serious” music became hijacked by pianist composers. That’s ok, though…) When listening to Morty Feldman’s piece, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, one could hear the repetitive, very very simple antiphonal cuckoo calls in the flutes as creating a continuity within time. But actually it seems to be the opposite, that with each bell-like call (and through the strange voicing of all the other instruments) the previous MMM is destroyed and a new one born. And we are called to attention… MMM…
So, what about one of those pianist composers (of course they all played string instruments too). Mozart. What is fresher sounding in its simplicity than the fugue subject in the finale of his “Jupiter Symphony” as to seem perpetually like it’s the first time? (Oh, did I just say that? Total cliché? And so rises one of the performer’s obstacles in playing something from the canon- clichés like that surface immediately like swarms of gnats. But I suppose there’s a reason that people sometimes come to similar conclusions…) Ahh! But then as performer you try to find your way with one true gesture/breath/bow through those four notes with the lovely chord changes underneath and the undulating, ungratefully difficult inner voices with 40 people and you get to some of the performer’s/ensemble’s dilemma.
And Beethoven: though his Choral Fantasy wanders all over the map, and tries to put as many aspects of musical humanity possible together on one stage in 20 minutes, the snapshot of any single moment reveals a great lucidity that confronts you directly with its message, delivered with the inner “Love and Strength” (text that he drives home with wonderful out-of-another-world E flat chords after much tonic/subdominant/dominant simplicity) necessary to put his complex inner life out into the world in such a simple and direct way.
In the composition Tierkreis, or Signs of the Zodiac, Stockhausen composed a simple, strange melody or tone row for each of the 12 Zodiac signs. He gave room to performer/composers to play them on any instrument or combination of instruments and Caroline Shaw has given new life to Leo (Stockhausen’s own sign) with her wonderful arrangement that captures both the strangeness of the melody but puts it in bright new shiny clothes with an instrumental chorale highlighted by porcelain bowl percussion.
Philip Glass’ 2nd String Quartet, “Company,” written originally for a staged version of Beckett’s prose poem of the same name, became a sort of Rosetta Stone for Brooklyn Rider early on when we became a string quartet and recorded it alongside all of his other quartets to date. With its amazingly clear architecture and simple means of expression; focus immediately went to blend of sound, rhythmic feel, resonance and balance between the voices. We find that audiences often have very different visual experiences with his music, another example of space being provided for the listener from a composer.
As a performer/composer, I suppose one of the things I hopefully bring to the table is a knowledge of how music feels in “real” time/space. With the 3 Miniatures for Quartet, (admittedly channeling a bit of Kayhan Kalhor, a great Persian musician, alongside the string textural writing examples of Boccherini, Glass and Schoenberg) I was hoping to translate some of those influences into a journey in the listener’s mind that could unfold as naturally as possible. And the fact that part of why I write music today is my quartet mates in Brooklyn Rider means that much of this music stems from shared experience.
In both Brooklyn Rider and The Knights (and recognizing that there is a diversity of viewpoints within both groups that may agree with me some, but not all the time), much of our quest for MMM, our rehearsal process, is to strip away excess, lay oneself bare, prepare for the vulnerability of each other and the moment in concert. We embrace the classical canon alongside music of our time, but not necessarily all the assumptions that go with either an exclusively new music group or a traditional symphony orchestra. We try to build our interpretation from the ground up- i.e. what’s the phrase length, or sound picture, what sort of regularity does a composer set up that then is broken or surprised. Within The Knights there are people with greater familiarity with certain forms (whether that be music from the baroque and classical period, contemporary classical specialists, people whose lives intersect with the jazz, pop and world music spheres, composers, arrangers, etc.), and they are great guides into certain styles, but we do not choose a hierarchy of style over form. During rehearsals we end up trying many different ways of speaking a phrase, of bringing this line out or another, of finding a collective rhythmic feel. In my view, this process isn’t about choosing one way of doing something and adhering to it (the search for a finished, deliverable product) — it is about finding an interpretive framework and then allowing the moment to collectively sweep players and audience away to another place. This involves taking risks and being willing to fail, both things that largely aren’t encouraged in our field. But what about this account of the premiere of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (lifted from the Wikipedia entry), which we can’t wait to do with Jeremy and the Ojai Festival Singers:
“The premiere performance seems to have been a rather troubled one; according to the composer’s secretary, Anton Schindler, it “simply fell apart,” a result most likely attributable to insufficient rehearsal time. Because of a mistake in the execution of the piece, it was stopped half way through and restarted. In Ignaz von Seyfried‘s words: “When the master brought out his orchestral Fantasia with choruses, he arranged with me at the somewhat hurried rehearsal, with wet voice-parts as usual, that the second variation should be played without repeat. In the evening, however, absorbed in his creation, he forgot all about the instructions which he had given, repeated the first part while the orchestra accompanied the second, which sounded not altogether edifying. A trifle too late, the Concertmaster, Unrath, noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out dryly: ‘Again!’ A little displeased, the violinist Antonín Vranický asked ‘With repeats?’ ‘Yes,’ came the answer, and now the thing went straight as a string.”
Of course, we hope to fair better! However, acknowledging risk as one of the preconditions of MMM feels important…not that risk-taking can’t happen with intensive, disciplined preparation. Acknowledging that whether it’s a quartet of four people or an orchestra of 40-ish, getting to a place where you can switch gears in the moment according to the demands of the music, does involve a lot of work and trust. But it feels like even in the darkest moment of conflicting viewpoints in rehearsal, when we hold to the viewpoint that it’s all in the service of MMM, we’re doing well.
I look at the 2014 Ojai Music Festival lineup and program this year and see the potential for multiple MMM.
See you soon, Colin
Photo credits: Sarah Small