Saturday, April 1, 2017

Why Anybody Performs or Listens to Music


(with deep gratitude to Mozart, Arlene Hajinlian and Reed Woodhouse)


Boy, if this ain't The Department of Guy in His Own Little World, I don't know what is. But it's not like I haven't made entries into that category before. They're the only entries I make!

Anyway, I dare to think it might be interesting to somebody besides myself to deliver unto you a swatch of my answer to Reed who asked in an email re: Arlene Hajinlian's & my performance of the Mozart e minor sonata the other evening, "So how did it go?"

One of the deep pleasures for me, to which Reed & I continually add every time we meet for lunch and talk about pretty much anything, is that we find ourselves talking as widely & deeply as lunch-time will allow about stuff that matters to each of us. In music, this often tends to lead to our roads diverging at what has become a familiar point: do we perform to serve the music? or do we perform to serve the performer? (Presumably both approaches include serving the audience as well.) He tends to align with the former, me the latter. Both aims or conditions have to be factored in, as we both would say - but which is the prevailing current, has the stronger pull, tug? Reed is a Platonist, as I would generally put it: he sees and holds the ideal of the music ever before him, an ideal he knows because he's had the aptitude, skill and will to study and discover it. He also knows that he will always suffer the anguish of never being able fully to achieve it. The anguish is inevitable and elementary. I think he might also say that the anguish sharpens our sense not only of the efficacy but of the beauty of a performance - of our knowing where we and the performer have gotten close to the ideal, close enough to do it thrilling justice, close enough to get a taste of the divine. And the performer can find in her/himself the means, sometimes, to get very close indeed. 

To me, any art, including music, is primarily a mode of communication. It wants, & therefore the performer wants, to say something not only that matters to the performer but that will matter to someone else. What it "says" (in the case of performing music notated on a page) is necessarily in the language of its script, and one obvious task of the performer is to determine what the script intends, so that s/he can express it coherently. But the main event for me is: whether I am touching you when I play/'say' it. This may sound, implicitly & self-indulgently, like encouraging the performer to go at it as fast and loose as s/he feels like: to yank the script into any shape or style that fits his/her style and intent. Much is in fact performed this way. And not always egregiously. The performer's style or personality is often what people come (with justice) to hear and see, because it's what gives life to the music: witness the response to everyone from Paganini to Liszt to Horowitz to Heiftetz to Barbra Streisand (whom I mention because she's sometimes done her own interesting versions of 'classical' music). It is that very personal offering which animates it. I lean, however lopsidedly, toward this pole.

I think Arlene's and my personally felt & expressed 'ardor' is what helped us to let the Mozart speak to our listeners. I also dared to give it a context (in an opening remark or two) which may have been irresponsible: which is that Mozart wrote the little 2 movement sonata the same year, and around the time, his mother died (she was with him on his trip to Paris in 1778 when he was 22), and that I hear a poignant mourning for his mother in this music. I say this in full appreciation of the premise (one I don't not share) that it is very bad form to drag a composer's life into his/her work, never more than with Mozart, who when he was dying wrote some of his happiest music in The Magic Flute. Though perhaps very naughtily indeed, I can't not hear Don Giovanni without thinking of D.G's condemnatory father's ghost as Leopold, Wolfgang's dead dad. So, if Reed is a Platonist, I guess I belong to Freud.

Anyway: this was my response to Reed to "how did it go?" (By the way, Reed, a fine pianist, and I have also played this sonata.)


Pertinent to you & me, the pleasure I took in playing did bolster or clarify something about what I think my 'point' has been in our tugs-of-war over what I call "first causes" - what are we serving when we perform? What's the ground of why we perform - what are we out to do? Serve an idea of the music or serve ourselves up as performers of it? Questions, because I think Arlene and I realized the sonata (made it work as a piece of drama), I can be a little clearer about answering. It's not prevailingly about playing one's heart out, although it surely partakes of something like that: it scratches the itch, accomplishes its mission, when you feel you've said something not only that you deeply want to say (though I think that's essential), but that you make the case in your performance of it the sonata wants to say. When you've moved yourself and the audience (which when you do, you can feel) to pay real attention to the arc and detail of the thing because every bit of it matters. Music of course isn't speech (much as I love all but equating the experience of playing Bach & reading Henry James) but however Arlene and I delivered ourselves to this business made it clear what we felt mainly generated it: a sense of deep quiet simple poignant loss. It's in the first movement, particularly in how e minor is the magnet, tugging you back from any attempt to moderate it with those G major departures (which of course are entirely sonata conventions). It's wonderfully in your fave part of the 2nd movement, that gentle e major caress of a section (the soft press of those repeated eighth notes) - and in that movement's main melody, to which we really gave it the whole nine yards of anguish & ardor. 

But the real payoff for me is this stretch of naked soft isolated notes in the violin -- which quietly reveal the whole game of the thing -- indeed, to me give the reason for the sonata -- or, I suppose, its "first cause"--

particularly this D#-E octaved foursome of notes -- 

which unlike its neighboring foursomes aren't slurred across four notes: you need to hear the bow change between what are now slurred duples, and before that high D# and E - a perfectly conventional dramatic ploy I suppose, to suggest you give the cry of the upper two notes a little more stress, but in the gestalt of the thing as I feel it, very powerful. It's where we hear the height, the full reach of the plaint. (The Henle edition calls itself Ur, so these would appear to be Mozart's markings.)

In larding this with so much detail, I'm surely (or arguably) distending this poor little thing out of all proportion to its "importance" - it's a little two movement sonata, conventional enough. But I don't care if it's important. And here is where I now know I fall entirely on the side of Performance re: why I do it, and effectively why & what it's there to do. Not that "importance" isn't in some sense probably always why you fall in love with something, but only its bluntest meaning: it matters to you like a person you love does. As an actor (which I do feel I am here: I've got lines to say), I'm drawn to it not least because I feel I can make it align with my deepest abilities and understandings. I can find me in it. As I seem to insist on doing in everything. Do you have to 'fall in love' with music that matters to you most? I would say yes. You would say something larger & more encompassing & surely more persuasive. You'd win the debate. But I'd still keep playing the way I do.


here are 2 recordings of Isaac Stern & Yefim Bronfman playing the sonata in question - one of the first movement, one of the second. It's extraordinary performance - and probably heeding Reed's aim of cleaving as close as possible to their sense of an ideal more than whatever it is I do. (No surprise I'm drawn to Judy Garland more than Ella Fitzgerald.) You may have to increase the volume a bit (I did).

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