It’s both

First, a few notes on the progress of the DYHWIH project….I am thrilled with the reception of it. Based on several reader comments, I think there might be the real makings of an online community devoted to loving and talking about music. My suggestion, though, is that you make your comments here! On the blog! Making them to me directly leads to single conversations and my master plan is to start lively discussion. If you’re afraid that people will judge what you say, sign up with an alias: WHO CARES (and get over it). Also, it helps if followers are willing to sign up by email or create a wordpress account. A few readers have asked if I have posted new entries; the best way to be part of it is to receive notifications that new topics are here.

A listener approached me after the recent concert at the public library and noted that, after I spoke about what I heard, he could only hear what I described. He wondered what it would have been like had I not put “blinders” on the experience. I have asked myself the same question since college and often wonder about advantages of reading reviews or criticism of music books or art in advance.

Josh Roman, cellist, is playing an expertly curated program on Saturday night at the Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concert series at VCU (which is absolutely one of the best deals in concert-going maybe anywhere). I can hardly wait. Choosing a topic for discussion was difficult so the excerpt below is a little longer than I would normally post — and for heaven’s sake, hit pause when it’s over before you are drawn in by the next movement and have spent the day getting nothing else done. Or, just spend the day getting nothing else done. But here it is without my commentary:

What of this? I can imagine a variety of responses from “mesmerizing” to “yawn” to “what-the-….??” All are believable. I chose the piece and so had some context in which to place it, although did not originally remember that it was part of a whole. Some might recognize it as one of the movements from Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time; if you did, then you are already prepared to go off on your own and recover somewhere.

I noticed a few things on this hearing. As I tried to isolate a few moments to discuss, I found that there is almost nowhere to stop. The lines are broken into a few phrases but they seem to get longer as they go. We are more in the land of Baroque “through composition” (continuous unfolding) than Classical balance and proportion (natural, satisfying breaks). Good for Messiaen! I find the creation of a sense of forward, uninterrupted motion to be one of the remarkable things about well-written music. What magic is it that takes us to the next moment? and the next?

I may now have heard the entire quartet five times and this movement ten. Whether good or bad, I cannot recall my original impression. I think of it now as peaceful and elemental and universal, yet cannot manage to describe it as uplifting or reassuring or mournful — it’s above all of that. Any emotion that it stirs in me from moment to moment somehow manages to rise and converge. So I took pen to paper to Youtube and noted the following in the first half of the piece:

Moments where the notes seem to be…(dare I suggest it?)…”wrong:”

0:37-44, 1:38, 2:14, 2:26, 2:34, 3:01, 3:41

Moments where the notes seem to be….(who do I think I am?)…”right:”

0:21, 1:23, 1:55-2:10, 2:31, 3:35, 3:51

Speaking of getting over oneself, I feel a little out on a limb for suggesting that a canonical composer might have assembled an artful and revered piece of music interwoven with wrong notes. But that’s the way it sounds to me, as the lines pass over perfect underpinnings with occasional jarring discomfort — like when the sun appears unbearably bright all of the sudden on a mixed and partly cloudy day.

How are we supposed to take this in? As an element of wrong in the middle of right? As right in the middle of wrong? I think the answer is: it’s both. My black-and-white brain would love a clean interpretation of one or the other but I ultimately must reconcile my hearing to their coexistence.

Would it matter if I mentioned that the piece premiered in a concentration camp in Poland on January 15, 1941 outside in the freezing cold and rain? (wrong). And still holds listeners’ attentions seventy five years later? (right). Written by an incredibly gifted young man who was encouraged to be creative and contribute to the world from an early age? (right). Who was himself imprisoned in the camp? (wrong). Who composed for his fellow imprisoned musicians who used their personal power to bring happiness to others? (right). In the most horrible of circumstances? (wrong, wrong, wrong). Like much in life, things are sometimes both.

What do you hear?


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