Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [4]

Continuing with the general theme of art and artistic creation, this is part 4 of a series [see part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here] drawing from Hilary Hahn's interviews with various conductors.

Here is another excerpt from Hilary's interview with Grant Cooper.

HH: What benefits did you glean from studying classical music?

GC: First of all, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the genius of the great masters of composition; for me, that is a window into a greater reverence for human capacity and spirituality. . . .

The most beneficial thing for me about what music taught me is that it's ok to abandon scientific methods, that science is not the only way to approach music and life in general.

When you play a wind instrument or sing, everything is covered up, all of your technique is hidden inside the body. You may think you understand what you're doing, but then, when you change one variable and that sets off a chain of reactions, you realize you're in a science experiment from hell. Music taught me to let my body find its own way, to allow Zen-like enlightenment and experience to take place - learning to "let" it happen, rather than "make" it happen. I should say that music itself didn't teach me that; the process of becoming a musician did.

It's revelatory to realize as a musician that, from the 20th century onwards, we've tended to become really ingrained in the scientific viewpoint, to lose sight of how the Mozarts and Beethovens viewed this world. We tend to be overly reverent of absolute notation as we see it in the score. When you consider it, each marking in a score can mean a whole range of things, depending on its musical context. Take the whole idea of music responding to the text of an opera: a Mozart opera is the most glorious example. His marking of a simple forte or piano could mean completely different things depending on the text being sung. Mozart's music demands that we think of a forte, for example, in many ways - a "yearning" forte, a "defiant" forte, a "loving" forte. Yet, to some modern musicians, those markings are scientific; forte means loud and piano means soft. One has to open one's mind to the realization that absolute, defined concepts are not the answer to musical problems.

A few points I would draw from the above:

1. Reverence for the masters of the past. One need not try to copy them, but it is appropriate and highly formative as an artist to learn all that you can from the greatest artists who have lived.

2. Great art provides a window into the human soul. It gives form to the spiritual dignity and nobility of the human person.

3. Artistry involves different powers of the human person than are involved with the empirical sciences (though I do not claim they are entirely different). While art can be studied in a scientific fashion, producing art is not a scientific (in the modern sense) endeavor. There are powers of understanding, of spiritual perception, of intuition, of empathy, that are somehow different from what is entailed in empirical scientific undertakings. [Although it should be said that some aspects of modern science--conceiving of possible new discoveries and intuitions leading to new theories--do have similarities to creating art.]

4. For persons with artistic talent there are aspects of developing their talent that they do not fully understand in the sense of being able to rationally explain in an exhaustive way how they create and perform as a musician. They are able to practice fruitfully and grow in the virtues of musicianship even though the rational part of their mind is not able to completely translate this process into a thorough explanation in words. They become better musicians primarily by engaging in the act of playing music and secondarily by thinking systematically about music. Thinking in an orderly fashion about one's art is certainly helpful and important to being a well-rounded artist, but there is no replacement for the human act of music-making. Without huge amounts of dedicated practice one might become a scholar of music (or, say, an art historian), but could never become an accomplished musician. For this you must practice your craft with a critical ear.

5. Music, as all art, is a deeply human endeavor. And as such, great art, while accessible and meaningful and not trying to be self-enclosed for its own sake, does have an element of mystery. This is because it is human. Poor art can be obscure because it is self-enclosed. Great art is not obscure, rather, it taps into a cosmos of meaning that is inexhaustible. Great art pulls at the heart with meanings too deep for words--a level of communication that is ineffable even as it is deeply real and human. It is full of meaning, understandable, and yet also touching mysteries just beyond the illuminating rays of the mind's eye. This has something to do with why, as Cooper says, "absolute, defined concepts are not the answer to musical problems." This is not to imply that art should be seen as completely irrational or enigmatic--no. Rather, it is something like recognizing that the deepest meaning of a poem cannot be found simply by knowing the rules of grammar (though this may be helpful). It is like realizing that the character of a living person cannot be captured completely by any created form, though one might capture various glimpses.

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