Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In Search of Sound

From the Mailbag

Well-meaning readers continue to try to explain to me the concept of felix culpa. I was being facetious; I understood it all along. It may be summarized by the following, unofficial English translation: "Forbidden fruit produces a terrible jam."

In my last post I lamented some of the differences between adolescence and adulthood. The 16-year-old will go to war for his principles, even when bombs fall on bridges. The 38-year-old works harder to protect the bridges but is more reluctant to defend his principles. But as one reader brilliantly and unforgettably commented: "The trick is to give up the foolishness but not the courage."


One of the greatest privileges I have experienced as a musician is the search for sound. It is one of the noblest searches we can carry out. We can search for the correct notes, or for the "inner meaning" of the music (assuming music always has an inner meaning, which I doubt. As a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, maybe an Allegro in A major and 4/4 time is just an Allegro in A major and 4/4 time).

But even when I was teenager (when I knew everything), I used to say, "What good is food that doesn't taste good?" By the same token, how can a musician claim to have been "faithful to the composer's intentions" and simultaneously make a bad sound? Doesn't the composer intend for his or her music to "sound good" on some level?

In my teens I always defended Eugene Ormandy, and I was right. They said his interpretations weren't "profound" enough. But what is more profound than making a Romantic masterwork explode with beautiful sonic colors? Isn't that what the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony or Also Sprach Zarathustra are supposed to do?

There are good experiences , great experiences, and life-changing experiences. Working with Dr. Jon Gillock and Yuko Hayashi at the Boston Organ Academy last January fell into the third category.

Yuko had been my organ teacher from 1986 to 1989, when I was 15 to 18 years old. With Jon I had never worked until last January. Had I known either one of them in my lifetime, I would consider myself blest. To have worked with them both -- and during the same week, no less! -- was a miracle.

Everyone has their baggage. My suitcases are filled with agonies about practicing that stem from my piano teacher, with whom I studied between the ages of 11.5 and 15. She spoke much about suffering for music but never once spoke about the love of music. The world knows of her competition-winning students. The world may never know of the students who crumbled. And one day the world will marvel at how few of said competition winners were still playing beyond age 30.

Along came Jon, who reported that when he practices, when he comes to something beautiful, he stops. And he plays the beautiful passage again.

Do you realize that my life changed at that moment?

Stunned, I asked, "But I thought you weren't SUPPOSED to stop when there was a passage you could play. I thought you were supposed to budget your practice time and only practice the parts you didn't know."

As soon as those words came from my mouth, I already knew the answer. What am I practicing if 95% of my playing is music that I cannot play? In effect I'm practicing to NOT be able to play. And even more pertinently: what is the point of wasting time out of my life practicing if I'm not enjoying what I'm doing?

And so it's all about practicing the notes of a piece. It's about what music you want to make in the piece. "Otherwise," asked Jon, "how do you know what to practice for?"

Another sentence at which my life changed.

Jon is quite possibly the most musical keyboardist I have ever encountered in my life. Even if someone put a gun to his head, and someone else put another gun to the other side of his head, I don't think he would be capable of playing even one note unmusically. But I think he trained himself to be that way. He didn't fabricate the God-given, innate musicality, but he trained himself to bring it out -- or to allow it to come out.

As for Yuko, the years have not diluted her zeal for seeking after musical expression. No matter what we're talking about, be it Bach or Brahms, be it clavichords or modern pianos, the conversation seems always to be pulled, as if by a magnet, to the issue of musical expression. For her that is not the bigger picture -- it is the only picture. All other details are merely aspects of that picture.

I remember, as a teenager, asking Yuko how she felt about a certain instrument. She said, "You mean in terms of sound?" But in the end, that is what mattered to Yuko about an organ. It was never, "I like this organ, it's a tracker. I dislike that organ, it's an electropneumatic." Our conversations never went that way. They always went the way of sound and of music.

I'm told that much of Jon's practicing is spent on registration. How blissful it must be if in practicing, instead of thinking what notes you want to hit, you think of what sound you want to create. Jon has been known to sit down at not-quite-world-class organs and make music on them on a level that leaves both the audience and his colleagues dumbfounded.