making up music and thinking about music


“I don’t think I could write something every day in a blog,”my younger daughter who is one of my regular readers said on the phone yesterday.  I reminded her that I have been doing this since before the term, “blog,” was in use. Originally I wanted to build a web site where I could have conversations with readers and friends. Now I have the site and blogging is a rage of many different kinds of writing but the conversation I have is most often with composers and poets I examine and listen to.

So be it.

On Monday my improvisations for ballet class left an odd taste in my mouth. I felt disconnected. Subsequently I dragged Schubert’s dances along yesterday and dropped a few in. This seemed to help even though composed music is not actually flexible enough to do the trick easily. In one combination (as the ballet people call it), I matched a little Schubert waltz to the rhythm outlined by the teacher. Then the teacher repeated the exercise at a much quicker speed. Although she had expressed approval of my use of the Schubert waltz, she suggested I might want to change the music. When I attempted the waltz at her speed, she pointed out that it was too slow. I just changed and improvised something appropriate. Much better.

Schubert has been on my mind. I am playing my way once again through his piano sonatas. I have recently played my way through Bach’s English suites for keyboard. I guess these are my conversations. Schubert glides quickly and satisfyingly (to me) into chords that surprise and melodies that stay with me. I play him even though critics have sometimes assigned his piano sonatas as so called “lesser works.” I still find them very satisfying.

From Bow To Baton: Violinist Joshua Bell Conducts Beethoven : Deceptive Cadence : NPR

I listened to a bit of this NPR interview with Joshua Bell yesterday. I found it “quaint” when Bell and the interviewer discussed his role as conductor from the first chair of the violin section.  There has a been a bit of a move to break out of the constraint of the traditional conductor vs. orchestra set up of the 19th and 20th century. I find it exciting. But Bell seems locked in the idea that one person leads an orchestra.

I was reminded that it was Bell who several years ago unsuccessfully tried to busk in a subway station.

He is a great player. But in both cases he seem to be working from a weirdly naive point of view.

I have been reading in Musicking by the late Christopher G. Small. It’s sitting on my Kindle and I read in it once in a while.

I find his ideas reinforce some notions of my own, like the idea that music is more verb than noun… i.e. “it’s something you do.”

He also spends several chapters examining the orchestra concert situation in the late 20th century. He outlines a shrewd and careful examination of the actual roles of the participants (listeners who gain access through purchase of a ticket but are not allowed any role but the one of passive consumer, expert symphony players who disdain the audience’s taste even as they willingly perform the music chosen, conductors who lead and composers who provide the notes to be played). He also mentions context as determining a large part of the meaning of the music that performers and listeners expect.

In Small observations I think he had Joshua Bell’s number. In the first case, it would seem to me that the whole celebrity conductor thing is expanding to include other ways to do music, especially when the Western tradition eases its stranglehold on how we think of music. Bell seems stuck in the past here. And as far as context, I wasn’t surprised that one of the finest players in the world was treated with indifference on the street. I continue to find that the quality of both the music being played and its interpretation is something that listeners need some guidance on otherwise they are likely to ignore it.

You know, like in church.


2 thoughts on “making up music and thinking about music

  1. it seems to me that when Joshua Bell played in the subway, he was performing in a new kind of venue for him, and maybe what he does on the stage of Carnige Hall doesn’t translate well to that new place, and that new kind of audience. I’ve seen very talented people play for good-sized audiences both in public transportation stations, but they seem to understand something about the experience (and/or their audience) that maybe he missed. Or perhaps people just aren’t prepared to settle down for some heavy, extended classical music listening during their morning commute. I do think a huge part of how our audience reacts is all about context, though I’d seen this “Bell plays in the subway and no one notices!”-story before, and hadn’t made this connection. Probably God could be playing Bach in the subway during morning commute, and no one would notice, or care…

  2. I don’t think it was his idea to play there. I think he was set up a bit. I have played classical music on the street as well as original songs I have written and received a wide array of responses. One thing about it I like is that it doesn’t exactly represent the commodified approach to music. People linger if they are interested. They get the music whether they put money in the hat or not. I like that. I am critical of the context of concert etiquette. I think it’s out of date to divide up people into consumers and those that provide what is to be consumed. I like to think of people as makers. If we want to consume music we have recordings that we can listen to. We can create the context for that kind of listening. But entering in to music as makers or people in the presence of music being made (live) doesn’t rely on the old timey stiff protocols of concerts. Just my opinion.

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