February 12, 2015

Ephemeral Life

Music is ephemeral. It is never the same twice. Even listening to a recording is never quite the same because the listener brings a different awareness each time they listen. They can’t help it. This is what makes music so tricky to explain and so wonderful to experience.
Many Classical musicians focus on learning to play the notes they see with as much accuracy as possible. The goal becomes to play the piece exactly as written every time. This is a good skill to have, never think otherwise, but there is more to music than that. Music is not the written notation but the moment of playing or performing including all the mistakes or even deliberate changes to what we see on the page. Music is the act of creating sound and listening to it. Improvisation is part of this and always has been. Even when improvisation isn't taught, performers end up making little tiny changes every time they play (there is no way not to). Perhaps instead of striving for note-by-note repetition, we should spend time trying to understand WHY these changes felt good or bad, what in the moment caused the music to transform and how we can make these different "interpretations" work for performers and audiences. This is the beginning of improvisation and part of what makes music an experience that is treasured.

A Couple of Examples
The Medieval troubadours are well known for setting their poetry to music but their music was not “complete” as we would understand it; they rarely included any rhythms and even wrote multiple melodies for the same poem. In other words, they improvised and used written music as a chance to expand their possible musical ideas instead of writing out a perfect version of the music. They adapted the music to their instruments and voices, they changed tones to fit the mood of the moment and treated the music like the living creature it is. There are a large number of period performers who carefully use only musical ideas from the age of the troubadours, going so far as to exclude all modern instruments and most period wind instruments since they weren’t “commonly used” at the time. Their goal is to recreate the troubadour sound as exactly as they can. This is wonderful and shows us a whole different kind of music than we are used to but I can not help feeling that the spirit of this music is in some ways being ignored. This was music that was meant to change, to adapt. If a performer didn’t play the instrument a composer had in mind, they still played the music even if they had to change the melody to do so. If only certain keys or modes worked for a specific instrument or voice, the performer could even CHANGE the scale of the piece and play the piece with different harmonies. If the audience wanted a different mood than the original piece, the music could be changed. A lament could become a dance in next to no time.
Baroque music incorporated improvisation into opera and bass lines as a matter of course. But the melody instruments were expected to change their more completely written lines too. A straight performance was often considered dull and not worth the audience's time. Today, students often spend hours researching how musicians might have improvised a piece in that day and age. But why stop there? Why limit ourselves to imitating someone else’s improvisation? Don’t mistake me, imitating is a great way to learn but then we can add our own ideas. Radical, I know, because this may well result in older pieces being made modern. But why is that always seen as a bad thing? We are modern musicians and we bring that sound with us. As beautiful as I find the Baroque style, I see no reason to rigidly make everyone follow it in every performance.

I admit, creating new music can be frightening. Some changes don’t work and some improvisations fall flat. It takes time and practice to get reliably good at improvising. But why should that stop us? We spend hours, even years, learning to reliably recreate written music after all. There is no reason to assume improvising will just come naturally without any effort. But the seed of improvisation is there, in anyone who has played one note and then another without any direction from someone else.
Improvisation and written music are not exclusive to each other and I love playing written music just as much as improvising. I find it beautiful and inspiring to play and hear music others were trying to share. But I know that I will never create a carbon-copy performance of any piece and I wouldn't want to even if I could. New sounds, new ideas and new music leap out of performances of old music. Some are sweetly similar to the sounds that created them, some are radically different. The musical possibilities and knowledge that this music will never be exactly the same again is what makes the experience so rewarding.
We are, after all, as ephemeral as the music we love.