March 24, 2004
Vol. IV, No. 10
"Belated Birthday Musings"
This past Sunday was Old Man Bach's 319th birthday. I did a little math and discovered that it's theoretically possible for me to still be around for the 300th anniversary of his death. By the way, that's only 2,400 Rampages from now. (It may seem like a lot but I'm counting on them getting easier -- I intend to get even crankier as I get older.) I wonder if it would surprise the Old Man to learn that his music is still being played over 250 years after his death. Probably not, he was certainly confident in the quality of his work. Then again, toward the end of his life he saw his music fall out of fashion, so who knows?
I'll be honest, with other composers, if I never played their music again I'd live. Bach, on the other hand, is different. Every time I play one of his preludes, toccatas or fugues it's bittersweet because I know that it's one less time I'll be able to play that piece in my lifetime. Why does it affect me like that? I think it's because playing Bach's music makes me feel so alive. I feel plugged into the ever-continuing creation process. I get a sense of the magnitude of the universe. In the parlance of yesteryear, it blows my mind!
Sadly, there are performers who believe that Bach's music is "museum" music, that it's old and belongs on a shelf. They complain that they're tired of it, that it's boring, that it doesn't speak to them or their audiences. After all, they point out, how could someone who lived 300 years ago possibly compose a piece of music that has relevance in today's world? What these performers are missing is the fact that the responsibility for making Bach's music, or any music, relevant lies not with the composer but with the performer.
Remember that old conundrum, "If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Think about this question: Is it the composer who gives life to a piece of music or the performer? Obviously, without the composer there would be no piece of music but if that piece is never played does it ever really live? It is the performer who breathes the life into it and in so doing takes on the responsibility for rearing that child, i.e., making that piece relevant to the here and now.
How do you do it? Making a piece of music relevant is not as complicated and perhaps scary as it sounds. The process begins as soon as you start learning the notes of the piece however it does not end once all the notes can be played accurately. Beyond that point begins a period of discovery during which you further develop your relationship with the piece. It works like this:
-The more time you spend playing the piece, the more you learn about it.
-The more you learn about the piece, the more invested you are in it.
-The more invested you are in the piece, the more it means to you.
-The more the piece means to you, the more relevant it is to you.
I've described this discovery part of the process in a linear way but it doesn't so much begin and end as it sort of begins and then spirals round and round in an overlapping way. One aspect of the piece is becoming relevant while another aspect is newly discovered while another aspect is becoming more meaningful. This spiraling never really ends but continues on as long as you continue your relationship with the piece. However, one day, you finally reach a point in the relationship with the piece where you can play it from inside of it. In other words, you are able to animate the piece of music the way a person uses their hand to animate a hand puppet. It's not about the puppet. The puppet is just wrapping paper. It's all about the performer inside.
After finding your way inside a piece of music, your work still isn't done because the piece is only relevant to you. The next part of your job is to make that piece relevant for your audience. Fortunately, that's easier. If the piece is relevant to you, that relevance is easily transferred to your audience. Audiences can sense when you believe what you are expressing. This makes the difference between your performance being simply heard and your performance being felt.
I went into all of this to show that performers have the power to give life to music. Equally important is the fact that we have the power to keep music alive. We do this by playing it and how we play it is how it will be remembered. You can write all the books you want about music but they won't keep un-played music alive. Therefore, we who play Bach are the guardians of his legacy. We give voice to his music, passing it on to a new generation. Without such a bequest, there is no guarantee of a 300th-year commemoration. In the face of such tremendous responsibility, all we can do is try to make the Old Man proud in his old age.
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Added is an article that tells how independent musicians are changing the popular music industry. They are obviously on the right track, a track that organists could be on and benefiting from. "Pessimism Can't Keep Music Down" by Katie Dean from Wired News (March 19, 2004). "Music is not knocking at death's door, contrary to the canned doom-and-gloom predictions from the recording industry. Instead, it's enjoying a golden age because missteps by the big labels have provided opportunities for independent musicians and entrepreneurs to steer the industry in a new direction, said Mark Cuban, co-founder of Broadcast.com and now owner of the Dallas Mavericks and president of HDNet." Click the link below to read more.
WHAT I'M LISTENING TO...on my mp3 player: Avril Lavigne's "Let Go". This is one of the best-produced pop albums I've heard in a long time. As far as I can tell, Avril is just another in a long line of manufactured acts but I like this CD because it's not dance-oriented; it's guitar-oriented music. Some of the songs really rock out. Click the link below for more information on this CD:
Click this link to see all selections in Dan's CD Club:
WHAT I'M READING..."The Possessor and the Possessed: Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Idea of Musical Genius" by Peter Kivy. I'm not sure about this one. Just getting started. Kivy is a good writer but it remains to be seen how you can have a book about musical genius that doesn't include Bach. Click the link below for more information on this book:
Click this link to see all selections in Dan's Book Club:
Have a great week!
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