Thursday, June 28, 2012

Some early musings by Will Duchon

Before "Words & Music" evolved into its present form of poetry/music, I occasionally wrote some brief reflections titled "Words & Music"...these were sent along with the weekly email program announcement. Here they are.

1. JUNE 3, 2011
Dear Friends,

Please forgive me for the recent FEC notice (for June 3, 2011), which I managed to royally botch up. It was unreadable, unless one has the ability to read invisible ink. My computer graphic skills are still a work in progress.

Tonight’s program is pre-recorded, because I am still a “working musician” and on occasion my work coincides with Friday nights. I don’t particularly care for pre-recording, because obviously the element of spontaneity is impossible. It’s also a weird feeling to be recording a program on a sunny Tuesday morning, for example, knowing that it will be listened to and experienced on a Friday evening, when the sun is setting and the energy is much different. WMNR’s production library has HUNDREDS of pre-recorded programs from the staff of gifted broadcasters working at the station, and it always amazes me to see them all archived so beautifully. I wonder where they all find the time to do this.

I was thinking recently about a recent “fad” among music enthusiasts. It’s really not recent at all. Maybe I have just RECENTLY given it more thought. What I’m talking about is the idea of the “quintessential” performance. For example, it is generally agreed that the “quintessential” recording of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto is that by pianist Sviataslov Richter from the late 1950’s, with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stanislaw Wislocki. Or, more recently, many consider Renee Fleming’s recording of the “Four Last Songs” of Richard Strauss to be the “quintessential” version.  Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” variations is considered by many discriminating listeners to be “quintessential”, and unsurpassed in terms of the level of musicianship.

This concept of the quintessential recording/performance raises a fundamental point about the essence of music. Is music a pure art form in and of itself? Does a “perfect” form of a given piece of music exist? Or, is music essentially a result of the notes, texture, rhythms, etc. as filtered through the complexity of the human being performing the music? Glenn Gould recorded the “Goldbergs” between June 10 and June 16, 1955. He brought all the experience and energy that he had at the time to those recording sessions at Columbia’s 30th Street studios in NYC. What resulted was the music being captured “forever”, and not even Gould himself could have re-created those performances precisely. Once music is played, it is…gone, and can NEVER be played again exactly the same way, by the same performer. So again, the question remains: does a quintessential performance exist? If so, why bother listening to any other performances? I have my own ideas about this. I’ll leave you to formulate yours. In the meantime, stay close to the music.

2. JUNE 10, 2011

Dear Friends,
Once again this week my program is pre-recorded. I had intended for tonight’s program to be aired LAST week, but due to “human error” it never made it on air. Thus, we’ll try again and hopefully you will have the opportunity to enjoy one of the best symphonies in the repertoire, Nielsen’s 4th. I will be back “live” next week, and for the following two weeks until the live broadcasts from Tangled Woods begin on July 8, at which time I’ll disappear until September.
I write these words on the eighth of June, which happens to be the birthday of the composer Robert Schumann, born this day in 1810. Schumann’s hypersensitivity and tendency towards depression and manic behavior is clearly conveyed in his music. Another element particular to Schumann is his way of weaving actual and imaginary characters into his work, in ways that move in and out of consciousness.  Schumann came to mind today while I was driving along I-95 in Connecticut. I do a considerable amount of driving in the course of the week, and like many people I listen to the radio in the car. I thought of Schumann today while hearing a Beethoven string quartet as I passed through the town of Stratford, because I realized that listening to music (intense music, especially) while driving along a major highway is a surreal experience. At once one is subjected to both worlds: the “inner world” of spirit and beauty (a world Schumann occupied most of the time) and the “outer world” of things like billboards, highway lanes, speed limits and exit ramps. This dichotomy became clear to me while driving, and a little unsettling, because though I experienced both “worlds”, I was not fully present to either one.
On the title page of Schumann’s magnificent Fantasie in C, Op. 17  for piano, this quotation from  Friedrich Schlegel appears: “Through all the tones sounding in this colorful earth-dream, there emerges one ethereal tone for the secret listener.” This was intended as a covert message of love to Clara Wieck  from Robert, but in a broader sense, it is a clue to the way you and I can and should listen to music: as “secret listeners”, those who are open to the subtle and satisfying moments in a piece of music which remind us that the inner world is the “real world.”
Stay close to the music-
3. JUNE 17, 2011 (this was a book review of sorts)
LONGING by J.D. Landis 
Music discloses an unknown realm; a world in which we leave behind all definite feelings to surrender to an inexpressible longing.”  E.T.A Hoffman

“An inexpressible longing”. Perhaps no three words so succinctly describe the relationship between Robert Schumann and music. For Schumann, there was always a conscious and sometimes unconscious thread that enjoined his musical sensibilities with literary allusions as well as life events. The well-documented saga of Schumann and Clara is given new life in this compelling novel by J.D. Landis. Written in the form of an historical novel, Longing creates living, breathing characters, flaws and all of the Schumann’s, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn, and their contemporaries. (One memorable scene depicts Clara as a young child, during one of her grueling concert tours enforced upon her by her father in her childhood playing leap-frog with Chopin and Mendelssohn).  The novel is exacting in its historical references, often relying on passages from Schumann’s diaries and other source material to fill out the dialogue. And there are plenty of references to the great Schumann works, of course.
What makes Longing so powerful is the skill with which Landis depicts the two pivotal events in Schumann’s life: his obsessive and impassioned pursuit of Clara Wieck, and his gradual mental disintegration which ultimately leads him to an early death at the asylum in Endenich. Unlike the typical biography, Longing explores the way that these life events impact the people who loved Schumann; his wife Clara, Brahms, and his children as well as colleagues and friends. Longing does not paint a romanticized rose-colored portrait of its characters. The narrative (like Schumann’s music) has some rough edges, some blood and sweat instead of flowery prose. The reader is left with a devastating and vivid account of an extraordinary life; a life which exemplified the essence of “Romanticism”. 
Longing was written by J.D. Landis, and published by Ballantine Books.

4. June 24, 2011
Pianist Andre Watts is known for his open and approachable manner with “the public”.  In the late 1970’s Watts was scheduled to perform with a local symphony orchestra in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. At the time I was living in that area, and my piano teacher Gerald Snyder arranged for several students, me included, to usher at the concert. Watts was performing the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto, that old reliable war-horse, and as part of our usher training we were allowed to attend the dress rehearsal. In some ways, the dress rehearsal is much more engaging than the actual performance. I remember being fascinated by the way Watts and/or the conductor would stop playing during a particular passage to make a change in tempo, or dynamics, or whatever else. It was like watching a film being made, or a theater piece being prepared. When I heard the actual performance I noticed those sections of the piece (mostly in the first movement) which Watts and the conductor had shaped. After the dress rehearsal, the other piano students and I were taken backstage and introduced to Watts. He was very friendly and encouraging, and easy to talk to. One of the piano students asked Watts what he considered to be the “best way to listen to music.” His answer was “listen carefully, but if it seems too complicated or not to make sense, just let the music roll over you.”
I like that advice, and the mental image of music “rolling over” me as I listen. If one actually was “rolled over” by some object, music included, our entire bodies would feel the sensation, not just the space between our ears. Listening to a familiar work like tonight’s featured symphony, the Sibelius 2nd is a sensuous challenge. When we know a work well, and have loved it for years, we anticipate moments (“spots”) in the piece that mysteriously and powerfully speak to us. This anticipation is delicious, but can also deprive us of unexpected listening pleasure if we are too focused on anticipating that “spot.” Every performance of a piece has its own energy and dynamic. Hearing Watts play the cadenza of Tchaikovsky’s concerto was unlike any other performance, of course. I remember his advice now and then, when music becomes too familiar. It may be time to get my head out of the way and let the music roll over me on its own. 
Stay close to the music-


5. July 1, 2011
Moments musicaux
If one had an extraordinary memory, it might be possible to think back and recall the first powerful “musical moment” she or he experienced.  A “musical moment” is a brief section of a particular piece of music which has a visceral impact at the soul-level, and stays within one’s musical consciousness for….years. A “musical moment” could be a simple phrase, or even just a few seconds worth of notes. It’s that place (a teacher of mine used to call these moments “spots”) that makes you say “I love that part.” Each subsequent hearing of that moment inspires a rich array of response: joy, satisfaction, melancholy, nostalgia, you name it.
I remember as a kid sitting outside my apartment building with my little transistor AM radio, listening to The Beatles, and Three Dog Night, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and whatever WABC played.  The songs that I loved (“The Long and Winding Road”, “Get Back”, “Joy To the World”…) were ingrained, but sometimes I was so taken by the aesthetic pleasure of the sound coming out of my little radio that I never really paid attention to the words. Likewise, the piano’s entrance on that high D-flat in the slow movement of Grieg’s concerto, or the cello’s counter-melody to the bass strings in the slow movement of Beethoven’s 7th, or the climactic moment of the development section of Tchaikovsky’s 4th…they all are moments that are “sacred”, in the truest sense (“Set apart”). Nelson Riddle’s strings at the conclusion of Sinatra’s 1956 recording of “It’s Alright With Me” evoke a similar reaction, and in days past I had the worn-out LP’s to prove it. There was SOMETHING in those “spots” that touched a nerve at the deepest level. The shadow side of all this is a feeling of…intolerance. My love of Van Cliburn’s “D-flat” in his recording of the Grieg concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy became “quintessential”, to the point at which any other performance (even my own) fell short.
These musical moments serve as symbols of our personal musical journeys. We can recall them with fondness, and if we dare, admit that we may have outgrown them. Or they can serve to bring us back to ourselves, to a place within that has been neglected. They can serve as fantastic sources of strength and self-definition, in the midst of trying to survive in the world of facts and figures and responsibilities. Put simply, music has healing powers that can be contained…in moments.
Stay close to the music-

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