The Newness of Time Itself
“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (Baudelaire courtesy of Debussy).
Notes, sounds, meld and melt in time. Memory and anticipation interpenetrate each note heard in the present tense. And memory also coerces the immanent future to follow the patterns of the past.
Sometimes, in our performing, this leads to a sense of taking a piece for granted: we’ve heard it all before, nothing is new to us, no surprises are left for us. The piece starts, we dutifully endure through its time span playing each note in its place. The piece ends, we stop playing, we bow and go through the ritual of accepting the praise of the audience.
Are there steps we can take to bring life, spontaneity and freshness, back into the performance. We cannot re-order the notes; we seem to be chained to an ineluctable sequence of cause and effect. And though we are free to pick up the implication of where the current note seems headed, when we do get to play the note and hear it through our outer ears, it can remain essentially a surprise. Though we expect time to repeat, we are nonetheless free to consider each next moment an open question. We live in in immanent cloud of possibilities where there is always more than one direction the music might head next. When we ‘finally’ get to hear it, all the possibles are wiped away, effaced in the blatancy of the bright light of the actual present. This is no less true when we have wagered on one particular note and we win the hand: the note we thought would happen did happen. We find that we were ‘correct’ in our assumption of what sound (not manifested yet in time), does indeed become manifested in the richness of time as it flows into the present.
Yet this bright light of the present, though it remains shining as long as we remain in the present, shines only briefly on any particular note. As far as the note is concerned, this light is good for only one transient moment.
So if we don’t want to fall back into the darkness of the non-present, somehow we must live within the light of this omnipresent present.
To offset the staid performance is the conviction, remaining in our consciousness, that every note we take the trouble to hear is the first note of the piece. Like a true beginning, like the promise of each day’s sunrise, it opens up for us a world of infinite possibilities. And for us to maintain this through the very last note of the piece (which itself could have been followed by another – but just wasn’t).
To the extent that we can we let each note within the piece shed at least some of its accumulation of the past, an accretion that is rapid and inevitable under normal circumstances, the piece fights its way back into a state of alertness and freshness.
Mental presence is the key.
Micro-managing the motions of the fingers by micro-managing time
When playing we are lulled into a sense that we make one physical motion for every note we play. That, however, leaves out many subtle motions we make before we play a note and while we hold a note (even if the note is brief).
I wanted to call Irving’s attention to motions that take place so rapidly that we are unaware of them, but at the same time are motions that are critical to the successful execution of the connection from the current note to the next note.
As an example we used the “Revolutionary” Etude (Chopin’s op 10 / 12).
The first four notes in the left hand at the beginning of the piece (A-flat, G, F, D in the octave of middle C). We used the fingering 2 1 2 4.
I raised these questions for Irving. They were rhetorical in the sense that I did not want a verbal answer, but wanted him to be aware of what he was doing physically from instant to instant in time.
-At what exact instant does the thumb start moving under the second finger on its way towards the F.
-At what exact moment does the second finger, in turn, start its motion leftwards to pass over the thumb (the latter now being on F).
When our awareness re-sets itself only one to three times per second, we sometimes we ‘lump’ together certain physical motions. We assume that they either will occur together, or one right after the other. This is often too vague a description of what goes on in our hands. Smoothness is something that exists to the finest perceivable granularity in time. The smoothness of the execution of a group of notes depends on the exact moment during that execution when one particular component of the motion begins relative when another component begins.
Note, too, that the exact proportion of when these timings occur will probably need to change if you change the tempo. Sometimes one of the components does not make this adaptation, and the group is spoiled.
We can call the above an example of “finger ergonomics”.
Connections between notes separated in time
Music and Memory: Connections between past and present.
Summary: The relationships that we notice most between notes are those between two consecutive notes in a melody or two notes sounding in the same chord. If one tries to notice the relationship, for example, between the first note of a melody, and the fourth note of the same melody, it isn’t as easy to hear or be aware of. In effect, we have to ignore the notes in between. The first note has already happened; it has largely slipped out of memory. To experience this relationship as sounds rather than merely as ideas requires that they be more proximate in time.
The most tangible form of connection in sound is that between two notes that come one right after the other in time, the second beginning as the first, ends. In such a case the presence of the first note is still viscerally present in the finger and hand as the second note begins. We feel and hear how the second note changes, continues, distorts, deforms the first note. These latter qualities are not exactly present in the sounds themselves, but hover as an emergent form just outside of the conscious embrace of the sounds.
In the space of a painting, two objects adjacent in space remain side by side regardless of when we choose to look at the painting. In music, time defeats, or abolishes, space, because one moment in time eclipses another. The longer we wait between starting the current note and the next note, the harder it becomes to make a tangible, felt, as well as audible, connection between the notes.
The relationship between two sounds is harder to grasp or feel when there is one or more additional notes in between the two sounds. Physically, it is hard to make a connection or relationship between two such separated notes in time.
A simple example of this is the first entrance of the fugue theme in the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the one Disney used in the first “Fantasia” movie and not the “Dorian” Toccata). The sense of the melody “A G F E D C# D…” is present and clear although there an A is constantly being interpolated between each pair of melody notes: “a G a F a E a D a C# a D…”.
This is a case wherein it is relatively easy to connect the notes of the “hidden” or camouflaged melody, which our ear forges on the spot out of notes that are separated by the presence of other notes. In the case of the Bach, the interpolation of an A-natural.
If short term memory can create a tangible and sensual link between every other note in a passage, then why not between notes that are more remote from each other in time sequence.
A good friend or spouse may be currently wearing clothes of a particular color, when we next see them be wearing a different a color. When that happens, we know two things: 1) we are looking at the same person, and 2) the outward color is different than the last time.
It is the same with music. At a later time in a piece we can hear something that we immediately recognize or, intuitively sense, as being the same or related to something heard before. At that moment, the past is suddenly brought very close to the present. This effect is fundamental to the creating a structure of sounds that exist in time only without space.
Quality distinguished from quantity
Quantity versus quality, the immeasurable versus the measurable.
Non-typically, Irving has chosen to start work on a piece by Debussy.
This affords an opportunity to revise his customary way of approaching a new piece.
Part One: Keeping score on the number of wrong notes.
Usually, when Irving begins a practicing session, he measures his improvement in direct proportion to the increasing percentage of right notes that he plays and the decreasing number of errors.
This means he is devoting his conscious effort to ‘measurable’ quantities (the pitches of notes) rather than other things that are, in contrast to quantities, best termed qualities that are evoked in his playing.
How do we sidestep his “pointillistic” application of correct notes to the piece?
The first step was a bit drastic. I asked him to leave the right pedal down until a large group of notes were all swimming around in a common and confusing sounding tonal pool.
We then refined this so the notes that were thrown in the pool were only those that were chord-tones according to the current harmony. By doing this, a chord was being gradually built up, one note at a time, until all the notes of the chord were sounding together.
Now came the leap of musical imagination together with a slight derailing of the forward arrow of time. “The sound of this chord-cluster in its entirety,” I said, “should be in your imagination from the moment you play the first sound of the group that is going to form the chord at the end of the process. It is like a magical pedal that not only combines the sounds left in the wake of each sound, but can also summon up the presence of the sounds that remain to be heard.”
Once this effect is achieved with regularity, the next step is to re-create that feeling at will, with or without relying on the literal application of the pedal.
Part Two: Some other the desirable ‘qualities’ to evoke in the Debussy.
One note then the next:
A new note doesn’t always ‘eclipse’ an old note. The new note should not be opaque, in time, to the memory of the previous note. Let each note blend into the next, yielding its essence as an inheritance to the next note.
Melodies should seem to leave thick ‘trails’ behind their advancing wave front in time. The combined presence of their notes persists in time. Even without the pedal, the melody should sound in the imagination as if it were sounding in a perfect echo chamber; each part of the melody is inseparably bound to the overall shape of that melody.
Even in the early stages of reading a new piece, the pianist sometimes should try to play a passage in the intended final tempo. Otherwise the pianist who is interested primarily in right notes will automatically exclude from his consciousness the unique musical qualities of the piece that will animate and give life to the performance that will only become manifest in the piece’s proper tempo. Make the piece yield up its secrets before all the notes are learned.
Quality is so fundamentally different than quantity that the notes, if they are merely correct, eclipse the ability to modulate and shape sound, create tonal imagery, and release – as a flower giving off an aroma – all that is non-quantitative and miraculous about the piece and its sound.
Tempo can be used generally as a tool with which to experiment for evoking the qualities inherent in a piece. Playing a passage in its final tempo* sooner rather than later in the learning process, including wrong notes, will bring us to a realization of the indefinable aesthetic essence of the passage, rather than repeating the passage over and over in a gradually increasing tempo. The downside of approaching the final tempo gradually and incrementally is that the desired tempo may never actually be reached. Why? Because the successful execution, in the final tempo, depends as much on a clear musical vision of the aesthetic qualities of the piece as it does on physical technique. We need the qualities of the piece to guide and lead the notes into yielding their musical essence that transcends the actual identity of the pitches.
* whether this final tempo is slower or faster than the initial practice tempo
The printed score and its limitations
A lesson with Irving on the Chopin: F Minor Nocturne
He is an intermediate level student, and has not had enough years of experience in reading scores to not be thrown off by ambiguities in the music notation. In particular the rhythmic counter-intuitiveness of even an unusually fine edition like “Henle.” Here are some of the issues we encountered.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell that a series of eighth notes in the right hand line up simultaneously with a series of eighth notes in the left hand. This is simply because of the optical illusion produced when the stems of the notes in one hand go up and the stems of the notes in the other hand go down. We tend to be less aware that the note centers are vertically aligned and more aware of the left-right offset of the stems.
The printed symbol for a whole note often takes up more horizontal space than that of a shorter note, for example a half note. If there is a whole note and a half note in the same chord played by the same hand, before we can interpret the rhythmic relation between the two notes, we have to first ‘translate’ the feeling of horizontal imbalance on the page into a more mathematical sense of the ratio of the durations of the notes.
In the edition of the Nocturne we are using, the first measure of the cadenza-like, cascading downward run in sixteenths, begins after a quarter note. The publisher has left very little horizontal space between the quarter note and the first of the sixteenth notes. The intuitive impression is that the sixteenth notes start sooner than they actually do. As a result we may find it harder than usual to play the simple rhythm of a quarter followed by four sixteenths.
The width of two measures containing the exactly the same number of notes and in the same rhythm, vary because of the extra horizontal room taken by accidental signs, especially the double flat sign.
Near the end of the piece there is a wonderfully chromatic and somewhat dissonant pair of voices converging in the right hand. The printed notes are already counter-intuitive because of a sort of staggered chromaticism between the two voices. This makes the notes even more difficult to read because the edition compresses the width of that particular measure to save room. The notes seem harder to read, not as much because of the composer’s unique choices of pitch, but because they are jammed together left and right.
One can adduce many more such examples.
In general, a publisher assumes that the exact rhythm of a passage can be gleaned from, or sometimes in spite of, the horizontal spacing of the notes on the page. That it is up to the pianist to “translate” the spatial information into a durational awareness of what the rhythm is. Only sometimes does the rhythm on the page “look like” what it “sounds like” through time.
We forget this because of years of unconsciously making this translation, but for the less experienced pianist it helps to point out the when the appearance of the notes on the page make the rhythm even more ambiguous than usual to discern.
In Irving’s case we discovered just how strongly his subconscious brain rebelled against all of the above types of visual incongruities on the page. And since this was occurring on a subconscious level, he did not stop to make himself aware of the cause of his discomfort. He assumed that he somehow was doing something badly, or was having more trouble than other pianists learning the piece. But once he became conscious of these ambiguities, he was able to stop blaming himself for the results of those ambiguities. Irving could feel himself in the privileged position of a critic who is looking down upon the spatial appearance of the rhythms, but who out of kindness will correc in his mind the incongruities so that the rhythm sounds as the composer intended.
Singers have a particular issue with one aspect of the printed display of rhythms. It results from which notes are beamed together with others notes as against a note having its own self-standing flag. The publisher is more interested in showing where the last note of one syllable changes to the first note of the next syllable and does so by not beaming together those two notes. They have prioritized syllabification over a clear portrayal of rhythm. The result of seeing all the resulting isolated stems is to confuse the eye so that we cannot divine even simplest of rhythms, as when a quarter note divided into four sixteenth notes.