Monday, May 23, 2011

My friendship with music

Part of my involvement in Choral Arts means that every few months or so I get a neat, new packet of choral music in the mail or over e-mail, most of which I'm unfamiliar with, and some of which is often entirely new music that has never, ever been sung before. It always feels a little like Christmas. I rip open the envelope or open the file and zip through it quickly to get a sense of it, see the composers, the divisi, the tempo markings, the languages. I'm always excited because I know that these pieces are going to become friends over the next few months and, even better, I'll get to sing them with friends.

I was describing recently to one of these friends what I love most about encountering new music and preparing for concerts, and it occurred to me how much all of these pieces I've encountered are like the people in my life. We all have friends who serve different purposes, just like all of the pieces we've sung over our lives. There are pieces that are old friends, perhaps with some history and baggage to them - emotional responses from the past, or fond memories of the people we've shared the experience of singing with. For me, many of those are standard rep pieces that I first sang in college or grad school - Mozart's or Faure's Requiem, for instance - that are old, revisited, and loved. A sub-category of this is the old friend that always seems to fit just right. No matter how much time has passed or how long it has been since you have last seen each other, there is something about that relationship that always just works, as if the passage of time and age means nothing. Whenever I pick up Widmung by Schubert it fits, even if I'm tired or haven't sung in a long time. Among these are also the fun friend, the one that you use to blow off some steam. Not really serious, but they know how to have a good time and are willing to take you along for the ride. We all need pieces and people in our lives for that, too.

There are pieces and people that you meet and go, "Meh. Not for me." Sometimes they just live there in your life, either by stagnancy or necessity. They exist on a continuum that seems to extend from decent to intolerable, and often there they stay. But every now and then they do something remarkable and rewarding - they totally surprise you. Suddenly, you hear the composer's intent and understand their soul through a small gesture or a performance, and it all changes. We had a piece like that on a recent concert. The piece in rehearsal seemed static and unchanging, and I'd gotten used to just singing it and doing what I was supposed to do in relation to it. And then we added the solo instrument to it and I heard it in an entirely new way. It touched something really deep in me, and I was in helpless tears by the end. What a huge surprise. I love that.

Then there are pieces you encounter, and you just know that they're going to be amazing, special, and unique. Something about it just clicks. You haven't even heard it with the rest of the parts yet, but you know when you do it's going to be great and it will keep getting better. You might have to work hard at it, but doing so will reveal more layers, and even after the performance is over you'll be looking forward to performing it again. I think one of the very first times I ever experienced this was singing Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms when I was in college. I remember thinking, "Yes! THIS is what making music is supposed to be about!" Every time I rehearsed it and during every performance I felt like more was revealed to me - there was always more to discover about it. When I was asked in my senior oral exams to name a choral piece that had influenced me and why, that was what I picked.

I think I realized in that moment that I would be chasing that feeling for the rest of my musical life. Isn't that what we want most in all our relationships?

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