Where does the music end and the listenig begin?

Musical jiggsaw-puzzles at Kamfest 2016

Our perception of reality is a highly individual matter: every day our mind is occupied by trying to create coherence between an unimaginable amount of fragments brought to us through our different senses. It is a bit like a game: you’re given certain pieces but how you combine them is up to you.

Art and music reflects this essential fact that we humans are not sharing one reality but rather perceiving myriads of different possibilities of reality, all interlaced and happening at the same time. We are all aware that two people might experience the same piece of music or art in entirely different ways. The music or the art work is the same and yet the experience differs.

The continued construction of our separate realities is a game which every human being plays continuously, whether we are aware of it or not but once we are aware of it it is possible to use it consciously. Within the world of music this sense of the possibility that lies in co-creation with the listener is more present in particular composers and their works than in others.

bent-sorensen

At the Kamfest 2016, the annual chamber music festival in Trondheim, Norway, the Danish composer Bent Sørensen is this year´s “composer in residence” and brings to the festival his unique flavour of musical landscapes. I first encountered his music several years ago when, as a Master student at the Norwegian Conservatory of Music, Bent Sørensen was one of the three composers around whose works I centred my thesis. That knowledge was deepened when, in 2007, Sørensen was composer in residence at Festspillene in Bergen where I was able to attend the performance of several of his works and was also able to conduct an interview with him.

Searching for the familiar un-known

From my very first encounter with his music, Sørensen’s works always held a strange and unique fascination. Perhaps it had to do with a lifelong love for jigsaw puzzles; as a child jigsaw puzzles held an endless fascination for a mind who was constantly looking for patterns. Or maybe it was the other way around: maybe the hour-long searching for pieces that would fit each other was the activity which triggered a lifelong fascination for pattern-seeking.

puslenoter

The search for patterns and form can be conducted both visually but also aurally and musically. When listening to music we are essentially listening for form. The listening mind is forever searching for an underlying pattern, something which will make what we hear “logical” and “understandable”. This is however not a logic and understanding based so much on intellectual concepts as it is based on a sense of relationships, and acute sense that some parts are closer connected than others and that the entire piece therefore consists of a sort of pattern which is graspable if we are able to conceive it.

The Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim made a rather famous and much quoted comment of Sørensen’s music that “it reminds me of something I have never heard before” pinpointing this strange feeling of familiarity coupled with the sense of something unknown which the music of Sørensen triggers.

The music is all texture and movement, fragments and whispers which give rise to slips of memory. Unexpected qualities of sound (in several of his pieces musicians are asked to sing or hum while playing their instruments) and tempos which plays with our ability of perception and where fast moving sonic structures tricks the mind into a perception of larger, slower moving fields of sound, like millions of small rivulets of current creating the larger swellings of a river.

deserted-church

Listen to the piece The Deserted Churchyards where two lines of texture move together, one from above and one from below , crossing and departing- shimmering facets and velvety lines entwining and dancing, and where the glockenspiel also triggers the pictures of church bells swallowed slowly by an ever encroaching sea line (especially if you stay on to the end of the piece). 

The deserted Churchyards performed by Esbjerg ensemble conducted by Jules van Hessen

Another hot tip is the CD Birds and Bells with Oslo Sinfonietta, Christian Lindberg and Christian Eggen playing music of Sørensen for those who wish to submerge deeper into his music.

The Jigsaw puzzle that never stops

In one of the concerts in Bergen, which was given the title “Songs in rings of bells,” ten of Sørensen´s compositions were organized into a sequence where the different individual works were fused into each other in a long cycle. Some of the works were solo pieces, others were written for chamber ensemble.

According to Sørensen the challenge in organizing the concert laid in discovering the coherence and connection between pieces which were composed at different times but which still held the same subconscious element of connection, something, he stated, which had always been there.

In a way a composer´s entire output of works might be likened to the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle where each individual work relates to one piece of the puzzle, excavated with enduring and painstaking integrity from the composers unique musical landscape. In the concert in Bergen the fusing of the different pieces woke to life this sense of unfolding of a landscape which continued outside of its borders.

This hints to one of the most fascinating aspects of music: As an ever reflecting living prism, music changes and is affected by the setting in which it is presented. As humans we are multi-sensorial creatures: unless we actively shut off our senses, isolating only one at a time, our senses will forever fill out and enrich each other and our experiences. The same piece of music experienced on a train late at night with headphones or in a fully packed concert Hall during a festival are two entirely different experiences no matter if the music is the same. A person in love and a person with a dental appointment will probably colour their experience of the same piece of music quite differently. A piece of music, however well we might know it, is forever growing, sprouting new limbs, whispering in new voices and our possibility for experiencing it in new ways are endless.

The multiple realities of art and of humans

Just as all of our senses are engaged to a certain degree in every art- experiences we encounter, listening and perceiving art is also a highly co-creative experience.

My father worked, among other things, as a scenographer at the theatre, providing the visual parts and settings of the performance. His main creed was always that the less visual cues you give the audience, the greater liberty you are granting to their imagination and co-creation of the experience. Theatre, as well as music is a co-op: it demands the active co-operation of everyone involved and that includes the audience/listeners.

svart-teater

From the rehearsal of the theatre performance Måne over gjøglarvogna, one of the first performances in Norway where black light theatre was used, a form of theatre introduced in Norway by my father Karel Hlavaty. This performance was created in cooperation between my father and my mother, Nina Martins

The only reason why it is possible for a scenographer to depend on the co-creation of the audience or for a composer to depend on the aural jigsaw puzzle-skills of his audience is the knowledge that this is a central part of the human mind: the ability and fascination for filling out the picture, for joining the dots.

JSBachIn the suites for solo cello by Johan Sebastian Bach the cellist has four strings, four fingers and a bow at his or her disposal. Only two strings can be played simultaneously and therefore the possibilities for creating harmony and chords (three or more notes played simultaneously) is limited. How then is it possible to create the impression of more than one voice moving along?

The solution is to involve the listener as a co-creator: in his music Bach often implies harmony by having the cellist move between fragments of two or more voices. In the listener’s mind the fragments merge into two or three separate voices being played simultaneously and thus harmony is created. One way this is done is through arpeggios or broken chords, where the notes of the chord are played after one another but where the listener combines them in his head. Here is an example from the Allemande of the second Suite in d-minor.

Seen in a time perspective the notes are played after one another in succession along a horizontal timeline, the hallmark of melody, but in the mind of the listener harmony (the stacking of notes vertically) is nevertheless created.

Most of us are highly unaware of all the amazing processes happening inside ourselves when we are conceiving art; of how many amazing sensorial connections that are being made and contributing to our overall experience. If we were aware of this we might perhaps place less of an emphasis on the opinion of others to tell us how to think and feel about what we have just experienced and simply be present in the unique jigsaw puzzle-games of our amazing minds.

george_crumb_agnus_dei_detail

A detail from one of the beautiful scripts of American composer George Crumb

Maybe we should all be more in awe over our own creative ability when encountering music or art, an ability without which would render music and art as barren constructions and not as the amazing playgrounds for the mind that they are.

 

 

 

 

The inner and outer experiences of music

kamfestHaving  just returned from the annual Trondheim chamber music festival KAMFEST I had some thoughts in my head, spurred by the many musical experiences there. KAMFEST has always been one of my favourite festivals in Norway as it always seems to somehow be able to think outside of the Box when it comes to chamber music and concert programming in general. A great mix of Expressions, genres, venues and, most often, superb musicians. This year’s composer in residence was the multi-faceted composer /pianist/poet and artist Lera Auerbach who were participating in all of her artistic roles. The program varied from the music-theatre-opera The Blind, chamber music works where the composer performed herself, poetry recital and a silent auction of some of her pictures.

This combined presentation was a rare experience and I wondered in advance how Auerbach would succeed in filling all of these roles. Through history there have been many examples of great composers who also have ventured into the field of performer; a double role which was much more common in older times, from the improvisation-competitions of Mozart´s time to the semi rock star-hysteria surrounding virtuosi composer-performers like Chopin and Liszt. But that said there are considerable differences between the demands to performers of today as to that of earlier times, both in instrumental changes and technical demands.

Some of the things I experienced with Auerbach concerns the theme of listening in a very profound way, more specifically: it concerns something we might call outer and inner listening.

Outer and inner listening

Inner listening

When a musician performs, he or she is experiencing the music emotionally and bodily as well as intellectually and technically. It is easy to get swallowed by the emotions welling up from within when confronted with music by Rachmaninov or Scriabin. We often choose the music we play precisely because it talks so strongly to us. A musician, however, is faced with the responsibility of making not only himself but the audience as well experience these same emotions. That is quite a different thing.

There is a myth going around that says that if you only experience something very strongly yourself, then your experience will somehow automatically spill over onto the people listening to you. Maybe the reason for this idea is the convincing nature of these strong emotional reactions. Often they might get us so involved in our own experience of the music we are playing that we quite forget about the audience.

We might call this process inward listening as the performer is completely absorbed in his or her own emotional reactions to the music. It is a very personal kind of listening which can have a tremendous impact on our lives, creating sometimes a lifelong relationship between the performer and the composer of the music.

L1020891However, just like a spiritual or religious experience, experiences like these are often highly personal. A performer who aims to communicate with an audience needs to take on a different role. The purpose is not to experience for ourselves but to make the audience experience, and in order to do so we need outer listening.

This type of listening is strongly linked with the ability to tear ourselves loose from our own emotions and to be able to observe the sounds we are making from the outside. Just like a pointillist picture needs distance in order to be perceived properly a musical composition needs the all-encompassing perspective of a musician who knows its totality and is able to portion out every last detail according to its place in the sum-total of the work.

When a particular place or harmonic turn in a composition yanks our emotional cords we are naturally turned inwards, listening deeply to our own emotions reacting to the call of the music. In a natural response our emotions are crying for the release of a fortissimo blow-out to match our inner experience but our mind and musicality knows there is more to come and that this part must be balanced against both what has gone before and what is to follow.

The great Rumenian conductor Sergiu Celibidache adresses this in the following way:Sergiu+Celibidache+celibidache8

“A sequence of tones follows a structure which finally connects the beginning with the end. When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning. When the end keeps what the beginning promised. Continuity doesn’t mean: to go from one moment to the next, but: after going through many moments to experience timelessness. That is where beginning and end live together: in the now. What is required to experience any structure as a whole? The absolute interrelation between the individual parts.” ( from the film “You don t do anything. You let it evolve”. Produced by Pars Media)

If we choose to simply wallow in our inner bliss while playing we have left the audience behind and are no longer listening to the actual music we are making but only to the one we are experiencing internally. We have also paradoxically lost the sense of “now” in the music which Celibidace talks about.

In the case of Auerbach the word “overwhelmed” seemed essential. In the works where she performed herself this was the essence that she projected as a performer, and I was left with the impression of a performer struggling (but quite ecstatically) with too strong emotions, emotions that were literally choking the music she was performing. Emotions in music shouldn´t be a problem except if the emotions exist solely in the performer and doesn´t extend to the audience.

At one point when struggling with the balance between outer and inner listening we might actually feel as if we are committing some sort of betrayal, consciously leaving our emotions behind to get about the work of communicating. We fear losing those emotions which the music initially stirred in us. But what is the result if we fail to make this switch between outer and inner listening?

When Auerbach played her own music I saw only her. She filled every pore of the music with her own experience of it and there was no question about how it made her feel. At the same time it was a lonely experience listening to her playing because I was witnessing a reaction to a music of which I was deprived; the music was happening inside of Auerbach, not on the stage. As a consequence I was presented with a music that lacked in depth and detail, where there was no holding back in anticipation of later pleasures, no lines stretching over more than three bars at a time, no delicate differentiating between subtle nuances of tone colour. The elements were all there in the music but they passed by un-noted like an unlit tramcar.

I´m sure it was a great experience, I´m just sorry I didn´t get to hear it.

(This blog-post might seem overly anti-Auerbach which was not my intent, it was just that she provided a chance to adress this topic and illustrated my point to perfection. However, I quite enjoy some of her more symphonic music very much and would encourage everyone to check out her Works here:  http://www.leraauerbach.com/ )