Performance Chat: Art of Craft and the Aha Moment

(This chat was presented prior to The Paramount Chamber Players’ concert, October 26, 2013 at The Paramount Center in Bristol, Tennessee).

Craft of the Composer versus the Performer

The skills required for composing versus performing are divergent and yet interdependent. For the composer, craft is the skill to use the musical symbols on the page to represent music. For the performer, craft is the skill to interpret the composer’s arrangement of musical symbols on a page to render the music in a form you can hear.

The composer’s craft is defined by how the composer works out musical ideas through the relationship of notes, chords, scales and sound clusters to dynamics, phrasing, colors and timbres and how they are all related in terms of rhythm and space and time. The performer’s craft is defined by how the performer uses his knowledge base – technique, theory, musical phrasing, personal experience, etc… – to interpret the ideas of the composer.

The power of the composer is to create the music whereas the power of the performer is to represent the music. One cannot exist without the other. What good is a composition created but not heard but on the other hand, without the composition, what would a performer have to present?

These two great forces come together when you hear a single piece of music. It may be an obvious statement but let me remind you that the craft of each performer that you will hear today is unique from all the others. The sounds that we are individually capable of making are dependent upon a number of skills we have developed over the years. And, then our personalities come into play. I might be more inclined to play fast and aggressively while Cheryl (our ensemble’s cellist) will be inclined to find the poetry and precision in the same phrase. George (the violinist) may be focused on the beauty of the sound while Luis (the violist) may be interested in bringing out an inner viola line to beef up the mix.  Our challenge is to take ALL these points of view and make a coherent whole out of our various observations.  And often, that is where the composer’s craft comes into play.  We find ourselves looking back to the symbols on the page to seek the composer’s intent. It is the composer’s craft that guides us in these decisions. In effect, the composer becomes a member of the ensemble.  So, you can see how the craft of the composer and the performer meld together to create the work of art that you hear.

The Aha Moment

Secondly, consider that music performed live exists only for the moment of utterance. Unlike visual art, music cannot be perceived in its entirety all at once. It disappears almost as soon as it appears. Music must be experienced in time and as a result you must engage your memory of previous moments you’ve heard to form an impression. It is this unique requirement, your involvement that leads me to the second subject matter.

I want you to listen for that indefinable quality, that ‘je ne sais quoi’ in the music. It is the quality that soothes our soul and makes us reflect. Music that does this is greater. It stands the test of time. This indefinable quality is a mysterious infusion of human spirit into the craft of the work. One can only point to the moment and say, this is it.  It is one of those human experiences that cannot be described. It can only be recognized.

And that is how you know when you are in the presence of great music, when it has stimulated that portion of your brain that gives you the “aha” moment, when:

  • the “hairs on the back of your neck rise”,
  • the “quiet voice” in the back of your head says, “this is it”
  • you find yourself moved to tears or joy
  • you feel like leaping to your feet and shouting from the top of the mountain
  • you feel moved to a state of reverence or prayer.

We all know when we are in the presence of greatness. It is this innate human ability to recognize this presence, when the music touches you in these ways, that you know you that the music is a great work of art.