Notes from the underground

Before I write anything else, I want to first thank everyone who responded to last week’s installment – I received an unprecedented number of letters, comments and death threats. Let’s hope that this trend continues throughout the year.

I also want to address a common concern that many people seem to have about their ability to listen seriously to music: the lack of time in one’s hectic schedule to accommodate a listening session. Consider this, however: a CD is shorter in length than most films, with a maximum of about 74 minutes of music per disc. Just as with a movie, a play or a trip to a museum, listening carefully is an experience that you can share with a friend. It can also be a very romantic activity, though I say this with the understanding that “listening” probably won’t be first on your list of priorities in such a setting. In any event, consider sitting down with a friend and an album sometime instead of going to a movie. I think you’ll find it to be a rewarding experience.

Recently, I started rehearsing the Piano Trio by Maurice Ravel, written for piano, violin and cello. This work has long been one of my favorites, so I’m naturally very excited to be playing it. Practicing the piano part got me thinking this week about the relationship between performance and listening, a relationship which has been taken for granted in every century but our own. Before the invention of recording devices (damn you, Thomas Edison!), there was no way to hear music in the absence of live performers.

Today, most of the music we hear is recorded. It’s incredible how this dilutes the experience of listening. Imagine if every time you wanted to hear your favorite band play, you had to hunt them down across the country. Granted, this scenario would not change much for Phish fans, but for the rest of us, the entire experience of music would change dramatically. If I could never listen to a recording of Chopin Ballades, I would seek out any performance I could find, or I would have to play them myself.

This brings me to the next point. I’m curious as to what percentage of readers of this column have any proficiency on an instrument. I think we’d have to disqualify any readers whose instrument has more than an inch of dust coating the surface, but I imagine that the percentage would still not be all that low. Playing an instrument is a lot of work, and keeping in shape on your instrument is as hard, or harder, than keeping your body in shape. A practice session is rarely rewarding all the way through; repetition and attention to detail are important, but not particularly fun. You’re all alone with your instrument – there’s no coach to yell at you or peers to help make it more fun. And unlike most athletic teams at Williams, there’s not a crowd of members of the opposite sex watching your every move.

The point I’m trying to make is that gaining proficiency on an instrument is not easy. For that reason, those of us who play an instrument have a great appreciation for the work that others perform on the same instrument. Even people who don’t play an instrument tend to enjoy virtuoso performances. Most great concerts involve terrific performers playing music which challenges them and which they conquer. But there are subtleties in music-making beyond just playing extremely fast or high or loud that are challenging and which are easier to appreciate if you play an instrument yourself.

Of course, you don’t have to play an instrument to enjoy a concert. But even a non-performer can appreciate a performance more if he or she sees the actual work of an instrument being played in front of his or her face. There are some performers who can distract from their own music-making – a certain pianist who visited this campus played beautifully and moaned somewhat less attractively. But the live performance generally tends to heighten the performance. If nothing else, the possibility of disaster always looms over a live concert, heightening the tension. If you know the piece well, you know the spots that are most likely to be difficult, and you listen more carefully in those sections to see how the performer fares.

This all brings me back to the Ravel Trio. Our library has three recordings of the piece (CD R28 5, CD R28 24, CD T871 1), all quite good, and I encourage you to take a listen. Ravel makes this small, three-person ensemble sound like an orchestra, using a huge variety of colors and textures to support gorgeous melodies and thrilling climaxes. Karl Haas once said that to find out whether a composer is truly great, you have to look at his or her chamber music, a test Ravel would certainly pass.

Playing this trio has given me a different appreciation for the piece. How could it not? I now hear both the individual parts and the sum of those parts. Some of the magic of a piece is of course lost in studying it; just as with any art, close inspection finds it to be only man-made. But as the immediate, visceral appreciation fades with an understanding of the mechanics of the piece, a new, deeper appreciation is born. Ultimately, you will love a truly great piece of music more as you learn more about it, probing deeper into new levels and ways of understanding it. Not all music will hold up to such study, by any means, and it’s from that distinction that I think terms such as “masterpiece” really get their meaning. To find a masterpiece, you have to be willing to listen hard.

This column has covered many topics, perhaps too many for one week, but that’s what you get in a free weekly newspaper. I’ll stop rambling and ranting when someone shells out the big bucks. Until then, I’ll see you next week in the Record.