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Transcendence and the Practice of Music

Transcendence and the Practice of Music

The ability to make music has been one of the great blessings of my life. I have played the violin since the age of eight and have sung in my parish choir for a number of years, and have always found music to be, not an embellishment to life, but an integral part of it. Yet although I’ve written a good number of essays about musical repertoire and history from the point of view of a listener, there is something much more difficult that I have not essayed: to describe what the act of making music means to the musician. This is a much tougher assignment because the process of making music is personal, mysterious, and elusive. Here you can’t hide behind the objectivity of the musicologist or historian. To describe music-making is to strip away everything external to music and contemplate what music actually is in itself. And that is a place where angels fear to tread, because music is one of the mysteries of nature, unable to be understood in its essence.

An aspiring musician, when learning his or her instrument (piano, violin, voice, or whatever), pays much attention to technique: training to produce good sounds on the instrument and master the mechanics of playing through practicing scales and other exercises. Much discipline and hard work are involved. To master an instrument implies gaining power over it. Once this is accomplished, the musician is in a position to relax and give free rein to the purely spiritual and emotional feelings that music embodies. So, after the technique is “under one’s fingers” (as we musicians say) and one has gained a certain facility and ease with the instrument, one can—and must—let go and be absorbed in the sheer energy or force of music. Great performances are those in which we (both musicians and listeners) aren’t aware of the technique at all but are simply communicating thoughts and feelings with each other, in uninhibited freedom and confidence and joy.

The truth is that music is ultimately an energy or force, rather than something that can be pinned down to a scientific definition. True, science is deeply involved in music, starting from the acoustical facts of sound waves and vibrations and overtones and continuing through all the complex relationships and coordinates that go into the performance of a symphony. Yet the essence of music does not consist in these scientific underpinnings. Rather, music is spiritual and personal in its essence: an outpouring of the soul and the heart and the intellect, expressed in terms of sound (just as painting is the same essence expressed in visible matter and poetry through words). Sound occupies an interesting place in nature because, while caused by physical vibrations, it is itself invisible and immaterial. Like the wind (i.e., spirit) we cannot see it, but we can sense its effects and the solid, material things that put it in motion.

The Psalms speak of music as an outpouring of praise: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord … come into his presence with singing!”; “It is good to give thanks to the Lord … to declare your merciful love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.” Music, like the other arts, is a response of a joyful and grateful creature to the beauty and wonder of creation. It can also be an expression of the deepest sorrow and grief occasioned by things that happen to us in this life. It can lift us up from boredom and the banal matter-of-factness that fills much of our lives. There is no emotion or phase of life that music cannot accompany and express.

Music and music-making might best be described as an energy or movement. This energy, this movement, is both bodily and spiritual. The violin is essentially a resonating box for strings, put in motion by a bow. I am using the bow in such a way that the box will resonate the most pleasingly; indeed, resonance, letting the music resound and reverberate, is front and center in my approach to music. In the case if the violin, the sound created by the bow rubbing on the strings is transmitted from the top surface of the instrument throughout the body by means of the sound post, a small cylinder of wood that sits inside the instrument. The f-holes (which are both functional and ornamental) then carry the sound out into the air and the listener’s ear. The composer’s thought and feeling, recorded in imperfect notation, are transmitted from the page through my instrument by me, the performer, and released into the world to greet the ears of the listener. That is really all there is to it; but what a mystery it remains!

Music as practiced in our civilization is usually a re-creation (as well as recreation). Poetry lives more or less complete on the page, but music is not like that. It is a performance art, in which the work must be re-created again and again. This is part of what constitutes music’s uniqueness. “The notation is not the music,” as one Baroque-music specialist has put it. The musician must put the score—which is something like instructions or a blueprint—into motion, bring it to life. In doing so he calls upon all the technical skill and artistic imagination he has acquired in his training, and of course that innate quality we call “talent.”

Because the musician brings musical compositions to life, he is a custodian and transmitter of culture, a sort of cultural curator. The music lives only through his performing of it. If it weren’t for this action, proceeding from passion, the music would be gathering dust on the shelf. Music is thus a movement of love and joy, the fruit of the desire to share those feelings.

In addition to being a form of culture, music-making is a practice and, for the musician who wants to keep up his art, a personal habit. Those who like to talk about culture and the arts as some sort of social status symbol or “elite” preoccupation, as well as those dazzled by the semi-mysticism of talent, perhaps don’t realize that music-making is a common practice—something you do—and that a musician is not some high priest of the esoteric but an ordinary person who has a particular ability and seeks to perfect it.

Music, then, is a discipline, a craft, something to be continued and worked on. And that implies that music is a living thing, always a work in progress, never “perfect” (for there is no perfection in this life), but always in the process of perfecting itself—a reflection of and sharing in universal harmony, beauty, and goodness. As a musician all I can do is play as well as I can today, put my instrument away, go to bed, dream and refresh myself, and continue to practice and refine my craft again tomorrow. Music is thus woven into the journey of life itself.

I was recently at the Phillips Collection, the art museum in Washington, DC, and as I stepped off the elevator I saw before me Delacroix’s well-known impressionistic portrait of Paganini. The famous Romantic violinist, seemingly materialized out of the darkness, looks like some kind of snake charmer, or even more like the snake itself, as he sinuously bows his violin. This is what the musician is: a kind of conjurer, molding patterns in sound, drawing emotion from matter. Bowing a violin can indeed be hypnotic for both player and listener, and the act of playing or singing is a kind of hypnotism. Playing an instrument, but particularly the violin and other bowed stringed instruments, has to a great extent in Western music been an imitation of singing, the most intimate and human type of music-making. And the act of singing is tied in with breathing (the “bow” of the human voice), the very motor of life itself.

As a performance art, music is intimately involved with time. Yet it also transcends the ephemerality of time: as Stendhal wrote, “The only reality is music is the state of mind which it induces in the listener.” To play music is indeed to stop time, or to experience time in a different way than the “clock time” of the workaday world. And it is also to invite others into the experience of this timelessness. To play music is no less than to transcend the entire workaday world we all live in and to enter another world, a world of spirit and emotion which is, perhaps, a foretaste of that other life beyond.

This article appeared first on The Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted here with permission.

Image credit: Unsplash 

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