What is music? Don't worry, I'm not going to define it now. In fact I'm probably simply gong to leave that question open and ask more questions still. More exactly I suppose, what is the experience of music?
I don't have an answer, none of us do, truthfully, although we can and do experience music, and I suspect that the experience changes constantly. There are no two performances that are alike, no two experiences that are alike, even if one is sitting at home in one's favorite chair listening to one's favorite recording. Each time we come to the music, we bring something different with us. The experience is always more than ourselves, more than the musicians, more even the air in the room, but all of these things combine for form an experience that, at its best is a kind of relationship with something both greater than and deeply essential to ourselves.
Wednesday I went to a small chamber concert downtown. The hall was small, lunch was served and the audience was seated at tables around the stage. The atmosphere was friendly and somewhat intimate. I realized how much I missed this kind of small venue, the sense of being a part of the music that it entails. And the concert was lovely. The first piece, Beethoven's String Trio No. 3 in G major was lovely and performed with skill.
And yet there was a point where I distanced myself somewhat, where I was enjoying the music, but where I was also standing back from myself, watching the musicians. They are all excellent, and the piece was well played, but what I missed at that moment was that sense of relationship that carries into the music when you hear it performed by some quartets and trios, by chamber groups who live by playing chamber music, who spend extensive time playing the piece together, and who play with a sense of attunement that adds another dimension to the work. I didn't mean this as a criticism, just as a reflection on something I sometimes missed, a different kind of listening. It struck me that the musicians never looked at each other, as if they were each playing their role, and the piece would come together, which it did. There is nothing wrong with this, and yet all of life is a relationship, a relationship of experience, or being, of creation. And I suppose, like life, there are different types of relationship, even in music. Again, I'm not trying to criticize, only to explore, and explore my own understandings more than anything else.
I still enjoyed the concert. Far from being sad, I was thinking how lucky I have been, how lucky that I have been privileged to hear such a wide variety of musicians, playing in such a wide variety of settings. I was also thinking how playing as a member of a symphony orchestra is different from playing as a soloist, and as playing as a part of a quartet (or trio or quintet). In both the orchestra and the chamber group it is not about you per se, but how you play and interact with the group, but the dynamics are completely different. And great ensembles develop their own personality, their own space within the music.
Even then however, the experience involves more than the musicians. Although the musicians are critical, either the musicians, or the audience, can make or break the total experience. Wednesday's concert became more than 3 or 5 people on a stage, playing music together. The musicians were excellent, the audience was appreciative, and it was in this relationship between the two that the true music took place.
During the second half of the performance, when the Wind Quintet was performing an arrangement of the Dolly Suite by Faure, my fingers could not stay still, instead they were rapidly seeking out the keys on the imaginary piano in my lap, experiencing the music audibly, emotionally, and physically. And so I listened to the music, but some part of me injected myself, rather than my mind stepping back, my fingers stepped in, and this changed the equation. This change was not necessarily bad, or good; it simply altered my experience of the music. But don't we all react this way to some extent or another? Something resonates, and some part of our soul runs toward that connection, dragging us behind willy-nilly. And that is an essential part of the experience of music, why all cultures, all peoples, all times, seek it out and share it amongst themselves.
And that brings me back to my question: what is the experience of music? And is any one experience any better, or more powerful than another? What is the role of the listener in the equation? The simple truth is no experience can be duplicated. So shouldn't we enjoy each experience for the joy it brings, even when our minds wander slightly? How has life changed my ability to listen? Has my heart grown softer, or more hardened? What perambulations will my thoughts take the next time? How will I experience the music? How will you?