Hearing the Forest and the Trees

As a pianist who specializes in playing lots of new music, I often find I am asking, “What have I gotten myself into now?” Such was my thought when Belinda Reynolds asked me if I might like to take over her Chatter space here on Mondays while she took a summer sabbatical to spend more time composing. As Gary Graffman so aptly said, “I really should be practicing.”

And so, I ask the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? Or, if a composer writes a piece of music, and there is no one to perform it, does it matter? Is the performer’s voice important, or is it the mere act of writing down the music that really counts? Some composers may go their whole lives and never hear their works performed; some (very few) enjoy the pleasure of having their works played somewhere every day. Many pianists spend hours in the practice room and never make it on to the stage. Does it matter? Why do we do it?

Well, I can only speak from my perspective, which I suppose is what this column is all about. I play new music, and I do so because it is new. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it, and sometimes it makes little impression upon me at all. But it is new and it is different. And as a pianist who was steeped in conservatory training—how many Chopin etudes can you play?—this is what is most important to me. I’m tired of hearing the same music over and over, and weary of playing the same notes. There are many recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, but what can I add to the conversation that is original? The act of helping to create a new musical composition is enough to keep me interested for the rest of my life.

So, while I still think the Liszt sonata is the greatest work ever written for the piano, and that the Bach preludes and fugues share symmetry with all that is good in the world, I still crave more. I think my role as a performer is to communicate and express the sounds and ideas of the composer. I also believe that new music is collaboration: without each other, perhaps there is no sound. Both voices are important. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Hearing the Forest and the Trees

  1. david toub

    In general, I’d agree. Music needs to be heard, just as art needs to be seen and poetry needs to be read or heard. Unlike most other arts, however, music typically needs an intermediary in the form of one or more performers.

    That said, however, I think the music still exists even if unperformed. But just as in medicine there is a difference between just having vital signs (as people in a state of coma do) and being able to see, hear, speak etc, music that is unperformed remains in a comatose state if you will, and needs great performers to really come alive. Otherwise, all our music is just a bunch of notes on a page. Nice to look at, perhaps, but that’s not music.

    While I have you here…are you looking for new music to perform (hint hint…)?

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  2. cbgriffin

    It doesn’t and it does
    Matter, that is. Depending on your perspective that is. I mean, you can get to the place where NONE of it matters, as the world will definitely burn up someday when the sun explodes if we don’t do it sooner ourselves. Sigh. But that really isn’t the point, I know. Your post made me think of two things: First, I remember every performer who EVER performed my work and I have a spot of gratitude in my heart for each and every one of them no matter what the result (though some get a bigger spot than others — including Teresa McCollough). I recognize the debt I owe to them for what they do. They give me a chance to reach an audience and also to learn more about the craft of composition. Which leads to thought number two. One of the things that I have been trying to work more actively into my compositional thinking is the interpretive role the performer/conductor plays. Perhaps that sounds axiomatic, but in my case anyway, it took quite a number of good experiences and (more importantly)failures to begin understanding the mind and the ability of the performer enough to trust them. That means means NOT micromanaging the process myself but giving them enough information to (micro?)-manage the performance themselves.

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