Saturday, May 9, 2009


I've been breaking in a new instrument. Every instrument is different, and you have to accustom yourself to a new one's peculiarities as if it were a long-lost uncle. I search out the difficult notes, work through the various ranges, explore the interface between breath and sound. To do all this, I've been revisiting Bassano ricercares: strange, meandering solo pieces that slip up and down the steps of a particular key.

What's interesting is that, for the first time ever, the pieces make sense. Because I don't know the instrument well, I'm playing awkwardly, hesitantly, listening through the line. Warming up, getting comfortable: this is what the ricercare were created for- and yet, on CD, I've only ever heard them played with conviction and forced narrative arc

Why? Because we've fetishized music. We've elevated it, isolated it, disentangled it from the messy, mushy enterprise of being human. Just as foot fetishists prioritize arch, sole, and toes to the detriment of the naked woman attached, we've turned classical music into a rarefied respite from the rest of life, something that exists outside of, and apart from, the bulk of human experience.

At no time was this more apparent to me than last night, when I sat three rows from a massive orchestra playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's a chestnut of a piece, something we've heard a hundred times on CD and then a hundred more. Fortunately, the symphony stands up to repeated listening: it's a chewy, substantive work that reminds me of sourdough bread in that it's both basic (5-1! 5-1, 5-1, 5-1!) and piquant.

The live performance, by the Indianapolis symphony orchestra, was not as tight or well-tuned as the countless recorded versions. And yet, it was richer. Just as the ricercares pale when divorced from their context, recorded music fails to encompass the way music ripples, visibly, through a person's body. It flattens whole dimensions of music: immediacy, fear, the transitory nature of sound. Recorded music is a black leather spike-heeled boot. It is whips and chains. It's a box of cut flowers, when what you want is a garden.

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