Monthly Archives: February 2016

Why I don’t play my own music

I write music. I play music. I don’t play the music I write. At least, I avoid it whenever possible.

This has caused some curiosity.

It’s pretty easily explained: I’d rather listen.

And there are two reasons why:

#1. It’s easier to hear when you listen.

Playing in an orchestra bass section, you may be surprised to learn, is not the ideal vantage point from which to hear an orchestra. Sure, we can see the conductor better than the audience, and we’re optimally positioned to hear the trombones, tuba, and timpani, but we often can’t hear our colleagues on the other side of the stage, and even those sections right in front of us are difficult to hear. Their sound is projected in front of them, away from us. Unless they’re playing something really exposed, we usually can’t hear much at all from the horns, clarinets, second violins, or harp.

Think about it: we’re all directing our sound away from us, toward the conductor, who is the only one ideally positioned enough to be able to manage and balance such an unruly swarm of sounds.

As a composer, I want to be a part of the listener’s experience. For practical, composerish reasons – I want to have a balanced, objective perspective on what I’ve written. When the piece only exists on paper, it represents at best an educated guess about what it will sound like. Will the harp sound louder than the celeste? Will the marimba balance them both, or should it sound an octave higher? What about all the inscrutable harmonics that glow when the bowed gong accompanies the flutes in their lowest register? Is the viola divisi effective, or should I have included cellos in that filigree? A more experienced composer might be able to anticipate solutions to these questions. I, however, require a bit more spoon-feeding.

But I also crave the audience experience for another reason:

#2. It’s easier to hear when you listen.

Our sound is ultimately directed toward the audience. Consider the etymology of that word for a moment: your auditory experience is the ultimate reason we do what we do. In a sense, your reaction to our performance is the actual product. The music is not the sound, the music is what happens as it travels from your ears to your soul. Music can’t happen without composers, or players, or sometimes even conductors, but it also can’t happen without listeners.

Music is art; art communicates; communication requires content, transmission, and receipt. If a symphony falls in the forest, but no one’s there to hear it, did music happen? If the content a composer creates doesn’t resonate with anyone, did that composer write music?

I want to create music: forms and melodies and rhythms and harmonies that have meaning to me, but more than that, something that resonates with depth and meaning inside other people, where the music actually happens.

And I love experiencing as many aspects of the music as I can. Creating, performing, listening, devouring, remembering, cherishing, regretting. I can create anytime. I am absurdly fortunate that I can perform with a great orchestra every week. Listening, from the ideal perspective enjoyed by the audience, is something I don’t often get to experience. And when all the planets align for something I’ve created and my own ridiculously talented colleagues perform it, I’d rather sit among the listeners, higher up the food chain, as it were, where I can devour and cherish and regret and feel.

I want to paint a target on my soul and jump in front of the orchestra’s sights as it pulls the trigger. I want to know the cumulative effect of all that study and inspiration and ink and frustration and revision and pushing the baby bird out of the nest and the countless hours of practice that brought everyone on stage to this moment. I want to watch my colleagues bob their heads as the groove penetrates their perception. I want to witness the elaborate choreography of thirty violin bows as they carve the air. I want to watch the conductor dance and sway and scowl and and wring all the passion out of this spectacular instrument, the orchestra.

My work as perpetrator is finished; now I want to be the product, the vessel into which art is poured, the crucible in which ink and sweat and passion is mystically transformed into that-for-which-words-are-insufficient, my own personal epicenter, where the real music happens.

I’m obviously a little envious of people who get to experience music from the audience’s perspective. But I’m also profoundly grateful that our community supports the creation and performance of live music.  And I love being a link, or occasionally several links, in that artistic chain. By attending concerts, audiences make music possible; without them, we’re merely a clanging cymbal, a tree falling in the forest.