The power of music

A friend of mine from Germany is currently in Peru. She wrote this:

The old man came first. Small and incredibly thin, with gray curly hair and a drum, a hemp string around his sinewy upper arm. When the darkness came, people started to make a fire, a small fire, but enough for the drummers and flute players and people rolling their cigarettes. We crouched closer. The cultivated sykyscrapers of Miraflores looked watchfully down upon the grass on the cliffs to the Sea and us on it.

The old man gave the beat, and the others fell in. Time passed, and the music rolled and rolled, all tunes intertwining und beautiful. Two girls danced as if they were talking to the fire. Their bodies knew no fear, only power and warmth. Every movement breathed energy. It smelled like smoke and sweat. The old man wiped his wet face with a cloth, while drumming on with one hand.

A little boy beamed and his brown eyes glowed in the warmth, while his father whispered something in his ear, another child sat on his father's shoulders, and then she came.

Maybe nine years old, with a fine read coat and her hair nicely done, neat white shoes and socks with quillings. She stands in the middle and moves like she could not do otherwise. Everything about her dances, and her body is taut like a string. Her huge brown eyes sing, and she shouts with her face full of tension, as if she would like to remind all of us of something. She looks like she ran away from home just to be here.

The next song comes, and my hands beat the rhythm on my breast, and my heart beats back. My mouth opens, and I sing without words, merely sound. My voice is not mine anymore. She rises and belongs to the music. The old man turns and smiles and nods. At some point I shout with all my might and the little girl shouts back, the two of us in a strange language of our own. A stranger hugs me at the end of the song and says: Beautiful, beautiful. And on the way to my house I skip with sleep-like security between the now silent, glowing skyscrapers home, without going wrong once, without a map, in this monster city, that in this strangely quiet hour in the side street allows the crickets once in a while to sing their song.

I attend a fair number of concerts, most of them of the classical variety. Some of the musicians I hear performing are quite amazing; others not so much. It doesn't really matter who the composer is, whether it's some part of the classical canon or something original. What affects me most is the passion the performers put into their performance.

Wrong notes played passionately are still passionate. Right notes, no matter how intricate the technique or mathematically crafted the score, played with all attention to detail and no attention to the emotion always leaves me feeling cheated, as if the minutes I spent listening were somehow stolen from me, leaving behind a little note that says "see how intellectual I am?"

NO, and I don't care. Somewhere in this world is a little girl with a fine red coat and neat white shoes whose voice is singing for the angels --and they are singing back. The heavens know there is a truth in her voice that can not be intellectualized, analyzed or categorized. It is heard with the heart, responded to with the heart beating with the same passion, the same honesty, the same music humans have for thousands of years.

We have no musicology that tells us what the first instruments were, but likely they were drums. Rhythm was the element added to music that first came in the form of voice. While there may have been vocalizations that had meaning, it is also just as likely the vocalizations were as much for their sound as for the their meaning, because sound has its own meaning.

Since before humans could write, before we were collecting and preserving our stories, there was song --melody and rhythm. In the last hundred years we have tried to expand our understanding of music, analyze it, categorize it. We have created whole new genres and words to express them, but this doesn't make these new noises music, not if it doesn't somehow connect with that initial primal element of passion.

Composers, if you are going to write music, make sure the music has something to say --it is in some way adding to the world and the collective meaning of our species. Performers, if you are going to perform, be passionate about it. All the technique in the world won't make what you perform music well unless you feel something when you're performing. I do not care how intellectual you are. Whether you are a composer or a performer, if you have no passion in your music you are no more use to me than the rock on which I stub my toe.


Jess said…
I wish this mentality were more wide-spread in the classical world. There are reasons that the genre is a minority, that it's not categorized as popular music (using the literal definition of popular), and I think the focus on intellectuality rather than emotion is a major factor.

It's interesting how often I'm considered hypercritical of performances for being too technical and not passionate enough. Sometimes I feel sorry for the composers because a performance leaves me thinking, "Well, that was nice. Next please."
Maybe classical performers focus so much on technique because the industry is so incredibly competitive that they feel they have to be technically perfect rather than be a storyteller. I think that's what performers are on a very basic level. Maybe it's just the story of one texture, or of the joy the performer feels in performing, but they're all stories.
Chip Michael said…
Tomorrow there is a post coming about the "me" generation and what that means to classical music. The more our society grows into a "me first" model, the more getting noticed will have less to do with quality and more to do with getting your name/face in the public eye.

Performers who can "tell a story" will be more entertaining and thereby more popular. If classical musicians can't do this, they will never get noticed, regardless of the quality.

Thanks for the comment
Anonymous said…
This post made me weep - particularly the last paragraph. I have been a performing musician for most of my life and am of an age where it has become clear that as a performer,and from my earliest years, I have instinctively chosen, at times, to sacrifice technical perfection in order to allow the passion of the music to flow through me to the audience; to have them experience the beauty of the sound as best I can. That passion has not always necessarily been valued; the primarily technically proficient win out every time! I weep further because audiences have been carefully schooled to listen, and to listen CRITICALLY, for that technical perfection but know very little about the usual absence of underlying passion. When the spark of passion IS there it is magical! Ultimately, in order to survive as artists, we practice and practice in the hopes of achieving that technical perfection so that maybe the audience will have a chance to have a precious moment with their souls. What joy is there in making music if you DON'T have the passion?
Chip Michael said…
Anonymous -

I hope you take a moment to visit my website where some of my own compositions can be heard - particularly my most recent, Flute Toys. I am putting a great deal of passion into these works and, while the recordings are midi realizations (so lacking the human element), I think they still capture the need for soul, while also providing players something technical to enjoy.

For me, I don't expect every note to be played perfectly, but rather the line of the music to come clear.

Thanks for your comment!
Andy said…
Well said post. And I appreciate what your commenter Jess said about music telling a story. I don't play piano the best, but I'm always trying to tell a story or convey an emotion. After all, music is language.

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