On Teaching

June 29, 2020

Stories and conversation

In mid-March, when I last sat down to write a column, the current health crisis was at a relatively early and very uncertain stage. I wrote that I hoped that by the time that column appeared in The Diapason things would be much better. I sit here writing now a week or two after that last column appeared, and this one will not be read for nearly another six weeks. It seems accurate to say that the situation remains dire and that the sense of uncertainty remains as high as it was then. While society is slowly starting to reopen, we will not know the effects of this action for quite some time. This very morning there are hopeful headlines about a vaccine, but we have no idea whether that hope will pan out or, if so, what sort of timeframe this will take.

I still cannot consider it prudent to schedule concerts. I wrote in my March column (written in mid-January) that I did not have any concerts scheduled at all, a first in nearly thirty-five years. I stated that that was “odd: simultaneously peaceful and eerie.” Today it feels more eerie than peaceful: the latter has been partially replaced by impatience and the fear that it will never seem right to schedule events. Looking back, as of a couple of weeks ago I have not played in public for over a year. That arises out of a chain of mostly unrelated circumstances: first I kept my schedule clear for several months so that I could practice for planned performances of J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue; then I had to deal with my shoulder surgery and recovery; then the current phase in the history of the world set in. The last time that I went more than a year without playing in public was prior to 1980. 

Over the last several weeks there has been a lot of discussion, much of it deeply anguished, about choirs and choral singing. This does not affect me directly at this point in my life except as a listener, though I know it is deeply affecting many of my friends and colleagues. In fact, it may be two years before widespread choral singing will be possible again. I hope very much that by the time you are reading this that hypothesis will have turned out to be overly pessimistic.

There is a lot of variation in how people react to this uncertainty when it comes to the parts of their lives and daily activities that are subject to discretion. Some colleagues are using their extra free time to learn new music or new skills—the technique required to work on new and unfamiliar repertoire or even a new instrument. Some are taking up new activities or hobbies—perhaps ones that they have always meant to pursue. So far, I have done none of the above. My reaction to the situation has been to put much of my motivation to tackling preexisting projects. I mentioned in my previous column that I needed “to take a deep breath.” At that point, early in this whole scenario, I felt that my students needed that as well, and that it was a good thing for all of us. Shortly after writing that, I did start to offer various forms of remote lessons or consultations to my students. However, I have not felt my own motivation returning, either to plunge back into practicing or to explore anything new. Most of what I have been doing has been “comfort food,” as we have been baking a fair amount of bread and cooking a bit more elaborately.

I am not certain why this is. It may be partly a direct reaction to the sadness and difficulty of what is happening. If so, it is not necessarily entirely a depressive reaction or a reaction of feeling indifferent. I suspect that in the face of so much tragedy right around me I am afraid that I will find the music that I might normally be playing too intense. That has been my reaction to the little bits of playing that I have done and also to much of the music that I have heard. Also, I have always had better practice habits when I have performances coming up. That impetus is gone for now. I do feel certain that the motivation will come back. But the main point is this: that any such reaction is okay. I am overjoyed that so many of my colleagues are, for example, posting videos of performances from their homes. That is generous and helpful. I have been an avid viewer and listener, and that is helping me get through certain days. However, I believe it is important that no one feels pressure to cope in ways that are unnatural. In general getting a lot done is more admired in society than not getting anything done. And I am confessing to embracing the latter, though just for now, and claiming that I am within my rights to do so. 

But if it is self-serving, it is not selfish since I hope very much to help persuade everyone to give themselves the same leeway, as much as they need. Doing the things that we have to do is enough as far as fulfilling obligations is concerned. 

At the same time, I have been thinking about counterpoint and The Art of the Fugue. It feels like the odd times in which we live are encouraging me to engage in ever more speculative thinking. Rather than indulging in the technical aspects of counterpoint, I have been pondering more about images and ideas around the concept of counterpoint. Ideally the images and ideas will inform the way that I think about the technicalities. 

One very powerful idea about counterpoint is that it is related to conversation. If two musical entities are engaged with one another, doing different things at the same time, it is natural for us to hear what is happening as analogous to human verbal conversation. This is not an idea of mine, but has been the subject of articles and books as well as informal discussion. It is intuitively convincing. When counterpoint is being produced by separate instruments the conversational aspect is enhanced by the visual and the conceptual: we see and are aware of a different source for each musical line, just as we see and are aware of each different speaker in a conversation. In vocal counterpoint, we see and hear something that is remarkably similar to conversation, down to the humanity of the sources of the sound and the expressions and gestures. At a keyboard instrument the conversational aspect is something that presumably arises solely from the sound. Visually, and often spatially, everything comes from pretty much the same place. The extent to which it is up to the performer and to performance choices to make the conversational aspect of the music convincing is not necessarily very different from the parallel concerns with ensemble counterpoint.

For the performer, one of the great strengths of conceptualizing counterpoint as conversation is that it brings home the need to make each line in and of itself an effective piece of communication—something that has “meaning” though not dictionary or visual-image based meaning. At a minimum this is psychologically helpful, even inspiring, for many performers. For me it serves as a reminder to behave as if every note matters. In conversation every word matters, in that it can be heard by someone and may affect that person. That does not mean that every word is serious, solemn, or weighty. Some are funny, light-hearted, rhetorical rather than meaning-laden. But they are all there and all have an effect.

I have a few caveats about counterpoint as conversation. For one thing, it seems important to me to remember that, as I just mentioned, music in itself does not have dictionary meaning, semantic, idea-based meaning, and that it does not mean anything that can be encapsulated in a visual image. It is liberating and powerful to accept that Example 1 means exactly what it says and nothing else. This freedom from word-like meaning gives a line of music the ability to do things that words cannot do and the flexibility to be used in ways that words are not used. 

Related to that is the first major difference between verbal conversation and musical contrapuntal conversation. In the latter, we not only allow but expect material to be used multiple times. Although the essence of counterpoint is found in two different things happening at the same time, it is habitual for identical or similar things to happen at different times. This can be recurrence, repetition, echoing, answering, returning, and so on. But all of these techniques play a minor role in anything like normal conversation and a limited though sometimes important role in poetry, drama, and literary narrative. They are pervasive and important in music.

In verbal conversation, we do not expect many voices to be sounding at the same time. We expect them to take turns and occasionally overlap, which is fascinating in verbal conversation. Sometimes, it functions to create continuity and an overall arc. At times it is an interruption, which can be a sign of enthusiasm and can constitute rudeness. It is common and normal for interruption to take the form of one person’s finishing another’s thought—not necessarily in the way that the first speaker would have finished it. It is not normal for two or more people simply to talk steadily at the same time as one another for a substantial amount of time. This would cease to be conversation. But it is the norm for musical contrapuntal conversation. 

With words, we do not expect to be able to follow even two let alone three or more lines of thought at the same time. With counterpoint, that is exactly what we expect to do: it is a major concept of the exercise. It is not necessarily easy, and it is not necessarily something at which we always fully succeed. It is almost certainly both common and unproblematic for some of that following to be subconscious or subliminal. People differ in the extent to which they are consciously, specifically aware of following and really parsing the separate lines of counterpoint as it goes by. And, of course, different performances of the same piece or passage can seem to make it easier or harder to follow in that way. (And interestingly different performances can seem different in that respect to different listeners.) I think that it is a pitfall of the counterpoint-as-conversation idea that it can tempt us to try to make the analogy fit even more closely than it naturally does. This might involve downplaying the significance of the simultaneity of lines or even denying that following multiple lines at once is possible. I have heard people suggest that the way we listen to counterpoint should fundamentally involve switching focus from one line to another, as we would presumably have to do if we were trying to listen to two or more people talk at the very same time. 

Questions of how many lines we can listen to simultaneously are complex. Does it vary from one person to another? If so, is that somehow intrinsic—or of life-long standing—or does it arise specifically from music-based training? Can almost everyone follow two voices? Can anyone really follow six? eight? forty? Do people mainly listen to or notice the beginnings of notes, or are the sustained portions of notes important as well? In counterpoint is one line ever more “important” than another, and, if so, what does that mean and what should a performer do about it? Whatever these questions are, I believe it is important not to let the speech analogy influence our answers to them, or how we frame them, more than it should.

Another concern about the conversation analogy is that musical conversational counterpoint is mostly experienced by listeners, whereas verbal conversation is fundamentally experienced by those who participate in it. We who love counterpoint love playing it. It is interesting to contemplate how much we function as listeners while we play and how much of our experience is the pure experience of playing. But the vast majority of music listening is done by listeners. Listening to a spoken conversation in which you have no part happens and is perfectly normal, but not the most usual or common.

The completely different model of counterpoint that has come to interest or even preoccupy me over the last few years is one that is harder to encapsulate in words: counterpoint in music is a model for the whole phenomenon of the existence of the universe. This model was suggested to me by some of my experience as a theater attendee.

Over the last several years I have attended quite a few theater events that are organized in what amounts to contrapuntal layers: different parts of the story going on in different or overlapping spaces, perhaps threads sometimes coming together in one space or passing near one another, sometimes remaining separate. Together they all add up to the complete story. Some such pieces that I have experienced are Sleep No More, Then She Fell, The Grand Paradise, Ghost Light, Here, Seeing You, and versions of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I was initially puzzled by why I found this sort of story-telling so powerful. Events of this sort seem very much like closed worlds: nothing from the outside gets in or interferes. This helps the audience to concentrate and stay committed. It also means that the world built up inside the walls of the event has the chance to feel complete—it is temporarily defined as being all that there is, and it is structured according to its own content.

I realized after a while that the structure always felt, through a number of different styles and each time with a different story, like an analogy to the “real” world: layered and complex enough for that analogy to seem valid and emotionally convincing. 

At some point I realized that the experience of being at this sort of show reminded me strongly of closing my eyes and becoming totally absorbed in a piece of contrapuntal music. In such a piece of music there might be only three or four component lines; in a show such as the ones that I am talking about there might be any number of component storylines weaving their ways around one another. In the universe as a whole there are infinite numbers. But the analogy still seems to hold.

This image neither contradicts nor directly complements the conversation analogy. It is simply another angle and one that I along with some of my students have found particularly interesting and powerful.

It is my intention—uncertainties aside, for the moment—to return next month to some nitty-gritty motivic analysis of The Art of the Fugue, not without some speculation about the role of memory in creating structure.

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