By Jeremy Geffen
It had already been a long few days of listening to pianists at a competition I recently adjudicated. Not that the performances were by any means lackluster—to the contrary, they were at an extremely high level—but the degree of concentration required of both competitor and juror can quickly lead to aural fatigue. So when I noticed that the program of the next pianist would finish with both books of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini—an unquestionably masterful work to which I had never warmed—I began unenthusiastically leafing through the score, puzzling at the dizzying hurdles that comprise each book of variations. I found myself thinking that one book of the piece would be more than enough for me.
When the performance began, however, something changed. The pianist’s assimilation of the material was so complete and his sonic imagination so bold that for the first time I did not feel bludgeoned by relentless virtuosity—I was able to experience the work as an organic catalogue of aural invention. As I followed the score, I was reminded that the series of (many) dots and lines before my eyes was not the music itself; as others have written before, it was merely a blueprint of the piece that comes to life only in sound—that music only exists in live performance, that it is a living organism that may continue to vibrate in the memory but otherwise ends the moment the final note dies away.
Having spent a number of years as a violist thinking about how I wanted to use my body to shape the sound I wanted, I did not connect that it is how sound interacts with other human bodies that defines the way a performance is received—that listening to a performance is more than just hearing it. Though the aural experience is an elemental part of listening, it is only part of a full-body experience. The more I listen, the more aware I become that listening is not restricted to the ears alone—the way a powerful brass chorale pushes my torso against the fabric of my seat, the way a deep bass line finds its way from the floor up through the soles of my feet, the way a particular suspension brings tears to my eyes, the way the most quietly intense passages make me simultaneously lean forward into them and feel the beat of my heart. Taking in a live performance is a contact sport, and, despite how passive one may feel, it actively stimulates all the senses.
“The performance of music is the creation of an illusion.”
The performance of music is the creation of an illusion. So many mechanical actions need to take place in order to produce a single note, and so many more are required to ensure that each note connects to those that precede and follow it, much less those that are simultaneously sounded by other instruments: how a phrase, a texture, feels weightless or heavy; that the phrases created match those around them to produce either continuity or intended disruption; that music is present even in the absence of sound; that pauses are either charged with tension or moments of serenity. All of this contributes to the construction of a narrative, either literal or abstract—that we are witnesses to a story telling itself for the first time, no matter how familiar audience or performer may feel they are with a piece. The reality of music is that in its best moments it feels as if it is creating itself before the listener.
When I recently heard a particularly magical performance of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5, each sound so spontaneously flowed into the next with such unforced motion that it conjured a mental image of molten lava meeting the sea, transforming in color and intensity, shape and speed, temperature and power. So vivid was that performance—as are many of the greatest performances—that I thought of it in visual terms, and yet it had been the product of thread being drawn across string, columns of air vibrating in tunnels of wood or metal, and other controlled interactions between mundane objects.
I have read others define music as the controlled movement of sound through time, yet the reality is that what one considers to be music is as enigmatic as it is personal. What leaves us cold today may touch us tomorrow, such as Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini in that performance early last September. What I took away from that moment is that great music-making can often occur when you least expect it and in a guise that is as surprising as it is inspiring. But in order for you to recognize it, you must be open to the possibility—and be present in both body and spirit.