Last week I spent quite a few words on my attempts to understand a piece of music that I was playing in church. Your take away on all that could have been a) I think too much, or b) I struggle with musical issues just like you do. I'd prefer B, though I have always been aware that people don't have patience for lengthy discussions of what appear to them to be minor points. On top of all that, I never actually posted a recording of the piece itself which I had promised! So here it is.
[listen to Flowing Water by an unknown Chinese composer]
It is, I think, very beautiful, and you might be wondering what all the fuss was about. I had mentioned that I didn't feel like the piece cohered very well in some places. Given that many people don't listen for the connection between musical moments, only things like the beauty of the sound and the interest an idea has for them at that very moment, a number of you wouldn't have shared my apprehension. But I found it worth the discussion. And, I should report, that part of the reason you might feel reasonably satisfied with the piece's construction is that I figured things out. During the recording session, on the third and last take, I felt as I was playing a passage on the last page that bothered me the most, that my ears had finally understood how to play it so that it made sense. In essence, the first phrase and the second phrase had to be understood as near repetitions of one another with richer harmonies on the end of the second phrase. (the section starts at 4:10) For some reason, probably in all the details, I hadn't heard it before, and the harmonies, while interesting in and of themselves, (with a kind of Lisztian revelation) stuck out too much. But when my ears found their focus, the harmonies seemed to rhyme with the ones that came before. And I didn't need to suspend my assumptions about harmonic progressions, either.
I'll give you an example of what I mean. Suppose we are listening to a baseball game. The score was 5 to 2 with the home team winning. Now the visiting team scores a run. The score is now 5 to 3, and the announcer, to my mind, should emphasize the 3 because that is how the score has changed. Sometimes an announcer puts the emphasis on the 5 and it bugs me because the 5 is the thing that is still the same and it is not important. A person just walking into the room assumes that the home team has just scored and that a moment ago it was 4 to 3 or something like that. Or suppose you are reading this blog aloud. Halfway through the last paragraph, I began a sentence "...I should report, that part of the reason..." and if, because of the comma, perhaps, you emphasized the world THAT instead of the word PART, you would be temporarily confused about the sense of what I wrote. That's what I mean. A good pianist has to parse the musical contents in a way that cannot be accounted for by simply following the expression and tempo marks on the page anymore than I can (or would want to) tell you exactly how to read this text.
I've written about this before. What made it interesting this time around was that I was dealing with music from a very different culture. People naturally tend to assume that when they don't understand something it is the fault of the material, not themselves, but I was considering whether the impasse was the result of cultural considerations I would not be able to grasp with my intractably Western ears, or simply because I hadn't understood the piece yet, or if the composer was at fault. I turned out that the bulk of the issue resolved itself given enough time and play-throughs to hear that structure. There is still one place where the composer tried to do something really ambitious, namely modulate through about three keys in the same downward run (1:40-1:154) and I don't think that really works and I'm blaming that on the composer. But otherwise, the music and I seem to understand each other.
The larger issue, however, is the most important. It is easy for someone to claim that "the world is my parish" or to sing "the world to Christ we bring" and assume that what that means is that the rest of the world needs what we're selling, culturally, spiritual, economically, technologically, linguistically, and every other way you can think of and that we have nothing to learn from them. It is easy to remain mired in our little bit of the woods, doing the same old same old, and thinking that's the way it is and the way it ought to be--for everybody else, too. It is harder to engage with the unfamiliar and to try to understand it, which is one good reason that I try to choose music that reflects a broad range of times and places.
I've mentioned before that I come across a lot of vitriol about professional musicians in the church--often complaints that they are just snobby know-it-alls with oversized egos and that things would be a lot better if amateurs where running things. One of the best reasons I can think of for having a "so-called expert" in the church, besides the observation that things usually run more smoothly if there is someone who really knows what they are doing at the keyboard, is that sometimes that "so-called expert," with his or her broad knowledge of music and practices, is the only one keeping the congregation from singing the same favorite five hymns every Sunday. It is not easy to do battle with natural human prejudice and practices of exclusion. But this is one way to try--a little bit of understanding at a time.