Last Sunday, during his organ recital at Davies Symphony Hall, Paul Jacobs offered a few remarks on performing an entire concert without having the music in front of him. Notwithstanding the question of just where one would put a music stand on such an enormous console, Jacobs discussed the overall difficulty of the repertoire for modern instruments. The Elgar sonata, which he had just performed, required four manuals plus pedals and intricate requirements for stop changes. Jacobs’ point was that being reminded what the notes were was a relatively small part of the story. Learning to play that sonata was as much a matter of how a ballet dancer would learn a role as it was an analogy of how a pianist learns a new work.
For Jacobs learning a performance was thus a synthesis of musical memory with muscle memory. While, on my national site, I have tried to investigate the extent to which any performance of music is a “whole body” activity, Jacobs’ point was that, where the modern organ is concerned, a learning process that does not involve the whole body is all but impossible. Jacobs then explored the somewhat unpleasant corollary that, when an organist tours (as he does), (s)he must allow time for the body to “learn new instruments,” since each organ has its own unique physical layout of both manuals and stop controls.
This experience provided an enlightening preface to an experience last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This time the occasion was a Guitar Master Class taught by Zoran Dukić, who will be giving his San Francisco Performances Guitar Series recital tonight at the Conservatory. The guitar is a far cry from the modern pipe organ; but what struck me about Dukić, in his coaching the first movement of a sonata by Antonio José, was how much of his attention involved accounting for sonorities on a note-by-note basis. Since each of those sonorities is a product of a specific physical approach to making a string vibrate, this meant that both the physics and the physical execution of sound production played a key role in making sense of the logical and grammatical disposition of the notes on the score pages.
What this means is that, if making the sound itself is so critical to an effective performance, that the guitar is as much a “whole body” instrument as is the pipe organ (not to mention everything in between). We often do not know what to make of what we see when we observe musicians performing. Sometimes we dismiss the whole affair as a string of mannerisms; or, at the other extreme, we marvel at what appears to be the stoic serenity of the performer. Either way we are distracted from the critical role that the “whole body” plays, not just in manipulating the instrument but in realizing the underlying logic of the music itself. (In Dukić’s case phrases that initially sounded incoherent when executed by the student acquired clarity as Dukić demonstrated how his note-by-note approach to touch would enhance their expression.) This provides yet another reason for why even the best audio recording can never give a fully satisfactory account of a performance.
So, the next time you are sitting in a concert hall wondering what to look at, try looking at one of the performers to see just how his/her body is engaged in producing the sounds you hear; you may discover that getting to know the performance can be as delightful as getting to know the music.