In his novel Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel refers to words as “…cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field.” I believe that this metaphor, while unflattering, describes my experience with music quite accurately. There are plenty of quotes out there about how music is the soul of the universe — Plato — or how the Big Bang was really a “Big Chord” — Terry Pratchett. For people from every time, place, and culture music has always served as a link to the cosmos, to the eternal both inside and outside of ourselves. Faced with this, musical notes really do feel as an inadequate way of expressing something so astonishing — they are like cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field.
We deal with it constantly and for many musicians, including myself, it is a constant source of frustration that the notes we play are nowhere close to the music we feel and imagine. I suppose that for some composers this must have been torture. This isn’t frustrating only for performers; the hardest thing for me as a teacher is to give that enthusiasm to a student, that sense of awe about the works we play.
We should be grateful for our notes though, those sounds we coax out of our instruments are really all we have. They’re our connection to the universe and, while the sound that results may seem ridiculously small compared to that, music isn’t really in the sounds that we make by blowing, hammering, scratching and making stuff vibrate. It resides in our imaginations, in our intentions when we play and in our reactions when we listen. Let’s try then to perform our musical notes with joy but to always go beyond them, lest we find that our notes are as cold, muddy toads croaking along with nothing to say.
All of a sudden I get the urge to play a specific piece in recital. I may have practically no time for it — having to balance family, teaching, and learning the repertoire that I’m actually getting payed to play — but it’s an urge that is very hard to resist. There’s a hole inside of me that needs to be filled by what that particular piece of music is saying. Like a blank space on the wall that is urging you to paint it, or cover it up with something. Most of the time, just sitting down in private and mucking around with the music is not enough; the urge to play it for an audience is overwhelming.
I think that this need is what is behind art, a need to fill up holes within ourselves. At some point the composer also felt that urge to fill his own void with sound. That’s the closest I can come to explain how it feels; there may be no practical reason to play that recital, but there is something within that needs attention, a hole that may be making everything else come out of balance. The best part of the whole experience comes afterward, once you are playing and someone in the audience finds that what you are playing also fills a similar hole of their own. That is probably the greatest thing I can get out of a recital, not having it be “beautiful” or “well-played” but having it be something that helps fill a hole in my soul and does the same for someone else.
For one of this year’s concert engagements, I will be playing Mozart’s 21st piano concerto. This piece has a very personal meaning for me. It’s one of the reasons I ultimately fell in love with the piano and with music. This will be the first time I play this concerto with an orchestra and I am very excited.
One of my earliest musical memories is of me and my brother as toddlers dancing around while our father played a record of this concerto with Alicia de Larrocha. There were words that we would sing along to the second theme of the concerto about how “all the good little kittens were off to their beds,” (in Spanish: todos los gatitos ya nos vamos a dormir…) and when the trumpets played that little descending third that begins the theme before the coda, we would sing along: “Meaaaa-ow! Meaaaa-ow!” Now I get to practice this concerto while my baby watches from the playpen (not too long, I don’t want him getting too bored,) jumps around on his stationary jumper (louder, because that jumper is pretty noisy,) sleeps in his crib (sempre una corda e molto pianissimo,) or with him on my lap (one hand at a time and with him “playing along” with his fists — a lot of fun by the way.) I am truly blessed.
The Mozart concertos that I have played before — 9, 11 and 12 — all had original cadenzas by the composer. Since this one doesn’t, I decided to try my hand at improvising the cadenza. I am not sufficiently skilled at improvising to go out on stage and invent something completely from scratch. Instead, I decided to set up a sort of framework that I could follow, working out beforehand certain chord progressions and themes that I’d like to play along the way, but leaving enough room for spontaneity. For example, in a certain spot I could know that I want to go from C major to E minor using a certain chord progression; whether I do it playing arpeggios from the development section, or scales in broken octaves, or a sequence made out of one of the themes is up to whatever I’m feeling at the moment.
My first attempt at a cadenza went something like this: Go down along the keyboard from the I6/4 chord until I reach the bottom G. After that, I would make some sort of sequence using the second theme while modulating to E minor and then come back to G major. Play something based on the “Meaow” theme and then hit the trill and give the orchestra their cue. Quick and simple with little parts of my favorite themes from the first movement. After a while, I noticed that the beginning of the development section would be a nice way to start the cadenza, maybe changing it to major instead of the original minor key, so I added that. Then, while practicing the development, I noticed that I could cross my left hand over while playing the descending E minor arpeggios and play the “Meaow” theme over and under it, so I added that too. Every time I practiced it I would add a little more, never noticing what my cadenza was turning into.
After a month of working on the concerto, I asked my wife to listen to the cadenza. I was really quite clever: I combined themes with one another, played them in unexpected harmonies, and quoted little snippets from the orchestral part of the concerto. I showed off my broken octaves and sixths and all sorts of cool harmonic tricks I’d picked up from different parts of the concerto (especially that amazing variant on a simple progression along the circle of fifths that is right after the second theme.) So, when I was done, what did she say?
– “I liked that last part.”
– “Which part?”
– “The one where you play a scale down and then you go up again and do a trill. You should get rid of the rest.”
She was right, of course; my cadenza was a convoluted Frankenstein’s monster. Self-editing has been pretty painful now. Each section I’ve had to cut since then feels like a jab at my own ego. I think I’ve got it down to something workable now — start with the little theme the woodwinds play three times before the piano’s entrance, doing a little variation each time; then some sort of variation on the opening passage of the concerto while going up to the dominant; play one of the themes (probably the second one) on the dominant in a more risoluto character to lead into the final trill. Every time I play it I have to resist the temptation to tack on more unnecesary stuff to it again.
I have trouble with self-editing. I tend to overplay when things should be simple and transparent; I use variation when things should just repeat. I do it when I write, not knowing when to stop a sentence. I did it when I tried my hand at composition (I was a composition student before switching to the piano.)
I had this problem in my short stint as a jazz pianist in my high-school’s junior jazz band (I didn’t make the cut for the big jazz band, I was a trumpet player at the time.) There was a piano solo for me in a Count Basie standard. Each time we played it I added something new to it and, by the time we showed up to the regional competitions, it was a convoluted mess of octaves and broken arpeggios (the only technical difficulties that I could reliably do without messing them up too badly.) Back then, one of the judges from the competition wrote on his advice slip: “The pianist is way too busy, this song should be laid-back.” Apparently I haven’t learned anything since then.