Saturday, November 3, 2007

Tools of Engagement

Recently a couple of bloggers have drawn my attention to this video of violinist Julia Fischer and violist Gordon Nikolic recording Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. There are, of course, countless recordings of classical musicians on YouTube by now; for whatever reason, I haven't been that interested, but I did find this video unexpectedly engaging, and understanding what makes music engaging (or not engaging) is a topic that has been engaging me lately.

Now Mozart would seem to be among those composers least in need of a matchmaker, but the truth is that his music, ever polished and elegant, doesn't always grab me the way I think it's supposed to. And I know I'm not alone here. I've been maintaining a class blog for a senior seminar I'm teaching, and a very fine music student recently "confessed" there to finding Mozart boring - and he got some sympathy from classmates. Hey, I've had these thoughts myself, at least with respect to parts of the Köchel catalog, although poor Mozart could hardly have expected that just about everything he wrote would be preserved and played over and over again. In fact, the specific complaint of another student was that she'd heard too many Mozart works too many times.

But, trust me, I haven't come to bury Mozart. Rather, the Fischer/Nikolic video managed, within a few minutes, to make me remember how much I love the Sinfonia Concertante, a piece I hadn't thought about for some time. The fine playing was certainly part of the reason, but I'd say the catalyst for my engagement was seeing the unpretentiously informal and joyful way in which they interacted with each other and Mozart. I'm sure it's a fault of my own that I need these little extra-musical nudges, but I find it easy to hear Mozart as superficial and to forget to tune into the inner life of the music. To some degree, this problem (which can happen with all sorts of music) is just an aspect of living in our over-stimulating world. There's so much to take in all the time, and we're so used to hearing this sort of music as background. It's not surprising that we can find ourselves listening without listening. What I find intriguing is that once the listening gets started, the external catalyst isn't really needed any more. In fact, I ended up paying to download the entire album (sans video), which is a good indicator that record companies are smart to post free videos like this. (You can watch the entire first movement at their website.)

Another recent example of an engaging catalyst came from a student who's preparing to play and conduct Mozart's Piano Concerto in G, K. 453. He's not my piano student, but I was working with him on the program notes, and I asked him how he might describe the "finale of the finale," when a playful set of variations kicks into high presto gear. (Hear here.) He mentioned that the music there reminded him a bit of gospel style - this not only immediately made sense to me, but it unlocked something in the way I heard the music. It's not so much that I believe Mozart was really channeling 20th-century gospel, but I suddenly heard an inelegant, earthy giddiness in the music that I too easily miss in Mozart. (Again, my fault more than his, but still.) I was engaged.

As I've mentioned before, encouraging this kind of engagement is my most important goal in teaching my music appreciation class. To that end, since most of the students in the class are not trained musicians, I've experimented the past few years with having students make their own "creative listening guides" for works of their choosing. The idea is that, although they may not have the theoretical tools to do a technical analysis, they can still develop enough of an affinity for a piece to find their own ways to communicate about what they hear. With these projects, I'm particularly interested in extra-musical connections, so I encourage them to work with narratives, images, video, etc. - whatever analogues to the music they can think of that might help engage another listener. I've gotten back all sorts of terrific projects, including videos, PowerPoints, storyboards, choreographies, puzzles (!), etc. Even some that weren't all that successful have managed to reveal some real engagement on the part of the student.

As it happens, one of my favorite recent projects focused on yet another Mozart concerto movement. (That's three in this post, if you're keeping score.) This case is a little unusual. The student, Yegue Badigue, is a blind pianist from Chad who actually has a recording of himself playing the famous slow movement of Mozart's K. 467 with a local orchestra. For his project, he wrote a charming story that he brought into my office typed up in Braille. While listening to his own recording with headphones, he narrated the story into a mic (in one take!) and I mixed the two together to create this. What I love about the story is its casual, conversational tone. Yes, this is profoundly beautiful music, but listening to Yegue narrate it puts an unexpectedly lighthearted, improvisational spin on the music's familiar rhetoric. I'm not trying to claim that it lets me hear it as Mozart's audience might have, but rather that the newness of the perspective renews my interest in this music.

Of course, this project does relegate Mozart to the background in a way, although there are several amusing tie-ins with specific musical events. What makes it work as a tool of engagement for me is that I can return to the music alone and still find myself hearing it freshly. I've run across other engaging overlays that are a bit too sticky; they don't come off so cleanly. Sigmund Spaeth's ghastly words to the themes of The Great Symphonies are probably the best example. I'm not going to print even one dangerous example here, although you can find perhaps the worst in this comment I made on another blog. I love Phil Ford's response there that Spaeth is a "musical neuroweapon." Suffice it to say that once you've learned Spaeth's lyrics, they will never leave you.

I'm sure there will be some who object that music doesn't need this kind of help, but in our visually-oriented, over-stimulating world, I think there's a lot to be said for letting the power of suggestion help the mind to process music. The more I think about the Joyce Hatto "problem" of reviewers finding her purloined performances more compelling than when attributed to other pianists, the more I think engagement is the main issue. I don't believe the Hatto fans intentionally dropped their standards because of Hatto's dramatic biography, but I do suspect the story flipped an "engagement switch" that just tuned them in more closely. (I suggested much the same thing in a comment here.)

It's hardly a coincidence that the common advantage I find in the Fisher/Nikolic video, the "gospel" analogy, and Yegue's lighthearted story is that they all remind me not to take Mozart too seriously - paradoxically, I end up hearing the music more deeply. You know, that sums up the way Mozart's music works pretty well.

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