Friday, June 25, 2004


It was clear within a few measures that the piece's title referred not only to the instrument for which it was written, but to the dynamic in which it was to be played: soft. And also, by extension, to the substance -- the topic, the agenda, the motive -- of the music, a long piano piece by the contemporary American composer Morton Feldman. The piece was about softness. A specific type of softness: audible softness. Which is a matter solely of dynamic, not of precision. Of quietness, not yielding, blurry texture.

So immediately the subtext of the piece (a subtext common to all pieces, of course) became evident: listen. It was a bodily imperative. It pulled me, the listener, bodily, toward, into, the music. The better, as the tale goes, to hear it with, my dears. It called my ears themselves into question. Those fleshy sound cones and their little whinging diaphragms, their jiggling ossicular chain, the chambered nautilus of the cochlea, the ionic fluxing nerve strings, the big dark brain and all its dark little drawers. It ordered the body: sit still, lest your creaks and rustlings overwhelm the music.

It was a new piece to me. And, as difficult contemporary music, lacked the predictable gestures and pathways of baroque or classical pieces or popular songs. Listen to enough baroque music, and you can predict where it will be a few measures hence. Anticipatory hearing. Listen to a familiar piece, and the brain hums along, anticipating its every move, trumping it, racing it to the resolution. It's comfortable and comforting, like an old friend's face that one doesn't really see anymore. But the Feldman piece was a difficult stranger, and, unschooled in any musical vocabulary that would help me talk to myself about it -- this is a sonata, this is a fugue -- I was at sea.

Which was a good place to be. The piece was setting the body up to listen as carefully as possible. Demanding it. So I took some breaths and let go of thoughts much as one does while doing sitting meditation and directed my attention to the sound. Of course, the listener was there, too, most of the time, like the thinker in sitting practice. But it was keeping a low profile -- more nagging, than, say, the thought "these seats are really hard," but low enough.

Along with being soft, the piece was slow, with lots of sostenuto. Chordal rather than contrapuntal. So slow that the very onset of the sound of each chord broke open and revealed itself as a complex event -- hammer on and off string, vibration. Which led backward to key, finger, arm, brain-eye-ear: the pianist. The signs on the page before her. Thence to the composer, and his ear and mind and hand and musical experience.

So chord followed chord, slowly, softly, complex, shifting, dissonant. Into the body. Within the body. For brief moments there was simply the music. Sound and time. The sound now. The sound just past -- echoing, resonant, in memory. And pure receptivity and emptiness.

Then suddenly, deep into the piece, a crashing chord: forte. A hundred bodies startled. A hundred adrenal glands squirted out little jets of adrenalin. A hundred hearts went from andante to allegro. The chord decayed -- loud faded to soft -- and, even within it, the stately succession of slow, soft chords continued.

It was an amazing moment in an amazing piece.

It was a piece about listening. About attention. About the nature of sound, and the nature of hearing. In the same way that abstract expressionist art is about the nature of color, line, and their interactions. One can write about it, sure, but mainly it's between the sound and the ear, the canvas and the eye.

And it struck me, later, that this was a quasi eucharistic experience, a communion. The audience was one body, one ear, united in the aural body of the music. The pianist -- the marvelous Ursula Oppens -- was the priest who caused the transubstantiation of sign into living sound.

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