Fortissimo in Space


In space, both nebulas and Death Stars explode with such light and fury that it is awe-inspiring.  And the explosion is deafening.  Except…there is no sound in space.  Take away the sound, and to us earthlings the effect, while still impressive, has less impact.  But while we accept this as a scientific fact, we equally accept the fantasy on film and in our imagination because it enhances the experience.  It makes the story even better.   Imagination can trump facts, especially in Dolby Surround Sound.

For music, this brings to mind the Zen koan about a tree falling in the forest.  Does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it?  Or, more lightly, if no one hears the scale being practiced, is it really being practiced?  (That one’s for you, dear students).  Sound indeed is a physical phenomenon, but sound without meaning may as well not exist.  The perception of sound and music require the attention of the mind and the imagination.  And a musician’s imagination involves stretching reality.

My viola teachers always encouraged me to think about the sound before producing it.  This was done in a variety of ways and involved standard techniques of bow control, intonation, vibrato, etc.  Play.  Listen.  Evaluate.  Repeat.  (I wash my hair in a similar fashion).  Actually, this is an important aspect of being a musician.  I am certainly not knocking the value of a solid technical foundation, and I obviously prefer an orchestra with those well-developed tools.  But tools alone can fall far short of potential.  Alone and without imagination, pure technique, while impressive,  is dry and lifeless.  While craft can be appreciated, imagination is where artistry dwells.

The breakthrough for me came while studying with two imaginative teachers at the University of Iowa during my Masters degree.  William Preucil, Sr., my viola teacher, would often encourage with metaphors such as:  “play it like a waterfall,” or, “roll the chord like the whip of a saw blade.”   James Dixon, my conductor and conducting teacher, would tell the entire orchestra to imagine the sound before we played a note.  I remember one vivid Bruckner rehearsal where he told us string players: “The tremolo is already sounding.  You just haven’t joined in yet.  So, don’t be the first, and don’t be the last.”    Once we got over the stress of that last statement, the effect was magical!

Every musical sound we make involves the imagination.  Yes, there is the technical preparation required to make the physical sound, the transference of energy.  But for successful communicators, there is also a preparation in the imagination, as if the sound already exists.  The two work in tandem to produce music.  Music, not mere physical sound.  Music as perceived by the listener: you, me, all of us.

So, when my orchestra plays that fortissimo in outer space, it will be a tremendous, thunderous roar, with a long diminuendo into silence.  I can’t wait for the to give that upbeat—at least in my imagination!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin


2 thoughts on “Fortissimo in Space

  1. Great post! Am so excited to find someone else linking music and outer space. 🙂 I like how you describe the ‘preparation in the imagination’ that is so essential to musical performance. I struggled with this when learning a Vivaldi cello sonata last year. I had to focus my mind to truly ‘hear’ the first note of the haunting slow movement before I played it, so it would seem like it had always been there. I look forward to reading further posts.

    • Thanks! I find that often when we struggle with the notes, it helps to imagine the sound. I find it works just as effectively when you are away from the instrument, which as a conductor, I am most of the time while reading a score!

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