Imagine for a moment a thread stretching from the past; a link to some bygone time as you begin to play a piece of music. Perhaps it is spirit of J. S. Bach, hovering above and guiding your fingers as you play a suite. Now imagine a thread going FORWARD from you into the future. Linking your performance with musicians of the future, choices of audiences, decisions of publishers, concerts of tomorrow. Both scenarios are pure fantasy, of course. But they also have a very real place in our artistic tradition, especially the world of classical music. Our imaginations are a powerful thing. Imagination can create reality.
The moment a composer completes a piece of music it is already locked in the past. This applies for a piece composed 250 years ago or one where the ink is still drying. The premiere performance is still in the future, and it can only occur in the present. At that premiere, each note sounds and then is quickly relegated to the past. Each passing movement is a memory, only remembered through the ingenuity of the composer and the skill of the performer.
When we approach a piece of music we are re-creating the composer’s intentions. But we are also creating it for that particular moment. While we study, refer, and compare, nothing we actually do exists in the past. We practice and plan in the present. That future big concert can only happen in the present; it’s particular present. The act of performing is a wholly present experience.
This is the problem of linear thinking in music. We are apt to think of ourselves as part of some great family tree, emanating from a musical source and branching out to infinity. Certainly there are influences, innovators and teachers. It is a great way to look at our tradition and offers much for our learning. But it can also cause us to only see what someone else has told us. This merely points to what we have been exposed to. We have to be willing to jump from branch to branch. We have to sometimes risk jumping to another tree entirely. (Or maybe there are no trees…)
The great composers have won the test of time. They rightfully hold a place of success, craftsmanship and veneration. Will their music stand for centuries? Will we be playing their music in 500 years? Perhaps. I tend to think so, but that is not my concern. My concern is more about performing their music now, today, because it speaks to me. And that is so powerful a feeling that I simply must share it with an audience.
Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin