Hanging by a Thread


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


4 thoughts on “Hanging by a Thread

  1. Hi Robert,

    I like the notion of the thread in music. Perhaps you might not agree that the time notion could be put in this manner: there is actually not such thing as time in music? So whether music is always in the present, future or past, time could be considered irrelevant…..if….. it does not exist. Which, of course, it doesn’t. And therein lies one of the many beauties of music.
    And, as far as “reality” is concerned, the only contact we actually have with reality is indeed through the imagination, call it intuition if you will. There’s a lot to be discussed there!

    Great blog. Keep writing!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Geraldine. I definitely think that time does exist in music. It’s one way I make my living after all–beating time! This is one of the great paradoxes about music (and life, too, in my opinion). I think one of the problems is that we think of it as a one-way street. And while I can only beat time in “one direction,” we, the orchestra, can perform music that reflects and moves in multiple dimensions. This is where the possibilities of a “moving performance” may reside.
    As to the thread idea, I think it is a very valuable metaphor and certainly one element that defines “tradition” in music, religion, politics–you name it. But my point is that we sometimes only pay attention to that one thread and miss a lot of valuable possibilities in the process of venerating and worshiping our traditions. That’s where we get stagnant and pedantic. A valid criticism of our classical music tradition at times.

  3. Thanks for your reply Robert. But, what we believe we are engagingi in (in music) is time (amongst other small matters!). Time, however, is something that the intellect has created. There is no point in going into the matter here: it would take too long, but suffice it to say that reality is something that exists beyond time and space. Time and space being (and philosophers down through the ages have written about this in a much more interesting manner than I could ever do!) merely something our limited intellect has created. Music, and I am convinced of it as a musician, takes us beyond this time and space to the real world and it does this, precisely through its ability to elide, avoid, or “confuse”,( it’s a difficult choice of words) the NOTION of time. It is this that brings us the joy and happines that music does as we listen to it. It takes us OUT of time and space, into the real world where we truly belong.. No point in writing a dissertation here!!
    But it’s not only philosophy that speaks of the non-existence of time and space. Einstein had his own concerns about it. Anyway, Robert, keep writing. It’s a great blog. Thanks.

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