Tchaikovsky’s Ghost and Mr. Muir

John_Muir_c1902“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” ~ Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I’m finishing up two incredible weeks, conducting both of Tchaikovsky’s final symphonies with different orchestras. That, along with the other repertoire for those concerts and a myriad of other programs and preparations for what lies ahead, results in a lot of music floating around in my head. It’s rather amazing that musicians can keep it all on track and prevent a musical train wreck. (Lookout! There’s a lost bass player on the tracks ahead!) Best not to think of the possible carnage.

Curious onlookers often ask how conductors learn their music, a process commonly called score study. It’s one of those types of questions where if you ask 10 conductors, you get 10 different answers. There are certainly methods and procedures, but no amount of methodology will help you truly understand the music without using the imagination. Imaginative description is the important link that moves us from form to meaning. Imaginative description is actually a combination of both the rational and creative sides of the mind in order to discover what the composer intended (what is really there), and to be able to describe it both through words and in a musical performance. Put another way, the nuts and bolts of music need to be seen through a lens of possibility. Only then can we have an informed yet creative interpretation.

It may be at first surprising as to who I emulate when studying orchestral scores. It’s not a music theorist, conductor, composer, or musicologist, although I certainly read and learn from my esteemed music colleagues. Actually, my model for score study is not a musician at all, but the 19th century American naturalist, explorer and writer, John Muir. His descriptions of nature, places and people point to spiritual insights and profound realizations. Muir both sees and describes the world in ways I hope replicate in studying music. Here is a sample of Muir’s writing that illustrates the concept:

“Some portions of the wood were almost impenetrable, but in general we found no difficulty in mazing comfortably on over fallen logs and under the spreading boughs, while here and there we came to an opening sufficiently spacious for standpoints, where the trees around their margins might be seen from top to bottom. The winter sunshine streamed through the clustered spires, glinting and breaking into a fine dust of spangles on the spiky leaves and beads of amber gum, and bringing out the reds and grays and yellows of the lichened boles which had been freshened by the late storm; while the tip of every spire looking up through the shadows was dipped in deepest blue. The ground was strewn with burs and needles and fallen trees; and, down in the dells, on the north side of the dome, where strips of aspen are imbedded in the spruces, every breeze sent the ripe leaves flying, some lodging in the spruce boughs, making them bloom again, while the fresh snow beneath looked like a fine painting.”  ~ John Muir

Notice the word, “mazing.” I love this concept of winding and twisting through musical study, turning on motives, dynamics and articulations to reveal deeper insights, new perspectives, and previously hidden questions. “To maze” in music is to journey through a musical score seeing the forest through the trees and the trees through forest. Musical notes are the trees. Entire compositions, the forests.

“Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life,

every fiber thrilling like harp strings.” ~John Muir

Viewed from this perspective, each note can be seen with endless possibilities and eventualities. Musical notes for the musicians are as raindrops were to Muir, again described beautifully in this poignant quote:

“Raindrops blossom brilliantly in the rainbow, and change to flowers in the sod, but snow comes in full flower direct from the dark, frozen sky.”

Muir may be known today for his more universal statements, insights and inspirations. However all of these big picture statements are informed by his unique way of paying attention to the details and then describing them with poetic brilliance. His descriptions of nature inspire us to look deeper ourselves, challenging us to prove Muir’s assertion: “The power of imagination makes us infinite.”

His method also works for music. The power of imagination also reveals Tchaikovsky, in all his potentialities.

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir#/media/File:John_Muir_c1902.jpg

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