Towards the Unheard Music

[Kickstarter Update: We’re less than $150 away from being fully funded! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to everyone who has backed this project so far! I’m also very pleased to announce that the Facebook event is now live, and it has details about livestreaming if you want to listen to me play but aren’t in the South Pasadena area. If you enjoy the windows I give into the creative process, please consider sending a donation my way — even $5 really does help and truly is appreciated!]

I don’t know how one of the pieces on my recital goes.

I mean, I’ve been working on it. I’ve spent more time with it than with any other piece I’m playing. I’ve looked up new fingerings for it, and recorded myself playing bits of it to send to the composer and the last bassoonist who played it. I have, at this point, a pretty thoro grasp of every minute detail over the course of every measure in the entire ten–minute thing.

But I don’t know how it goes. The larger arc, the interplay of tension and release, the structure and emotional narrative of the work as a whole. I can describe in detail every 2x2 block in this Lego palace, but I haven’t the foggiest where the turrets are.

This is unusual for me this far into the rehearsal process for a concert. Well, that’s not entirely true. This is usually around the time in my rehearsal process where I start turning my attentions away from obsessively practicing the fine–grained technical details of the music I’m playing to these larger, overarching questions. In that regard, this is totally normal. But normally I’m not approaching these questions from scratch. Normally I’ve already had ideas percolating in the background while I’ve been hashing out the technical by dint of having heard recordings of the repertoire I’m dealing with.

There’s a longstanding, low–key conversation in the classical music world about when in the rehearsal process you should start listening to recordings of whatever piece you’re working up, and how closely you should study them. One extreme is to track down a bunch of recordings before you even sight read the score so that you’re familiar with the musical landscape and can focus your technical practice towards specific musical goals. The other is to avoid all recordings so that you can form your own interpretation of the work that isn’t just a pale mimicry of someone else’s take. Most people are somewhere between those two (and may shift around depending on the piece), but I tend to fall towards the “no recordings” end of things — I like to dig into the technical challenges and put the pieces together as I like them, then turn to recordings to suggest solutions to the interpretive details I’m stuck on*.

Of course, it’s seldom that simple. There’s not that much bassoon repertoire, and I have both a voracious appetite for recordings and an extensive network of bassooning friends who play recitals themselves, so even if I avoid listening to recordings of a given piece in the early stages of working on it, chances are pretty good I’ve heard a polished recording or performance of it already, and I think it’s utterly futile to attempt to weed out any trace of that influence from the back of my mind. This piece, tho. This piece is not like that.

There are no recordings of After a Dammit to Hell. I have never heard it performed live. Even the composer doesn’t have an illicit mp3 to pass around. It’s not exactly new — Anne LeBaron wrote it in 1982 — but for various reasons, it hasn’t made the largest splash in the bassoon repertoire, and I’ve known about its existence for less than a year. So I’m on my own with this one. All of the decisions about phrasing and structure have to come from me; I can’t turn to other players’ takes for reference or inspiration.

In some ways, this is incredibly frustrating. It can be hard to find the motivation to commit to sorting out gnarly finger-twisters when you don’t have a clear picture of the larger musical puzzle you’re working towards solving. It’s like being given some menial, repetitive task and being assured that if you just keep at it, one day you’ll understand why you have to. I’m willing to convince myself of that, but it takes more active work than sitting back, putting on a recording, and letting someone else demonstrate the power of the finished piece as a whole. And even when I’ve convinced myself it’s worth it, there are still times where a recording would be helpful as a reference point. Am I feeling this rhythm correctly? Does the multiphonic fingering given in the score make approximately the right multiphonic with my reed/instrument? Are there motivic references woven into the texture in ways my rudimentary analysis has missed? These are all important questions that hearing a recording can help answer quickly, and not having one to listen to means practicing sometimes feels like pounding my head against a particularly unforgiving wall.

In other ways, tho, it’s profoundly freeing. I don’t have to constantly second-guess myself as to whether a particular interpretive decision is something I’m doing because I actually think it’s the best musical choice, or whether I’m just reflexively parroting a recording I know well. There are times where having conventional interpretations to fall back on is a relief, but there are also times where they can be suffocating, where people get locked into a tradition of bad musical choices because it’s The Way That Piece Is Played. With After a Dammit to Hell, I’m free of that. I’m not going to be giving a performance of it, I’m going to be giving my performance of it, in an interpretation that is inevitably and idiosyncratically my own. I can make artistic decisions that feel most compelling to me without having to worry that people will dislike them just because they’re different.

It also feels like a challenge, a test of my musicking abilities. Here are a bunch of notes, take them and make them into music, make them into something that will draw in an audience and hold them for the duration of this journey. Do this with no reference points or guides. You must rely on the musical instincts you have inside of you. That’s not an easy task, and accomplishing it will feel like a triumph.

I don’t want every piece I work on to be like this, but here and now it feels like a much needed shakeup to my concertizing routine. I’ll always fill my life with listening, but it feels good to dig into something I’ve never heard before. I’m looking forward to sharing the results.

*This happened a lot when I was working on the Bach cello suite last year. At one point I made a playlist on Spotify with seventeen different recordings of the thing, and used it to sort out any number of tricky passages. I’m not sure how much I necessarily recommend this strategy. Listening to seventeen versions of the Prélude on loop for several hours is . . . an experience.