The other day I was at a social event with young professional musicians and many of the conversations came back to music. At one point we were discussing music notation in the baroque, the classical and later periods, and in jazz.
The general agreement was that the more precise the notation, the less freedom the player has, which makes the direct access to the musical energy more difficult.
One person said that actually, it is impossible to write down music. This sentence remained with me and I have been turning it over in my head. Here is what I came up with:
Music is an energetic flow of ideas of sound. When we play or sing these ideas, they can be heard, but they don't only exist then. Music lives before the sound appears and it continues to echo in us after the sound has ceased. If you have ever had a tune circling around in your head but were in a situation where you couldn't hum or whistle it (in class, at a ceremony, etc) you will agree that music can exist without being physically heard.
A composer will capture this stream of ideas and write it down as little black dots. This is like a code that has to be deciphered. These dots are not the music, they are a key that can open the door back to what the composer experienced.
When players see this code, they are searching for the way back into this wonderful stream of energy. Written music (the dots) is like the footprints of the actual music, hinting at the direction for those who would like to follow.
Footprints are only the footprints
However, this code could become a trap. You could look at the footprints and think that is all there is to it. You may think that if you step inside them they will take you along. But if you stick to the footprints you will stay on the ground, bound to every little turn or gesture the footprints are pointing at, getting more and more entangled in the details and forgetting that the footprints are only the leftovers of the real thing. Maybe the footprints are of a wonderful bird that touched down to the ground every so often but who's true glory was when it sailed through the sky?
How free is the interpreter?
One of the permanent dilemmas musicians experience is how much freedom they can allow themselves when playing music composed by others. Does the composer always have the last say? May the written music be taken as a starting point and be developed by others? If the composers were still around nowadays, would they want their pieces to always be performed exactly the same way or would they have encouraged more freedom with the text?
In any case, playing without the little black dots before your eyes makes it easier to connect to the music itself, so as a starting point it is good to memorize the music and let it sink deeper into your system. You may feel the urge to play around with the composition and experiment with different ways of playing it, then go back and play it exactly as it is notated. The active search for the best way to decode the notation will help both yourself and your listeners to click into the stream of sound energy called music.
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