Friday, August 19, 2005

Revolutionary relaxation

It was a deep pleasure to spend the evening with two major musical forces based here in Boston. The delicious dinners that they create are famous in the music world. This composer/pianist and his wife, a conductor and former world-class soprano, are the warmest possible creatures. Midnight arrived, and there'd been so much wordplay, so many stories, and such a volley of hilarity-and-profundity, that I left feeling like I'd taken a vacation.

They told us that soon after they'd finished converting their garage into a composition studio, Susan one day discovered a number of curious neighborhood women who had descended upon the composer to find out exactly what he was accomplishing in there. Yehudi fell mischievously into a brash display at the piano, beginning with Chopin's Revolutionary etude, followed by choice bits from the Tempest sonata, and more. The women exhaled in unison, and Susan heard them oohing and aahing. Finally one of them exclaimed, "Oh, that is so relaxing!"

As a classical broadcaster, I realized, while laughing, that I've developed a bristle which happens automatically when I hear the word relax in the context of art music. It has been for some time the talk of the industry (and not only broadcasting, certainly). I've come to believe that it is symptomatic of a problem of vocabulary.

God knows that music, by nature, resists explanation. Like poetry, it works its magic at levels we will never be able to name. But what would cause someone to call the dangerous and unstable blowing, rushing winds and waves of a Chopin etude "relaxing?" I imagine that it must be the first word that springs to the mind when the music has done its generous clearing-out. It is a sweet required focus that it demands. The dozens of needling daily stresses that bark and yelp for attention are forced to fall away when these exquisite waves come crashing into the foreground. That, perhaps, prompts the word "relax". It is similar to focus ... to a higher kind of attention.

I remember the pianist Russell Sherman telling me that he is a "great fan of tension." But, he said, it must be elegantly ... elegantly distributed throughout the body.

What can we possibly accomplish without tension?

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