Written Music

Dimitri Ashkenazy's picture
published by Dimitri Ashkenazy
on November 26, 2020

Over the years I have often got into discussions with other musicians on the subject of why the majority of us in the classical field primarily continue to play pieces written by white men who died tens or hundreds of years ago, and sometimes, by extension, why we play written music at all.


A colleague whom I deeply respect and who is a classically trained instrumentalist now almost only improvises, and he made a strong case for "music in the moment", something that lives because of its immediacy - why do we need to play music that has been played thousands of times before?

The first point I would like to make is, I believe, the most obvious one: Great music is just that, great music, and so deserves to be played whenever the opportunity arises. There is a reason why masterpieces of all kinds continue to be played, recited, admired, performed and respected all these years after they were written, painted, composed or sculpted. Why they truly are masterpieces is another matter, and not the subject of this article. What is, however, all too obvious in all but the fewest cases, is that the level of improvisation does not reach that of the greatest compositions - just as the level of utterances, in most cases, cannot reach the uppermost echelons of the written word.


The second point is of a more practical nature: Written music allows us to coordinate fairly large numbers of musicians melodically, acoustically, dynamically and expressively, something that in a free improvisation is exceedingly difficult and almost always requires at least a semblance of established order beforehand (timings, volume etc.). There is something wonderful about a large choir singing in harmony or a symphony orchestra in full swing, and how all present are then working towards a common goal - the subject matter (the piece). However much people can try, in an improvisation, to find one another musically and emotionally, the fact remains that for most of us, it is next to impossible to identify a common goal in that context - even with small groups, not to mention the large bodies mentioned above. I should amend that: The common goal will then often remain prosaic, superficial, and not reach our cores in the way great art can.


The third point is one that, in my opinion, reaches territory that borders on the very foundation of what makes the human experience worthwhile. If this sounds a little excessively grand, or pretentious, give me the benefit of the doubt for the moment and bear with me.

We have all experienced moments or periods during which we were faced with obstacles small or large, setbacks banal or serious, and I contend that in the majority of cases, both the moment of overcoming them (if one can pinpoint the moment, otherwise one can substitute whatever term best describes the transition from before to after facing such an obstacle), and the aftermath, leave behind in us a feeling of either relief, or joy, or elation, or contentment, or something along those lines. I will go so far as to claim that in some of those cases, that feeling can be one of the most satisfying we (or at least I) know.


Is there, perhaps, something fundamental about this feeling? Something that constitutes a part of what makes life worth living? I contend that like there is less appreciation for a pro if you don't know the con, there is a particular appreciation for a pro if you have overcome the con. The joy of spring after winter, the exhilaration of sunshine after weeks of rain (I remember one science-fiction story about humans living on Venus, where the sun only came out once every few years), or something almost banal, like the feelings my son has every week before ("I don't want to go") and after ("I LOVE playing music") his violin lesson.


This brings me to the main focus of this little piece: There is, in my opinion, something truly special about the combination of playing or hearing great music, with all its magical qualities, and an appreciation of the effort(s) involved in making it possible - whether it be as the performer or the listener. When someone onstage manages to convey the musical message in the piece and to overcome the difficulties composed and written into the part and therefore unavoidable, we may feel a special thrill or joy, exhilaration. If we can feel our way into that person's unique struggle with both the intellectual and the technical, both the emotional and the structural elements of the work, the exhilaration may be even greater. The essence of this is what my improvising colleague and I once discussed, spontaneously, at a railway station buffet some years ago - the conversation can't have lasted more than half an hour, and yet we got into some very deep philosophical subjects, of which this was one. The core of it is that there is something about the appreciation of honest effort, or human struggle against adversity, that inspires us - it may have something to do with our search for meaning in life, or even with the meaning itself? - and when that joy is combined with the kind of truth that great art can illuminate, the effect is particularly powerful.


I have great respect for those who can improvise, especially those who have a talent for composition that can and does manifest itself during such improvisations - some of them can truly reach the level of great art - but in them, the combination of the joy and truth I mentioned above is far more difficult, possibly even impossible, to reach.


Sometimes even the composer's own struggles - with illness, the composition itself, with the politics of her state, with his sexuality, with gender stereotypes, with relationships, with poverty - are palpable in the music, adding to the mix. When performers manage to translate them into the moment, and overcome their obstacles, and let the masterpieces shine in all their glory, a moment of real beauty can be reached: transcendence.


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