Silence, Flu, and Johann Joachim Quantz

I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry
as I need it.
            John Cage (1)

I’d like to hide behind these lines as a justification for the six-week silence in my Seven Responses blog – that it’s all part of our artistic preparation for 7R, requiring repose, introspection, and, silence.  But, I cannot.

In one of my first 7R blogs, a few months back, I noted that the exercise of blogging weekly magnifies the way in which ‘life’ interferes with my long-term goals.  While I have the illusion that my energies are pointed toward 7R and Jeff Quartets, balanced with teaching graduate students and planning future seasons – all on a kind of logical, managed continuum – my daily routine doesn’t bear that out. The hour-to-hour living is a rather mundane series of minor life events over which we feel we don’t have all that much control.  The truth about the gap in my ‘weekly’ blogs:  Christmas, New Years, flu, snow, and sadness. 

Christmas and New Years are understandable excuses for missing a couple of weeks on social media; a blog about an event in June is not going to reach many people at the end of December.  I’m not a person who comes to ‘journaling’ easily, so, if I’m going to invest in writing about our life at The Crossing, narcissism aside, I’d like it to be read. (Otherwise, does it exist?)

Flu came New Year’s Eve and stayed a week. I’m a terrible sick person and slowing down for more than 24 hours makes me very agitated yet curiously uninspired. No blog. Nothing to be done about the flu and similarly, little to be done about the snow.  The gloriously beautiful blanket floated down on Philadelphia Friday, January 17, the day before we were to take Gavin Bryars’ The Fifth Century north for its New York premiere.  It was to be a big event and we were really excited; we’d had mentions in The New York Times, The New Yorker, TimeOut New York, and I did a wonderful interview with John Schaefer on New Sounds at WNYC – wonderful, because John knows the music and can speak about it with true breadth.  (I think if I live to be 100, I’ll still think it is really cool that some behemoth of art criticism like The Times – that was a kind of ivory tower of my youth – says to their readers, ''You should go hear this little choir from Philly called The Crossing.''  Humbling.)

Snow had other plans. The days leading to the concert were packed with ‘what if’ preparations – everything from notification of ticket holders to transportation. And, then there is, ’how do we pay for a concert that doesn’t happen?’  The snow did come, the concert didn’t happen, and neither did the blog. 

Reason #5: sadness.  ‘People’ say the holidays are difficult when you’ve lost someone significant in the year prior.  Turns out, it’s true.  My relationship with my father was complicated – he was a complex, often challenging and difficult man. But ‘people’ are right; he was my father, and his passing last March – accompanied with the memories of all that was, all that could have been, and the guilt in all that – is a significant demarcation in my life.  Apparently, in middle age, there is ‘before’ and ‘after’ this moment.   The passing of our singer Jeff Manns in November– which seems, to me, to pull along with it the earlier passing of Jeff Dinsmore like a tired dog struggling with an overloaded sled – clearly bore down hard and fast on me the first time I had room to breathe.  But, it is my father walking in front of both dog and sled that focused my grief over the last two months and left me lacking the Morning Energy that ordinarily inspires me to write.

I do a lot of writing; I write about music. I write about ideas. I write about emotional contexts in art. I write about our work at The Crossing.  I enjoy writing; it makes me think about the world in greater detail and definition.  But, it isn’t like making music for me; music I have to do – I don’t really have an identity without it; it’s the only place I can express myself with clarity – the detail and definition are even clearer to me in this more abstract medium.  In fact, it’s the only place I can really be myself. My desire to write vanishes when an emotion like grief descends on me like the smir.  Not so with music, for which I have no desire because it is always there with me; I don’t have to think about it or wait to be with it – in a way, it is desire.  I crawl up inside it; it puts its arms around me and lets me close my eyes for a bit. It forces, then allows, me to face my truths.  It is never a task. Writing requires more cognition than intuition of me; it scares me and challenges me, without the trusted foundation of Notes in the Air. I don’t have a sentimental relationship with music, I use it; the two of us are in a raw and codependent relationship in which both parties shout loudly everything that’s on their minds.  And we whisper. It uses me and I am grateful for that.  Writing?….well, then there’s grief. No blog.

But, it seems, we learn to live with sadness; as it creeps into a different corner of our brain that brain figures out how to move forward.  Like Willie Lohman’s wife Linda, we endure.  And, in enduring, we see ourselves more clearly. I don’t believe there is any such thing as ‘truth’ in music, a phrase we hear often in music schools – a Romantic notion left over from another time.  Notes can’t be truthful. There’s no illusive truth hiding within, revealed only to those with knowledge.  The ‘truth’ is in knowing ourselves – in facing our own truths, and music can facilitate that through defining emotional constructs that every person perceives with clarity (if only for themselves). Recognition is how we communicate in art.

What does any of this have to do with Seven Responses?  Well, the entire project is built around musical descriptions of suffering and compassion – if not of ourselves, than of others.  It begins with Buxtehude’s music and his musical depictions of grief (the observer of the suffering Jesus) and joy (of his companionship). There are those that may take issue with my using the phrase ‘musical descriptions.’  Stravinsky, for example, once claimed that music is ''essentially powerless to express anything at all.'' (2) That’s just hyperbolic crap – syntactical snobbery of someone with too much time on his hands.  If music were not an expression of recognizable human emotions Barry Manilow and Beyoncé wouldn’t be zillionaires and I wouldn’t have a job.  How it describes and defines things – emotions, lives, time – is an ever-evolving language in Western music.  (But, on reflection, perhaps I have committed this crime of verbosity in my comments on ‘truth?’)

Compositional life in the 17th century was entirely different than ours today.  Buxtehude lived with a set of conventions – expectation, even rules – of how one communicates emotions through rhetorical devices.  One of the main exponents of this Doctrine of Affections was theorist Johann Mattheson, who was born the year after Buxtehude wrote Membra Jesu nostri.  His books are manuals of taste, with roots in the work of René Descartes. Taste is key here; the conveying of emotions through a series of signals the audience comprehends and by which they are moved.  Mattheson’s colleague Johann Joachim Quantz addressed this intention ''to move'' in his own manuals (in his case, intended more to correct the sins of the past that to record contemporary practice),

The orator and the musician have, at bottom, the same aim in regard to both the preparation and the final execution of their productions, namely to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners. (3)

How far we are, in Cage’s extolment of his own silence, from this intention to be ''masters of the hearts'' – an entirely different set of rules defining taste.  How differently we perceive art and musical gesture today.  The difference between the mannerism in the theatre of the 17th century and our post-Stanislavski world.  Indeed, we may be beyond Stanislavski (a method that sometimes led to a kind of forced rawness and self-involvement) and more into Mamet’s culture of art in which the honest, unenhanced, and unencumbered delivery of the text is paramount. It would seem lacking in taste and form to layer my own story onto the author’s. There is today a desire to create spaces in which the listener can go where her mind takes her – an increasing tendency toward the vertical, away from the linear.  And, silence plays a large role.  Yet, even in its more celebrated role today, silence is still, like in the 17th century, a pause – a breath, a chance for reflection.  Even when silence is the work.

I have had my pause. My silence hasn’t been an artistic decision – rather, just life interfering with the best intentions. But, that silence certainly has had artistic results. Because sadness, for all its nullifying quietness, invites some serious reflection on the hearts of our listeners.  

I tightened my grip on my father’s hand.
The old, familiar fear: not to lose him. (4)

1. John Cage, Lecture on Nothing (1949)
2. Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography (1936)
3. Johann Joachim Quantz, Essay on a Method of Playing the Tansverse Flute (1752)
4. Elie Wiesel, Night (1956)