The creative experience is a place of magic, a window into the infinite and unknowable. One must approach it with due reverence, but it does not want to be known.
There is a story about a university music class being taken on a field trip to a North Indian Classical music concert. The promoter peeked out and saw a bunch of noisy students laughing and acting distracted. This was worrisome for him, and in his world, not the way a concert should begin. He walked out onto the stage and said, “ I am going to teach you a chant, which is a very Indian thing to do”. He led them for a few minutes and noticed they were becoming less distracted. They kept chanting for a few more minutes more, until he figured them all to be in the correct mental space to “receive music”. At this point, he thanked them for learning something new and introduced the performer. The recital was a great success for all involved.
I find it impossible to say what makes three notes musical and three others not. There is a power in one set that is not in the other. Where this power comes from is a mystery, it could be memory, associations, rhythms, or even logic. From those three notes you try to build something longer and longer until there is a moment of beauty that wasn’t there before. The skills we acquire help us to build, but not to define beauty, it is one of those things that does not want to be known. There are people who seem to access this place with ease, while for others, it takes significant effort.
I teach in a music department at a university in Toronto and students there will be tested at the end of every year. Tested to make sure they have learned and developed some instrumental or vocal skills. These deadlines are important; many of us do our best work when there is an endpoint. There are some strange things that happen in these exams: students are asked to skip repeats, and are asked to stop one piece and start the next at unpredictable intervals. It seems as though the point is to hear how many obstacles the performer can get through in a limited time. In this situation, we lose the reverence for music. We could call the experience an obstacle course, and provide the requisite kind of challenges and time limits. That might be a more honest way to label the experience.
The bigger question for me is whether we vanquish art by creating an anxious mental space. Does a young person develop poise and confidence by being stopped and cut off? Examiners are usually more experienced, and one would hope that they are good at negotiating the sacred space of music. I’d like to think that the path to the musical experience is a musical one. Words are the domain of writers and storytellers, so we must in the words of Charles Seeger, have “music about music”. Modeling best practices, inducing the good performance and guiding our youth to that magical window.
Music takes place over time and can stop the sense of time passing. I think of jazz swing and the river of rhythm, or players vamping out on a song because they are saying goodbye to a beautiful experience. I don’t remember how long Jesu Joy of Our Desiring lasts as far as the clock goes but remember the swoon of experiencing it for the first time. At its best, music stops the feeling of time passing, but we cannot be in a hurry to arrest the movement of time.