Listening for the Flow

At the beginning of my improv class in Santa Cruz yesterday, as we were warming up by massaging our jaws and shaking the tension out from our faces, one of the teachers said that she had recently listened to a radio interview featuring a trauma specialist.  The specialist had gone with a team to a war-torn foreign country, to work with people who had been exposed to horrible conflict and suffering.  And yet, according to the trauma specialist, in her experience the bodies of most Americans are bound up with more tension—more trauma—than those of people in other countries, even people whose lives have been affected by dislocation or violence or war.

Why is this so?  What are the specific qualities of American culture, habits and thought-patterns that lead so many of us to hold tension in our bodies?  One might think of these qualities, perhaps restlessness, or competitiveness, or isolation, as an invisible force, as silently persistent as a thought, flowing as if throughout our American air and water, shaping us from the moment we are born—indeed, likely before we are born.

I imagine that other qualities shape other cultures in other places.  Last Friday evening, at the conclusion of a glorious concert by the Pavel Haas String Quartet at All Saints Church, in Carmel, the woman sitting in front of me turned around and remarked that she thought that other countries must take music more seriously.  The four performers of the Pavel Haas are from Czechoslovakia, and what she meant was that it was evident, from the specific quality of sound they produced, that their lives—not just their training in a conservatory, but their childhood, and their parents’ childhoods, and so on down the ancestral line—had taken form in an environment in which classical music is as pervasive and vital as air and water.

The Pavel Haas, presented by the Carmel Music Society (and shown at right in the Prague State Opera House), played with a warm, burnished tone.  It is a sound I have heard in other European ensembles: at concerts featuring the Ysaÿe and the Fine Arts Quartets, on recordings by the Talich Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano.  I find that many American ensembles offer a bracing, zippy, lively energy to the mostly European repertoire of classical music, and this often has the stimulating effect of making old masterworks feel fresh and new.  Yet there is an undeniable comfort to be savored in the rounder, more mellow and mature sound that I often hear in chamber ensembles from Europe.

The Pavel Haas played three works: Tchaikovsky’s first String Quartet, Shostakovich’s No. 7, and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”  The Tchaikovsky benefited the most from the group’s golden tone.  The four musicians played with seamless integrity and a kind of creamy lyricism, imparting a steadily flowing through-line to the work’s romantic themes.  In the Schubert, they offered a performance of admirable balance; the darkly sonorous weight of Schubert’s chordal textures, which can sometimes sound too chunky if the players are over-enthusiastic, were here played in a manner that respected heft but also grace.  I was reminded of a classical building, heavy columns supporting a structure whose main effect is to suggest lightness and space.

It was in the Shostakovich that the limitations of the Pavel Haas’s sound palette were heard.  This quartet, written in 1960 but brooded over since the death of the composer’s wife, in 1954, is a short, incisive portrait of loving grief, a raw meditation on fate by a man who would express a lifetime of inner torment in his music.  Yet the roundness of the musicians’ combined tone worked against the performance here; the edges of Shostakovich’s great work were softened, even muted.  The music was not unenjoyable, yet I had the impression of experiencing it as if through a kind of liquid veil.  I wanted to hear more grief and less beauty.

Sometimes what a composer wants, what a musican wants, and what a listener wants all seem to merge in a vivid and shared experience that is often described as “beyond words”—it was not uncommon at premieres of Shostakovich’s works in Soviet Russia for audiences to openly, collectively weep, or to applaud for extraordinary durations in a kind of frenzy that goes beyond mere catharsis.

The applause in Carmel was passionate and grateful, especially for the Tchaikovsky and the Schubert.  After the concert, I reflected on how strange it is to try to write an objective account of a musical performance.  Live music is not like a book or an art object that can be studied and considered at length.  Music is a brief experience in time, as passing as a cloud or an emotion or a thought.  All sorts of ephemeral phenomena may influence how we feel about a performance.  The venue, the weather, the time of year, the time of day, one’s age and physical condition and mood and circumstances, whether there are friends in the auditorium, one’s feeling of affiliation with the presenting organization.  The contingent and contextual background materials of our lives may be as important as any particular training or skill or aptitude in assessing a performance.

Such things are like water.  With care and luck, over time, the flow we allow into our lives will bring ease and vitality, not tension and suffering.  Before the concert, I walked for several blocks below the church.  The air was warm, the evening sky over the ocean was the color of orange sherbet, and the gentle roar of the waves rolled up the little sloping town through the silhouetted trees.  My stride was comfortable.  I was looking forward to a wonderful evening of music, and that is what I heard.