Immanence in Music

The jump from good the great performance is probably what I struggle with the most in my own playing and in my teaching.  It requires a kind of intangible force which seems illusive but is maybe more accessible than we think.

For my Masters degree, we had to prepare and perform a concerto as part of one of our recitals.  I decided to play the Nielsen Flute Concerto from memory. Part of my preparation for the performance was obsessively recording myself every week .  I noticed, more and more, that every week, the track on my handheld recorder was exactly the same length.  I was performing, without accompaniment, a 20-minute concerto (with a pause in the middle and multiple cadenzas) almost exactly the same way week after week.

While this is maybe a testament to my level of preparation, I noticed that it became less and less intriguing to listen to as time progressed.  I realized that through my neurotic overthinking of the piece, I was strangling it.

We talk about this a lot as musicians. We have all heard performances which were very accurate and perhaps even expressive but were nonetheless uninteresting. We also have all heard performances which completely captured our interest in that moment causing us to lose track of time. This latter kind of performance delivers something special: the intangible “extra thing“.

I am realizing more and more that what I find engaging about performers is their ability to do something unexpected.  This could be called the performer’s “interpretation” of a piece; sometimes it is called the “artist’s voice”.  It is the moment when they render something seemingly static into a dynamic, contingent object.  They free the listener of simple recognition and clear space for pure hearing – that is, hearing something which is new.  We cease hearing a “piece of music” and start experiencing an event.

Accuracy is great but we need more than that to make music. The performance in which one taps into the unfolding of events rather than trying to prefigure them to the point of suffocation is the performance which has that intangible “extra”.  Any performance that manages to be both accurate and immanently expressive is rare.  But in those performances, time seems to be rendered irrelevant as events take over the agency of our perception.

This immanence is the intangible we are all searching for in our playing.


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