Recently I attended a performance of an hour-long contemporary chamber opera. As the final note faded away the conductor held the silence before the audience clapped. In that silence I replayed the piece again in my memory and in a flashback I sensed it as a whole. I’ve always been interested in trying different ways of perceiving music so in that moment I explored whereabouts in my body the memory of the piece was being held.
I was then struck by a clear vision of the piece as a very beautiful idea in my head, and could mentally grasp how well it had been conceived. But in this moment, while appreciating it on this level, I also felt a keen sense of separation from the music – I was not inside the music and the music was not inside me.
I know this conceptual approach to composition myself; for example last year I wrote a piece that had that same kind of beautiful idea starting point – it was in a piece called Not This for the Trittico Trio. Based on a dream, I fashioned the vision of the piece as best I could, but I wondered afterwards how truly it had actually reached people. I’ve often been aware of this feeling of separation on listening to contemporary classical music, my own included.
It’s not for a lack of appreciation (I hope) of the intentions of contemporary classical composers, (and apologies for being generic about this, but just to make the point…) but rather a questing on my part for a more holistic experience as a listener. What I think of as embodiment of music by the composer, the performer and the listener has become increasingly important to me. I’m talking about music that invites absorption and a kind of deep relaxation and trust (however complex or not) in the sound world itself, leading to a direct body-mind experience, an audial encounter, if you will – rather than music that remains a beautiful idea, but only in the realm of the mind.
This tendency of mind-centred contemporary classical music led me to lose interest in the genre for a period after leaving college and I moved into exploring music from other cultures. I was looking for an experience of musical non-separation and I found myself very engaged by, among other things, Indian classical music and I took lessons in North Indian classical singing over a number of years. Twenty years later and I now perform and teach an improvisational singing form I call Vocal Tai Chi: my own synthesis of a number of approaches to voice and performance.
As I continue to feel the need to write down music I am having to ask myself a question: how much do I honestly value the perfectly conceived notion and realisation of a beautiful idea as opposed to this more elemental process of invoking a musical experience in the moment, one that definitely reaches people on the level of a direct body-mind, audial encounter. As a composer I find this depth of artistic experience much harder to achieve in the craft of writing down music, whereas it really is achievable, in my case, as a vocal improviser.
I always improvise with my composer’s mind engaged and what is delightful is that I am able to couple this with the questions – ‘whereabouts in my body am I feeling this right now – what is the mood of the audience and the atmosphere in the space itself? These considerations do, it seems, help to break down the barrier between performer and audience and influence the musical form and content as I’m singing, moving towards a kind of communion. The ultimate challenge (and I have no idea how I am going to achieve this…) is to create a music that does both; it both satisfies the visionary concept of a perfectly formed and realised musical object and it moves from one moment to another as a fully embodied and elegant musical landscape that generates an experience of non-separation.