The Phenomenon of Sound

I recently conducted a rehearsal of the Chicago Civic Symphony in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. This rehearsal provided me with a platform to discuss my thoughts on sound.

On Silence and Sound

In the beginning, there was silence. And out of the silence came the sound. The sound is not here. The Fifth Symphony of Beethoven existed in his brain as he was imagining it and comes into being every time a group of musicians get together somewhere on this globe and literally bring the sound from space. They bring it into the world. The sound does not exist in this world. It comes and goes. It is ephemeral. It is here at one moment and then it goes.

There are many types of silence. There is a silence before the note, there is a silence at the end and there is a silence in the middle. This whole Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, the whole beginning of the prelude, is built on the use of silence as a means of expression.

On why it is important for musicians to listen to how they fit in, to listen to the changing musical landscape.

This is important for the same reason that it is important for a human being to know his place in society and to know his place in the world. You can’t feel well in yourself and with yourself if you don’t have an idea of what your place is in relation to society and in relation to the world and in relation to nature. In the same way, you can have a musician playing with total disregard to everything around him, just by himself, – even very well, but it has for me exactly the same attribute. Everything is always connected in music. The volume – is it too loud so that something more important cannot be heard? Is it too short, thereby diluting the importance of the harmonic progressions? Is it too long, therefore not making the harmonic change audible? Does it have too much intensity so that it doesn’t blend in the chord? Is this a passage where there is one main voice and the rest are accompaniment? There are hundreds of possibilities. Is this place in the musical composition a transition or is it the arrival of a new statement? In other words, are we in a situation of being or are we in a situation of becoming?

On the relationship of intensity and loudness in terms of energy

I think that intensity and volume are two elements that could be interrelated but are totally independent of each other. Volume is exactly what the word says, how loud it is. Intensity is an inner energy within or outside that volume. Very often, one needs a much greater intensity to play very softly than to play very loud. And unless one has mastered the art of playing fortissimo volume with low level of intensity and pianissimo dynamic with a high level of intensity, one has not really achieved control of this very important means of expression. It is like, when speaking, if I really want to threaten somebody with something very dreadful, I don’t shout it at him but I whisper it with great intensity. And if I whisper it with great intensity, I am speaking with much more intensity than if I am actually speaking louder.

On the importance of playing with courage.
Is it a psychological or a physical phenomenon?

The two things are inseparable. It is related to the principle of oneness of music and the principle of oneness in life. In some cases, it is a psychological inhibition; in other cases, it is physical. I think it is a combination of both.

There are many examples: The first one that comes to mind, as a piano player, is when there are big jumps in the piano. The easy way out is, instead of jumping from one extreme of the keyboard to the other, to divide between the two hands, and play the low note with one hand and the high note with the other. What happens then? It is practically impossible or it requires an extraordinary amount of concentration and something totally artificial to make up for the lack of effort because the effort of the distance between the notes is an integral part of the expression. This is one example, one very simple physical example.

A slightly more complex example is when there is a crescendo in the music and then there is a subito piano. It is much easier to make the crescendo to a certain point and then just before the subito piano to either make a break in the sound or stop the crescendo at the very end so the transition is, as it were, smoother. The element of courage is to carry something to the very end without really taking into account the consequences and then, when absolutely necessary, like walking to a precipice, only then really stopping it. These are two examples.

On Maestro Celibidache’s statement that “nothing is worth a damn unless the orchestra musicians feel it for themselves and can play it directly.”

Any orchestra of able musicians and of willing musicians can actually play in a way that the conductor wants them to play, regardless of what they think or what they feel or what they know or what they want to avoid. Anybody can do that – as in daily life, one is able to deal with situations that are required by politeness, regardless of what one thinks and feels. Any human being with a relative amount of intelligence and good manners can do that. But this is not what music is about. It is very possible for a conductor to tell an orchestra exactly how to play. But it is the musicians in the orchestra who make the sound and therefore the conductor can influence the orchestra, can teach them, can change their way of playing drastically but at the moment of the performance, it has to come from the players. It is the players themselves who make the music. A conductor can cajole them, inspire them, animate them to make the crescendo grow more and more and to stop them from starting too soon. But this is not really the importance of making music. The importance of music making is that the crescendo starts out of nothing and it begins to boil and that needs the internal aspect, not the external aspect. Besides, if an orchestra plays only the way a conductor tells them to play, they are merely reacting. It is a reaction. It is not action. They are the ones who actually have the duty of the action and this is very important because it has to do with the whole attitude. It has to do with the attitude for orchestral players that it is not possible to think we play the notes as well as we can, in tune, perfectly correctly – and the conductor makes the music. Totally impossible – a contradiction in terms and, by the same token, a conductor says, “I am a great musician. I make great music.” No conductor makes great music. A great conductor is able to bring an orchestra to the point that it makes great music because they are the ones who actually make the sound.

On the analogy of sound as a stick of butter

Sound is often talked about in a very subjective way, as if it had a colour. This is a bright sound, this is a dark sound. I don’t believe in that because I think that is much too subjective. But the weight of the sound is something very objective. If one could measure it, we could weigh it in so many kilos or so many pounds, like a piece of butter in the refrigerator. It is cold and it is very solid. But if you take it out on a hot day and you leave it out long enough, little by little it begins to dribble and it becomes liquid. For me, the perfect analogy is of a sound that is sustained absolutely against all attempts by silence to draw it away. It is sustained very solidly, like the butter in the refrigerator, and then with the diminuendo, as it becomes softer and it goes toward silence, it is exactly like the solid stick of butter becoming more and more liquid.

On young conductors aspiring to make a career in music:

What do they need to do to be successful?
Are today’s young conductors afraid to rehearse with real orchestras?

I think that very often young conductors don’t have the knowledge to rehearse because they learn scores through recordings and then they can’t even begin to understand the problems of the execution because, in the recording, these problems have been solved in some way or another by the orchestra who is playing it.

I think the most important knowledge that a young conductor needs to have is to understand exactly what the sound does, how the piece is constructed, what are the different means of expression, what can one do with the volume, with the intensity, with the speed and, most important of all, how does one interrelate all these things and not take the easy way out? Again, we come to the question of courage – to say this is the speed, now let’s see how we can play it. It only is right when the speed is the exact one for the content.

On tempo

We have become completely slaves of tempo as if the tempo were an independent phenomenon that controlled everything. The tempo doesn’t control anything at all. The only element that tempo controls is how long a piece takes. Does it take 3 minutes or does it take 5 minutes? Basically, this has nothing to do with the content. It gives the possibility for the contents of the music to come to the fore and be audible or not. But this is about all.

It is as if you are going on a trip and you don’t have a suitcase. What do you do? Do you buy a suitcase and see what you can put in it or do you try to imagine what you want to take: how many pairs of shoes, how many books, how many this, how many that and then you find the right size suitcase. The tempo is the suitcase. If the suitcase is too small, everything is completely wrinkled. If the tempo is too fast, everything becomes so scrambled you can’t understand it. And if the suitcase is much too large for what you are taking, all the objects inside swim inside and cannot really stay in place as they are supposed to. If the tempo is too slow for the content, the whole energy of the music dies away and there is no continuation. This is what tempo is. It is very clear that the wrong tempo for the content can be catastrophic. Therefore, it is the last decision to be taken by a performer but in many ways the most important.