Recently I read an enlightening article about the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and his understanding of music performance, creation and interpretation. While I cannot recount the many lucid, insightful ideas and anecdotes described and quoted there, (for that you should read the article), one idea particularly struck me. At some point Tetzlaff was describing the way Alban Berg incorporated many nuances from his personal biography into his scores. He went on to say that “the secrets embedded in Berg’s score were not intended for the listeners in the hall. They were there for the performer, whom Berg was addressing as a confidant…Interpretation should ultimately be an act of compassion.” This concept touched me deeply, and I have been ruminating on it since.

Within the fine arts, music is unique in that its generation, performance and reception involves three parties rather than two. In painting and sculpture, there is one person who comes up with the idea and executes it (the artist), and another who receives and processes it (the audience). The same can be said of writing. But in music there are three mandatory components: the composer who generates the piece, the musician who interprets it, and the audience who perceives and digests it. In a way, the audience interprets the interpretation. If you compare music-making and painting, the role of the musician in music gets broken down into various aspects, some of which are taken on by the artist, and some – by the beholder. For example, the act of interpretation or of “understanding” the intent, which falls squarely on the shoulders of the musician, is typically given to the artist who, ideally, is able to represent through the art media his or her own intention. From this breakdown many revelatory questions follow: what is the reason for creating a piece of art? Is the musician responsible for simply transmitting that reason or intent to the audience, or can he add his own flavor to the mix? Is the audience obligated to appreciate or at least to seek out the initial idea, or is it allowed to assign its own meaning to what it perceives?

If you think about the composer-musician tandem, you begin to see how intimately dependent on each other they are. It’s as if the composer has the words, but no voice to express them with, while the musician has a voice but needs the words. The composer has profound things he wants to share, but they are so personal, so complex, that only a highly skilled and attentive musician will appreciate all of the nuances. This is why his interpretation is an act of compassion. With his performance he can express to the composer his own understanding of the messages embedded in the bars of music. He can offer empathy and give voice to what has been hidden. The audience also offers a listening ear while the performer, and through him, the composer, share deeply personal things.

Poignantly then comes the realization that compassion flows both ways. An artist, a poet, a sculptor, a novelist are able to provide organization and structure to amorphous feelings and intimations of thought, both vague and transparent notions. They validate one’s experience and reveal how vastly similar and connected we are. As a poet, how many times have I met the eye of grateful listeners who finally heard, coming out of my mouth, words they themselves felt but could not adequately express? As an appreciator of music and art, have I not been flooded by relief, overwhelmed with joy, when I heard or saw something that I also felt within? Were not the pieces of art which evoked gratitude and resonance in others created with love? With immense compassion? The circle is closed then, and the creating, performing, and appreciating of art becomes one comprehensive communal experience.

Christian Tetzlaff points to this as he describes his personal encounters with music. “..That’s what the concert situation is about for me, when I am sitting in the hall and also when I am playing myself. It’s about communication – I almost want to say “communion”. As a player, you don’t really interpret anymore. You listen, together, with the audience.”

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