Playing the room

One of the most important elements of music is the space in which it is played and heard.  During the last one hundred years we have seen the uncoupling of music from the space in which it is played, and the acceptance of that uncoupling without questioning what, if anything, is sacrificed.  Indeed, much of the artistry of recording engineers involves reproducing the illusion of this space.

Why is this important?  What difference can space make?  Why do recording engineers spend years learning how best to recreate it artificially?

A live space introduces reverberation.  If performers are in that space and hear that, they can change the way they play (and they will, if they’re good musicians).  Perhaps the music will be slower, with more space between notes.  Maybe the time between the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next will be longer.  Maybe the slope of the crescendo curve will be flatter. And, beyond issues of tempo and dynamics, the demands of the space might induce the performers to change the tone color, and shorten or lengthen notes.

A good musician knows about, hears and responds to these demands of the room. When it’s done well, it can mean the difference between an ordinary and extraordinary performance.

But what happens when music is routinely played in one space, decoupled from it, and then listened to in another? The performers have no chance to use any of their ability to respond to the acoustic space in which the listener is listening.

So, what?  A good recording reproduces the original performance space so well that we “suspend disbelief” and imagine we are in a different space altogether.  Well, at least that’s the ideal.  But, unless you’ve spent tens of thousands on speakers, installation, calibration, sound damping and isolation, you’re not going to find yourself in such a listening space.  Still, can’t we imagine we are “there” no matter whether we’ve got 50 db of road noise, traffic, a small room or whatever other acoustic interference might be in our environment.  Yes, apparently we do that all that time … willingly.  And the reason we do so is because we intuitively understand the need to dampen the dissonance between the actual space we are listening in and the illusory space presented via recorded music.

However, that imagination and willingness to suspend disbelief is not enough to overcome the fact (and it is a fact) that the performer can not re-calibrate the sounds in response to the room the listener is in.  And so, even with the listener’s imagination and the engineer’s prowess, the full potential of the performer is diminished.

Is performing and listening in the same acoustic space really all that important?

If the performer is not one who “plays the room” in the first place, clearly it won’t matter if the effects of the original acoustic space on the performance are changed or eliminated.  The performance will have the same tempo, inflection, color, dynamics, etc., no matter what space it’s played in.  Anyone who performs along with pre-recorded material falls into this category.

But, if the performer is one who plays the room, they can create conditions for musical experiences that take listeners well beyond the ordinary, the here and now.  Those fabled “transporting” experiences that seem, unfortunately, to happen so rarely, are far, far more likely to occur when listeners are in the same room as performers who know how to play the room.

The room.  Awareness of it is what allows the performer to present the sounds with the clarity, balance and function that is absolutely essential to having great aesthetic experiences.

To make the point another way, an analogy (although analogies seem frequently to be unintelligible to some who can only manage to see how the analogy diverges instead of clarifies – I’ll take a risk and present one anyway):

Suppose a sculptor creates a work that must be seen from a certain spatial perspective to be grasped, understood, or, even in some fundamental sense, to be seen at all?  And what if a viewer looks at the sculptor from another orientation?

In this work sculptor Shigeo Fukuda used over 800 pieces of cutlery.  But, unless you look at the sculpture’s shadow, you won’t see “it.”

Seeing the shadow of the motorcycle is essential to this artist’s work and vision.  Now imagine you buy this work, put it in your living room, and light it from the side.  A viewer might admire the sculpture and have an aesthetic experience, but she won’t be having the experience the artist envisioned.  “I like it,” she might say. And there is nothing wrong with that.  If you’re a cultural relativist, you just say, “to each his own” and move on.

But if, like me, you think that artists who have been universally lauded for their ability to transport us and lead us to experience their vision are worth going through the delicate and difficult steps to try to get to their vision, then you realize that sometimes what may seem minor, personal preferences can actually be hindrances.

The fact is we already strive to eliminate many of these hindrances without batting an eye.  Playing out of tune, for example, is not acceptable and almost every musician has to deal with this issue.  Everyone knows playing out of tune hinders the ability to get to the experience the artist (composer) envisioned.

So, playing the room – responding to the room – is crucial to getting a chance to experience what a composer has envisioned.  Listening to recorded music even in the best audio environment cuts away that entire realm of musical technique from being brought into play.  Unlike playing out of tune, for some reason, that’s a hindrance that we seem to think is okay to live with.

Playing music so that a great experience could occur is one of the most difficult things anyone can do.  That’s why it’s so rare to have these great experiences.  If your goal is to have those experiences (whether you’re a listener or a performer), it doesn’t make sense to accept such a big handicap right out of the gate.  Cutting off the possibility of responding to sounds as they unfold in a room virtually guarantees failing to reach the composer’s vision.

Sergiu Celibidache Lecture Transcript, 1984

Curtis Institute of Music
February 1984

This is a small glimpse of what happened during one of my classes at Curtis in 1984. There were two sessions each day, each lasting two to three hours. And this went on for about ten days. Even so, this short excerpt presents some points fundamental to Celibidache’s teaching. In particular, it was essential to understanding Celibidache to distinguish between sound as an acoustic phenomenon and sound as experienced by the human mind. The fact that these two things are not the same is now completely uncontroversial. However, it is amazing the degree to which music students at that time found it a baffling thought!  Transcribed from an audio recording, Celibidache conducted this class in English.

— Paul Henry Smith

Celibidache: If you look in an encyclopedia under phenomenology, it is sixty pages long in order to explain it. But what we intend under phenomenology is the approach to the sound and all its aspects. What is sound? Not the physical definition of sound, or the acoustical definition. This is of no value for us. Secondly — the main object of phenomenological study — how does sound work in the human mind? And in order to make it less abstract, yesterday I gave an example of repetition. There is not such a thing like repetition. When we hear something we got already fecundated. Our sensibilities are engaged; the second time it’s different. So, the third time it does not interest us because a repetition is not a fact in itself. It finds itself in a context. So, what about the third time? It depends what comes. The most critical object of that view is the fact of sequences. Bach said that more than three sequences will let anything down. This did not stop Vivaldi from making eleven sequences! He was a man who didn’t have any idea of harmony or whatever his style understood under harmony. He had no idea of music.

So, on one side: the study of sound. On the other: how does sound work on us? And the results are away from any form of individualism. They work on you as they do on me. For example, we have a melodic interval [descending minor third]. It is definitely so that I hear the second phenomenon [i.e., note] in function of the first. For the first has left already an impression on me. This is “priority in time.” You, me and him — it makes no difference — we all hear the first note first.

Due to Husserl we came away from the idea of an objectivity in itself. And we came higher by the following idea: I have to find myself in you and you have to find yourself in me. The only tie that makes that objective is the fact that it’s not dependent only on me, but on you also. He calls it, “intersubjective Betreffbarkeit.”

Questions please.

Q: You spoke of the necessity to empty our minds. I recall having read about the alpha waves from the human being from birth to adulthood and that from birth to about age six these alpha waves are the slowest —

C: Yes, but it’s not the same process. No, alpha waves cut you away. They dominate you and cut you away from the world. You are nearly asleep when you are in that state. It’s not it at all.

Q: That’s not the emptiness you were — ?

C: Not at all! My emptiness — “my” … I cannot call it “my,” but — the emptiness we’re thinking of is the highest activity. When Brentano says “every consciousness is a consciousness of something” and we learn every day through yoga that there is a consciousness that is a consciousness of nothing, it does not make sense intellectually. You’re away. You do not want. No, no, no, no — in order to say a perfect yes.
Myself, for instance: Before we start a concert, if I do not succeed in emptying myself, it will be memory. “I know the horn starts. I know the …” No. This is against me. It will materialize out the function of memory. Music hasn’t got anything to do with memory. Memory is related to the past. Hope is related to the future. Music is not related to anything. It is a spontaneous process of creation. The performer creates. What has the composer done? Shown you the way: “Look, if you go over those stages, those conflicts, you might come to this point.”

Q: So, basically you’re saying that you have to put yourself —

C: Yes, but if you say, “you have to put yourself” it looks like an act of will. It is not. The more you want to get empty, the less you are. You are possessed by a strong wish: to be empty. That is wrong. How one comes to it nobody will ever be able to explain.

Q: Could you describe the difference between spirit and all the bunches of experience that make our consciousness?

C: Very complicated approach. I hate to talk about spirit because in Germany there is nothing but spirit. And nobody knows what spirit is. What is spirit in your idea?

Q: Well, you can relate some of my idea if you read the bible where it says, “God created man in his own image.” Which image? Is it the nose, the hair or the eyes? Well, not in MY mind.

C: But you still do not answer my question. What is spirit?

Q: [no reply]

C: You see, in the whole philosophical generation (I cannot speak about the States) there is not one who will find out what it is. We all talk about spirit. “You should think in the spirit of Washington.” “You are a man without spirit.” “A performer who sticks the visible aspect of music is not in the spirit of Beethoven.” What is spirit, finally?

This is the most devalued notion philosophically and also in the field of phenomenology. Yes, but if I relate the facts and if I go through the whole devaluation of that notion, everybody is right. This is what is spirit. And when the French say “vous avez de l’esprit,” they mean you are very funny.
So, again, the consciousness in exercise of its absolute freedom. Now, why freedom? Because any other approach will be influenced by your personal bunch of aversions and acceptances. It is then that you will be able to follow the creative processes of the composer. You know, there is no definition for it. There is no definition for so many other things.

Q: What sort of preparation is necessary before a performance for one to be free and have a successful performance?

C: Before I will find an answer for you, I will be God in heaven! I cannot tell you more than how I do it myself. And this is not a method to be tried! “I sleep. I do not eat. I –” This will not touch it.

Q: I’m speaking in terms of the music and the instrumentalist or performer, conductor or —

C: Yes, but you can apply it on any field. So, when we do music, we must bring those people out of the state of “receivers of orders.” Everyone in the orchestra is a performer accompanied by all the possibilities of that task. If they are not free, the whole performance will be an imitation of something — either the idea of the conductor, or the idea of the score. “For me the clarinet is important there.” What is not important!? All the degrees of importance obey a state of priority. So, I can’t tell you how we should prepare, but I can tell you one thing: the whole study of phenomenology will show you what music is not. What is a rehearsal? A series of no’s. “No, you are too loud.” “Too quick.” “Not at the point.” “No, no, no!” We never say what it is. We never say, “yes.” A yes is what he does when he matches the exigences of the piece. The whole study is nothing but, “no, no, no, no.”

Q: Is that necessary?

C: No, it’s not necessary. I contend that people have never performed the 9th of Beethoven yet, and I’m going to prove that to you with the score. Are you content with that? Are you content that an idiot like Toscanini ruled sixty years long above everybody else? I am not. I am not content that the world has not discovered that music is not an amusement or a source of joy or satisfaction. It is much higher than that.

Q: But what I’m trying to get at is instead of saying “no,” if you do what you did last night, then …

C: You do not say “no,” you open all the doors to a definite and eternal “yes.” You do not say “no.”

Q: Well, I’m talking practically now —

C: Yes, practically!

Q: Rather than say “no,” say what the positive things are that you want in order to get your …

C: What which is positive? “I want you to be spiritual.” How does he manage that? But, if I tell him,”Look, you are the third part of a string quartet. If you pull on the D too much bow, the harmonics disappear. They stay in the air. They do not mix with the others.”

How could he know when they do mix?

“You should play less and on the top of the bow … Yes, can you hear something? Once again, 1st violin and 2nd violin alone …Can you see what they do? The 2nd violin contradicts a little bit the 1st, then neutralizes, and then finally they go together. So, you are the third part which is supposed to back, to influence, and to put into value this little quartet. If you pull your bow (considering your heart is alright and the bow is not rough) and you do not hear how much damage is done by your individual position, I could offer you any theory and you will not buy it. But if I say, “A bit more. No, that’s too big.” (All of a sudden something comes out). Have you heard it? “Yes!” “Who played that?” Nobody did. But you structured so perfectly well that those values came out.

There is not one orchestra where two instruments will go together from theis spiritual point of view. Together rhythmically … no problem, and America is perfect. Technically, pitch … perfect.

What’s it all about? What is the second movement of Eroica? Is it a march? This is good for the press and for young, unsatisfied girls. What are you looking for, the pleasure of C minor with G major? It is a pleasure. Nobody will be able to destroy it. Even a military band will get it. Even a child playing the piano gets that primitive stuff. But how are they related to each other? From C minor to G major what happens to the tension? Does it increase, or does it stay the same, or does it go down? Who taught us this? Nobody. Who taught us to find the end in the beginning? How does that happen? Who taught us that the essence of it is simultanaeity?

Q: It seems to me that part of what you’re saying related very closely to a sculptor who is involved with chipping away everything that doesn’t belong in order to arrive at what does.

C: Yes, but what does not function is that the sculpture appears to you statically, and music doesn’t. Music originates in time (whatever you understand under “music”). This is a static idea when I say “a landscape.” “Every piece of music has a landscape.” This is not correct, but I don’t have another possibility to illustrate to you that there IS something which you cannot touch.

Q: But, perhaps it is not static to the sculptor, only to the person who is perceiving it. So, if it is not static to the sculptor, how would he bring the person who looks upon it to look upon it the same way he sculpted it?

C: Yes, for the sculptor it’s not static because the whole process, the whole biography of how the piece comes into being is a time condition. He starts somehwere. This after that. Each alternative a time condition. For us it is “yes, I like it” or “yes, I do not.”

I cannot have the same approach to music. Where is the fifth of Beethoven? You think on the records? My goodness, this is the wrongest falsification of any musical truth. There is no substitute for space. So, what you’ve got is a kind of photography on the record. And then, who makes the record? How far is that man, concerning the structure of music? Most all of them are out. They stick to the notes because they do not know what else to do.

So, about the static: Music hasn’t got a single static element. Even a constellation of different sounds is not static. So, what is finally the question? The sculptor’s creative work is in time. But when he chops away the first piece, he knowshow the head should lie at the end. So, it’s identity — end in beginning. But not for us, because we see the final result. (But there is an American, McClosky[?], who said that the whole biography of the scrap of hair is alive and that you should find out where it started and where it ends.

Q: What would be an ideal performance for you? Do you try to communicate anything to the audience?

C: I do not have any intention to communicate anything.

Q: Why perform for an audience, then? Why are they there?

C: Because they want to do the same as me.

Q: You would like them to experience music as you would?

C: No, no, not at all. I cannot think for them. I am one consciousness only. If they want to do the same as I do, they can. I cannot control what brings an individual to a concert. But, if I judge from the short span of my life, they try to find something which I already know. Many of them do. Like the Queen of Hanover who said “Maestro, it IS so.” If she made that perception, then she was as free as I was. So, I cannot animate myself by the desire to give them something. Through my concentration (or whatever it is) something comes into being, and they might get it.

Q: So you are just presenting them with something?

C: What is there to be presented? That’s static. Something, with your help, my help, and the musicians’ help might come into being. I follow the recommended line of the composer and I could feel, more or less, what moved him to do so. So, if you (the audience) can do the same, it’s all right. But I do not do it for you.