The Transparent Page
I have long remembered a momentary vision that appeared at my writing desk. I was working on an arrangement featuring the voice of Florence Kopleff, a legendary contralto and close friend. I had written for her before, but this time my manuscript paper became transparent, like an old mirror. There was Florence facing me, singing what I was writing as I was writing it. I knew that it fit her voice exactly, and that she would love singing it.
It has occurred to me frequently since that this might be a paradigm for all of our composing. Are we pushing notes around on the page? Or listening through the notes to the voices, and seeing the faces of the eventual performers? There's a big difference in the results: the first is dealing in technical possibilities, the second in probing the depths of the human spirit. Singing, for me, is a profoundly human endeavor, the enlivening of ears and voice, involving mind, heart and spirit. When we leave out the human component in our music making, we miss the instant communication that takes place when one voice connects with another, or an instrument awakens a sympathetic vibration within.
To allow this to happen, we must love not only the infinite technical possibilities of our craft, but also the human beings who make it possible. We must realize again that notes on paper are not music until they are translated into sound -- and sound coming from human beings is infinitely variable. Think for a moment about the nature of the page itself, and of the humans who effect that translation.
What is a page? Move away from music for a moment, and consider a Shakespeare play, Here we read the words that Juliet and Romeo exchange on the balcony. Surely Will was living those characters as he wrote, perhaps envisioning the faces of his colleagues in the Globe Theatre. We can never know what he was imagining -- we can't hear his voice, nor see inside his head. But we do know that for each production of this play Juliet and Romeo are different. The actors -- the translators -- bring their own humanity, with all its quirks and foibles, to the roles. They recite the words that Will wrote, but the effect is always new. The words do not guarantee success -- there are many possibilities for failure in bringing any stage work to life. But the possibility of a transcendent performance is always there in the great works -- this is why they are great.
So, is Will's page -- and Bach's or Bernstein's -- no more than the possibility of transcendence? In a much more lowly metaphor, that page is exactly like a recipe. It must be translated from black letters into actual food before we can eat it. And the drama or the music must become actual human sound before it can nourish us. Unlike ideal perfection, we humans are inherently imperfect. There is no such thing as a perfect performance! If there were, we could say with a great sigh of relief, "Whew! That's over -- we never have to do that one again! What shall we tackle next?"
No, the great works of music and drama live on, inviting us to engage them again and again. Each time we learn more about ourselves and our art and the whole human condition. The pages are visions of perfection precisely because their creators envisioned real human beings in their reincarnations.
I don't mean to equate "Sometimes I feel like a moanin' dove" with Bach and Shakespeare -- far from it! But I think I was given a momentary glimpse into a great truth -- that our arts and crafts are profoundly human activities. They reveal us to ourselves, in both our human inadequacies and our soaring imaginations. The great folksongs and cave drawings, the transcendent symphonies and sculptures and cathedrals, even the quilts and cakes and dances and perfumes are human attempts to unite with the divine. In the performing arts, the page, however limited, is part of the process. It is the hinge between the Idea and the Living out of the Idea, making possible its Communication to others.* Let us use it wisely. -- Alice Parker
*Dorothy Sayers' re-visioning of the creating Trinity, in The Mind of the Maker.
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