I'm continually amazed at the number of trained musicians -- composers, performers, teachers -- who have never yet caught on to the fact that music is sound -- vibrations hitting the ear thus awakening echoes within I must have been of their number when I graduated from college, because my clearest memory of study with Robert Shaw and Julius Herford was that wave of illumination. The notes on the page are only a graph, and there are hundreds of ways to interpret them. They can't come alive until they find a sympathetic reader who can translate them into vibrations.
I recall listening to Shaw rehearsing the Juilliard Choir, beginning with a lengthy warm-up. I kept a timed record of each of these: how long was spent on each vowel, each rhythmic drill, each tuned interval.) It took months before I began to listen as intently as I could to the 'sound in the room': to hear the incredible shadings of vowel, ensemble and tuning contained within even a brief phrase. It took even longer for me to divorce myself from the page: to regard it as the beginning of a journey into sound rather than an end in itself.
He, of course, used many unorthodox gestures in his conducting. Some wag commented that there were only two: 'washing'(up and down) and 'ironing'(side to side)]. But their whole purpose was to evoke sound -- meaningful sound-- from the singers. He was tethered by bands of steel to the 'sound in the room' -- submerged in it, always comparing it to the ideal in his imagination, and finding words, images and gestures to bring it as close as possible to that ideal.
The same transformation occurred in my piano studies with Julius Herford. The page contains multitudes (in Whitman's phrase) to the reader well-versed in the tradition. It's not at all what it seems: it's a window into the past, into the thought processes of whoever first made those marks. The instrument surpasses its own limitations when this happens: it sings like a woodthrush, fanfares like a trumpet, or soothes like a lullaby. The musical imagination of the performer makes this possible, and that imagination is formed by a lifetime's immersion in living sound.
But 'empty gestures' are all around me. The warm-up of a middle-school choir by a teacher who goes through a list of exercises with the piano loudly playing, literally unable to hear the 'sounds' the young people are making. (She's not listening, thus they are not listening.) The well-trained conductor with picture-perfect gestures, none of which seem to affect way the choir sounds. The anthem by a non-singing composer, its awkward relationship of text to tune. (The page is the empty gesture: it was not founded on vocal sound.)
And how much of our own communication with each other consists of empty gestures? Do we really listen to each other, and then respond to what we hear (rather than what we think or wish we were hearing)? How well can you echo what you hear? Find the right response to it? This must be the way that human song began: listening to natural sounds around us: wind, water, birds, thunder, the crash of a falling tree. Notice how alert even a tiny baby is to the sounds around it. How does this alertness, this connection, become dulled? Surely it's by too much non-human sound, too much clamor that doesn't ask for or expect an answer. We stop listening, and lose our ability to respond ('response-ability').
Let us, as musicians, rededicate ourselves to meaningful sound. Can we tune our voices to one another? Can we move in true unison? Are we dancing the same dance? Evoking the same emotion? Meaning what we speak and sing? Sharing the experience as a family, a group, a village, a city, a nation? What a world we could create if we would leave behind the empty gestures.