Time is our constant companion. In music, it is both jailer and dance partner. Jazz musicians know best how to bend it without ever losing it. It has even been the direct subject of works of music from Haydn to Messiaen to John Cage.
Last year, I heard Andras Schiff play Schumann piano works and songs in the Kammermusiksaal of the Berlin Philharmonie. During intermission, my neighbors struck up a conversation. The man sitting next to me confessed that it was difficult for him to come into a concert hall after a work day and jump straight into Schumann’s idiosyncratic world. I knew what he meant. For the average audience member, a song would have been the easier transition; our everyday thoughts are at least built of words.This was a couple who loved classical music, who despite having bought tickets specifically for this concert found it difficult to bridge the gap between doing and listening.
It’s actually all a matter of time.
Listening is not a passive activity, but at the same time, a concert may be the only block of time in a workday where everything stops. Concert halls are among the few places in our cities where meditative silence is required, where one is given the opportunity to quietly focus on something other than oneself which mingles with one’s one thoughts; something that can have a different meaning for each listener, this powerful yet unintrusive force that can mitigate the talking part of the brain: music.
The question is: how do you get to that place, even where you’re already supposedly in it? My neighbors hadn’t managed, despite having bought expensive tickets. Listening is a state of mind that creates space. In order to create space, you have to throw away what you don’t need: that constant chattering list of emails to be written, items to get at the supermarket, unpaid bills piling up on the desk. Getting rid of clutter takes time. Most people wouldn’t think of taking fifteen minutes to do nothing before going to a concert, but that’s probably just what we need. Before an operation you have to fast. Before going out into the cold you should put on a warm coat. Before going to a concert you should empty your brain.
We performers are only half of the equation. We need good listeners, and they are an endangered species these days. The quality of listening changes the quality of performance. Great listening is pure energy; you feel it on stage like a bag of precious jewels that have been entrusted to you for a short time. It’s our responsibility to carry those jewels carefully and return them whole, even polished.
I’ve always reserved my highest admiration for musicians who are virtuosic in their dances with time. After I first heard Bill Evans’ album ‘Alone’ I listened to it over and over again, trying to fully absorb the way he made the rigidity of meter into something seamless, fluid, and infinitely flexible.
I would love to learn how to play with time like that. Not just in music. In December, there never seems to be time for anything; all activity reaches its most frenzied pace a week or two before the holidays, as if we were all constantly trying to outrun some sinister hourglass.
I’m taking four days off right now, at the busiest time of the year. I’m not saying that to make anyone envious, just to point out that it’s possible without dire consequences. I’ve always taken time off even when people have advised me against it: after I came to Berlin in 1997, I spent half a year not playing the cello. I stopped practicing again for several months after I quit my first orchestral job. I don’t think it has made me a worse musician.
People are terrified of emptiness, which for many is synonymous with stillness; but music lives and grows in the space that surrounds it, and that space is silence, and silence is unfilled time. Time to empty your brain of unnecessary junk.
It all comes down to this: when you take time, you have it.