Sunday, July 15, 2012

Musical Exercises

Every morning when I sit down to play the guitar (which I try to do most mornings), I start with a series of technical exercises designed to maintain my technique. There are ones for the right hand, the left hand and ones that coordinate both hands. Some of these exercises have been passed down by word of mouth, such as one I like to start with that Francisco Tarrega (1852 - 1909), the father of modern guitar-playing, discovered and taught to his student Daniel Fortea (1878 - 1953), who in turn taught it to Celedonio Romero (1913 - 1996) who taught it to his son Pepe Romero (b. 1944), who taught it to me.

But the musical exercises I want to talk about are not technical ones, but aesthetic ones. In 1548 the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola were approved for publication by Pope Paul III. They are a series of exercises in meditation and contemplation under the supervision of a spiritual director and take about a month to complete.To this day, the Spiritual Exercises remain an integral part of the Novitiate training period of the Roman Catholic religious order of Jesuits. I am not a religious person and that is about the sum total of my knowledge of the spiritual exercises. But it occurs to me that the basic concept might be a quite interesting one applied to music. As it says in the Wikipedia article:
The main aim of the Exercises is the development within the human psyche of "discernment" (discretio), the ability to discern between good and evil spirits. Discernment is achieved in order to act "with the Grace of God".
 The spiritual exercises use the techniques of seclusion and prayer. The first of these is also a practice of many musicians. Examples include Elliot Carter's secluding himself in the Sonoran desert for a year to write his first string quartet. That's pretty secluded for a guy from New York. Guitarist Julian Bream has recounted going camping with the score to a difficult new piece of music so he could study it in seclusion. A few posts back, I put up one about composers who like to spend time in the countryside and ended with a photo of this tiny little hut that Mahler used to compose in, located on the shore of a lake. The Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has composed music to be played on a lake. This is a telling quote from him: “Still the noise in the mind: that is the first task - then everything else will follow in time.”

What I have in mind are a series of what we might call musical aesthetic exercises designed to clear and sensitize the mind and ear to sound musical aesthetics. (I tried to avoid that pun on 'sound', but it was the right word so I left it.) As Schafer says, "still the noise in the mind". But then you should engage in the musical equivalent of prayer (I suppose, I don't really know much about prayer!), which is listening. But a special kind of listening where you actually learn how to listen. It is my observation that the musical environment we live in tends to desensitize us to musical aesthetics. The industrial pounding of much pop music makes us insensitive to rubato and rhythmic subtleties. The frenetic busyness of so much music today distracts us and confuses us as listeners. So let me propose some musical exercises that might help to clear the mind.

Week One

  • The first day should be spent with silence, just to still the noise in the mind. Try not to have any 'earworms' chugging around your head. Think of it as listening to repeat performances of 4'33 by John Cage. Try to find the quietest spot you can and just listen quietly to the soundscape for an hour.
  • Day two, start with some music. Perhaps the best one to begin with is Steve Reich's Drumming. The utter simplicity of the first quarter of the piece is ideal. It begins with single beats on a small drum and slowly builds up a complex rhythmic texture. The whole piece is just under an hour and a half long so it is quite a demanding work to focus on, but an excellent exercise for that reason. If you just can't listen to the whole thing, then at least listen to part one (that's up to about the 24 minute mark).
  • Day three we should shift from rhythm to melody and some unaccompanied chant would be ideal. Something like this, but try to listen to an hour's worth:

  • Day four, some simple counterpoint, perhaps something from Notre Dame:

  • Day five, simple counterpoint, but with complex harmony. Just listen to the first movement as the whole quartet is too much to absorb at this point.

  • Day six, introducing more harmony. There are a whole lot of Bach preludes that would work well for this. Here are three. In all of these, the most important element is harmony. In the first there is virtually nothing else!

  • Day seven, let's introduce more counterpoint. The Art of Fugue by Bach is a pretty good thing to listen to. It's about an hour and a half long. Here is the first fugue to get you started. Notice that the fugue subject is as simple as possible: just an outline of the tonic harmony, plus a short scale segment.

If you do what I have suggested here, I think that you will start to hear music differently. Closer, in more detail. This is going to vary immensely depending on the individual person, but I would be really surprised if you did this or something similar and it didn't make a difference in your listening.

You know, I think I will stop right there. Next week, week two!

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