Listening for a breaking wave; lake-watching at night

We’ve been having a lot of nutty weather in Chicago – not atypically, a lot of wind.  The lake has responded with an ever-evolving dance of wave types, a long, unfolding conversation with the wind. A few days ago, the wind was coming off the land, pushing against strong incoming lake waves to form little halos of mist over the waves – as if the spray were surfing. It was mesmerizing. The next day, the waves were unusually regular and even; driving against the fortification that helps prevent our music building from falling into the lake, the waves bouncing back formed large diamond shapes that moved perpendicular to the shore – a beautiful demonstration of wave interference causing a tidy procession of boxes across the surface. Equally mesmerizing. Another night I was down at the lake, watching the waves in a light breeze. With the lights of the city bouncing off each ripple, the water was a light show of wave fragments quietly intersecting, deflecting, moving in and out – each little, ephemeral surface either in shadow or capturing the light and momentarily reflecting it, so that the whole lake was a big, muted, sparkling blanket.

I’ve been noticing that my life seems to move in waves – a background undulation barely noticeable in the foreground. At times it will settle in to a routine; things go along with little disruption – work is work, some days good, others mundane. This is the long trough of the wave. But, then there are other periods of true evolution – scary, inspiring, confusing months in which I know I’m changing but I don’t know exactly how. These are the peaks, uncertain how they will crest, when they will break. ‘What we are doing right now’ is ‘being unpredictable’;  the activity of my life is the unknown. Some days in these peaks I’m not sure if I’m the ripples reflecting back the city lights, or the waves in one direction or another of the crisscrossing, or the swells, or for that matter, the halo of mist above them or the geese flying low over the halo or the wind that has a mind of its own and listens to no one.

I think part of this has to do with my teaching. Teaching conducting is like holding a mirror up to my own work. It daily calls into question what I am doing as a conductor; how to evoke sound, effect change, how to treat people, to find a certain emotional agreement, to allow space in the room, to step away, to listen, to lead without pushing, to know when to be vertical and when to be horizontal. For example, most of the time I don’t think about gesture, I just sort of carve the music in the air, around the breath it takes to sing it or play it. If I think about that, it makes me crazy; but when I’m teaching that exact thing, there are times when I cannot help but be aware that I’ve just done something I asked a student not to do a couple of hours earlier, or that one of the ways I achieve a certain release or attack goes against what I normally suggest as a rule. It magnifies that there are no rules and it reminds me that art is, in every way, a series of solutions to problems – whether that be in the creative process of composers or the re-creative process of performers.

This is so apparent to me as the Seven Responses scores begin to trickle in, nearing our April 1 due date. The problems posed concern, first, a text that will respond to those Buxtehude chose for his cantatas. Then, there is the problem of musical language specific to this moment, this text, this project. I can already see that some of our composers have tried on new languages when considering the sounds and styles of The Crossing. It’s a very humbling thing to sit quietly in my studio and imagine this or that composer hearing our ensemble in their head as they create something from nothing.

It turns out that writing a blog, in the end, means writing about me – and it calls into question just how much of my art is about me. That’s a frustrating question. I’d like to think that it’s not, that I make every attempt to avoid layering my life on top of that of the composers. Still, I suppose that being in the moment in a piece of art means that I am open to the world as Time passes. As such, it is, in fact, me, generating sound: Me, in a community of people relying on me to be open and to facilitate and to breathe and to listen, in order for us to be One. Listening is what 7R is about. Listening to how we respond to suffering and how we declare joy; listening to the voices of composers reaching over centuries, over lands, over cultures; listening to each other in a room full of people singing. Listening to who is in a trough and who is on a peak – riding the waves of the music and letting the energy of the wave determine the direction of the phrase, the time, the collective, the problem and the solution: of my life, and those in it.

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

-  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin