Enjoying the Physicality of Sound

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by Nathan Cornelius

A musician whom I deeply respect tells the following story:

One day I found myself backstage before a rehearsal with the Spanish National Orchestra; the announced soloist was Alicia de Larrocha, who was, at the moment, practicing in a room nearby. At first, I had trouble realizing that what I was hearing through the door was not produced by a piano technician in the process of tuning an instrument. First of all, she was not practicing the work to be performed at the concert. Whatever she was playing (a dance by Granados) had no metrical rigor, but it did have a subtle, precise rhythmic flow, difficult to pinpoint; there were no nuances, no pedals. It sounded as if the artist was simply enjoying the physicality of her hands’ actions of the keyboard. She would repeat a particular turn of phrase, a chord, a bass line, a flourish, with no rush, no pressure, no other goal but the action itself.

I stood there, transfixed, on this side of the shut doors, listening, trying to identify a pattern, a method. Finally, it hit me that the person doing this could only pursue this activity in such a seamless, continuous fashion through total concentration. I also began to notice the difference in tone quality in successive repetitions of a given passage, as if the sounds were molded or sculptured ever more perfectly after each attempt until they achieved their desired weight and shape.

That day I learned what “practicing,” “concentration,” “discipline,” and “dedication” were all about and how foolish it was to associate those concepts with “hard work” or any other negatively-charged notion. What I was perceiving through those doors was a wave of self-engrossed, almost ecstatic pleasure.[1]

As I’ve pondered this story over the past few months, I’ve reached an epiphany of sorts about my habits of practicing as a performer. If my own experience is at all typical, musicians often fail to make as much progress as they ought when practicing, wasting a lot of time in the process. (This statement is so painfully obvious it hardly bears mentioning.) I believe the main cause of this inefficiency is an obsessive urge to play the piece straight through from beginning to end (or until technical problems force one to stop and begin again). I hope I am not the only musician to have been told countless times by my teachers to slow down and spend more time working on isolated passages, gestures, and even single notes and rather than “just playing it through.” The only way to play something better is to stop and work out the problematic bits slowly, with enough time to make each movement with complete relaxation and perfect accuracy.

We musicians all know this. What holds us back from doing it, then? I submit that it is because the rhythmic flow of the music is the primary source of the pleasure we gain from our playing. We are most gratified by the continuous flow of the notes in regular, ordered pulses, and we cannot bear to break off this flow, even at the cost of glitches and mistakes in the notes we hear. Simply put, I feel I would rather play wrong notes, but at least keep playing, than play right notes with pauses in between.

The solution to this dilemma, I’ve found, is to transfer my experience of pleasure from being rooted in the rhythmic or metrical aspects of the music to a new locus: the immediate, sensuous quality of the sound itself as a physical object, its timbre, its Klang. Instead of focusing my attention on the relationships of successive sounds in time, I try to experience each one in the present moment only, as if it were a static object, floating before me, big and luscious and luminous. I also try to enjoy the accompanying physical sensations as my body moves to produce these sounds. This is exactly what the great pianist de Larrocha was practicing in the anecdote above.

This relocation of the experience of pleasure entails a corresponding re-conception of how sounds are built up into a piece of music. Thus, I’m beginning to have another revelation of how this could reshape my work as a composer too. Under the old model, one perceives music as arising out of the relationships between a series of sounds in pitch-space and in time. When I compose music under this model, I try to structure my work according to musical relationships that can be expressed in discrete, quantifiable terms, such as rhythms and meters, but also intervals, chords, pitch-sets, and so forth. The composer Tristan Murail describes this paradigm: “All has been cut into slices, put into categories, classified, limited.” [2]

Murail then proceeds to ask a penetrating question: “Why do we always have to speak of music in terms of notes?”[3] If a performer can experience music as a succession of momentary, immediate, tangible, sonic sensations, why cannot a composer conceive of music as a succession of sound objects, each to be enjoyed (or suffered) on its own terms, without a demand to hurry on to the next one or tie it neatly into an objective structure? I’m just beginning to explore what this could look like in my music. But I believe that seeking to enjoy the physicality of sound as I imagine a composition can open up new possibilities for my writing just as it is liberating my playing.

[1] Ricardo Iznaola, interviewed by Charles Postlewaite, Guitar International, February 1986, 17.

[2] Tristan Murail, “Spectra and Sprites,” trans. Tod Machover, Contemporary Music Review 24, No. 2-3 (April/June 2005), 137.

[3] Ibid.


2 thoughts on “Enjoying the Physicality of Sound

  1. Hi Nathan: Did you write a paper on Stravinsky and Picasso? I found it recently on the net and it’s been very helpful to me in some research I’m doing on Stravinsky and cubism. Bob Weller San Diego

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