Some reflections on the process of tonight's concert, by Sarah Darling. Enjoy!
Playing by heart...
It's the best. It's the worst. It's relaxing, wonderful, and intimate, when it's not terrifying, horrifying, and isolating. It's gazing into the chasm of the unknown - but's also having the chance to look adoringly at the known.
I love committing things to memory. I feel like there's no better way to cement your relationship with a work of art. Of course, as any performer knows, memorizing something in your "mind" happens late in the game; your body has been internalizing and preparing the performance since the first time you started to play that Mozart sonata or deliver that monologue. Still, being able to separate yourself from the page feels like casting a spell; you weave layers of context, feeling, cues, markers, around the now-invisible work until it is dressed in the finest duds your mind has to offer.
Sometimes it's a feeling that pulls you through; the trajectory of a dance of key relationships in the development section. Sometimes it's a little map or recipe that pops up on command (when you get to that spot the second time, add in the two extra notes.) Sometimes, it's simply a matter of relaxing into the motions of your own body, tracking them as if you're running an obstacle course for the hundredth time.
Whatever else it is, memorizing means one thing for certain; You're giving something up in order to reach into the void for the prospect of something else. And there's danger involved; the void is real. You never know when it'll explode into being right in front of you, swallowing up that impulse you had to play C-sharp instead of C and suddenly derailing your fingers, which suddenly crash into each other like cars on a runaway train.
Want to hear what it sounds like?
But when it works (which is really, really, most of the time) - when the spell holds, and all your safeties keep guiding you along the path of the piece - the most magical and amazing things start to happen. You're not just aware of that moment on the page; you're aware of everything, the whole universe of the work and exactly where you are inside it. A sort of wild playfulness takes hold, a devil-may-care. You realize that you could play the fifth instead of the third inside that one chord, and it would be OK, and in the same moment, you realize exactly why the composer wrote that note there in your part, and you're more eager than ever to play it as it is, with complete understanding and sympathy.
So, A Far Cry decided to try this out as a group. And the results are on display tonight! Tchaikovsky Serenade in Jordan Hall, with nothing on stage except... us.
To say that memorizing has altered the rehearsal process, or has changed the way that we interact in the piece, would be a massive understatement. Pulling all the stands off stage, allowing us to really know that we're connecting with each other (and with each others' intimate knowledge of the piece) has opened a million doors. At the beginning of the process it would mean relatively simple things - like looking across and seeing who's enjoying your supporting syncopations, or that wonderful diminished chord. As we started to zoom out, we began to share a common structural knowledge; where we are harmonically, how that changes over time. (In a way, we've always known these things, but when G major versus C major shows you where you are in the piece's "roadmap," the function hits home in a different way.
Yesterday, we took it one step further and, just to see (so to speak) what it would be like, we played the whole darn piece with our eyes closed.
Suddenly, we were tapping into each others' collective sense of sound, dynamic, and rubato without the "aid" of a visual (which is much like the "aid" of visual music.) Without it, we were forced to go deeper, to listen like we honestly never have had to do before. Trust and forgiveness are off the charts in a situation like that. But other things spring up into the void; the colors of tones, the feelings of dynamics. The sense of rhythm. The unbelievable feeling that everyone in the room is defined by one thing and one thing only: sound.
We won't be playing quite that way tonight, but we're keeping that sensation with us.
And we hope - and trust - that playing this piece together by heart, will change everything about the experience. For us and for everyone who listens.
The way I see it, the true challenge of "by heart" is to open up your heart just that little bit more.