What transpires between musicians when the music transcends?

There needs to be immense selflessness embodied in music creation
Last Updated : 07 May 2023, 00:01 IST

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In the Netflix show Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know, physicist Professor Malcom Perry talks about losing his longtime collaborator Professor Stephen Hawking: “There is a special kind of friendship that grows out of scientific collaboration and discovery that, in my experience, is like no other. And to have a, you know… scientific…a productive scientific interaction with somebody over many decades and then lose them, is very sad. It is sad in a different way than losing a relative…It’s a special thing and to lose that is sad…”

It moved me to meditate on the relationship between musicians who make music together over a long period of time. More often than not, we have a reductionist view of what transpires between musicians on stage. We give it a label: chemistry. But that’s superficial. A serious musical relationship is not merely a product of understanding one another’s style, musical sensibility, trajectory and personality traits. There is more to it; it is intellectual, emotional, personal yet unbound and free. Articulating such a coming together is a daunting task, but I will try.

Before I venture into the abstract experience of true musical togetherness, let me set the stage by defining what I am not describing. I am not speaking of those moments of appreciative nods and acknowledgments witnessed on stage. I am not explaining the competitive musical repartees exchanged by musicians. Neither is this musical rapport the overflow of a personal friendship on to the musical stage.

The word ‘concert’ in its Italian form ‘concerto’ relates directly to music. But it embodies, through its etymological transitions, a coming together, accord, union, collective striving, and concerted effort. It implies that within the endeavour, there are mutual adjustments, devices and arrangements. The individuals involved do not always need to be in congruence. They could disagree, go back and forth on ideas on the musical stage, yet remain together in a thoughtful manner. The simple answer to why they remain together is that the music keeps them together.

But this trite elucidation does not communicate anything concrete; instead, it creates an unnecessary mystique around music-making. Musicians remain in harmony because their vision of the partnership is in unison. Each individual does not discard their personality and homogenise into one; they assemble together because they recognise the beauty of each other’s persona. Their intricate musical compatibilities and disparities contribute to the musical canvas. In fact, if there are no differences, there is no harmony. It is because of each individual’s expression that sensibilities, tones and flavours are layered into the music. When two people sing in exactly the same way, like carbon copies, there is a mechanised perfectness, but this lacks aesthetic wisdom. The synergy between diverse empathetic musicians comes from an acute awareness of others and themselves. This mutual trust allows music to find its own pathway.

Here, individuality is not a prisoner of egos. There needs to be immense selflessness embodied in music creation. Every musical expression listens to the other, and melodic and rhythmic conversations are respectful. Counterpoints, or contrasting motifs, are not explored to offend or assert. They are intuitive or instinctive responses to a context. In such an ambience, each musician finds themself in an open, border-less musical land sans fences and limits, curious to explore all that the land has to offer and share that liberation. There is no individual agenda, end-game, or victory being sought. Hence, no action is at the expense of another. It is like making love, when you give your entire body, mind and soul to your partner. There is tenderness, romance and consummate love.

But this is truly rare to find in musical performances. There is always a ‘lead’ performer who occupies centre-stage, and accompanying musicians who are treated as support acts. The ‘lead’ artists wax eloquent on how they are nothing without their colleagues, but the reality on stage is entirely different. Thus, my description of altruistic musical synergy is idealistic.

How and what music is being created on stage? A close scrutiny of ourselves and the audience that occupies the other side of the proscenium is revealing. From the moment we have any cognition of the world around us, we are groomed to compete, occupy, fight, recognise and target weaknesses, elbow out people, own and control. Our every sensation, including love, is shaped to accommodate these cultivated normatives. So, as much as we claim to seek the divine, bliss and otherworldly-ness at musical recitals, it is demonstrations of these qualities that draw us back into the auditorium, thrill us, hold us captive, and most often the cause for that much-sought-after thunderous applause. Even melancholy and kindness as musical feelings are trapped in this kind of arousal. Since music is abstract, intangible and disappears into thin air, we do not consciously know how these divisive conditionings translate into musical production. But they certainly do, and we react to them.

Despite this, at times, musical thoughts escape these emotional clutches and transcend our limitations. Musicians find themselves in a place they are not used to, sharing without boundaries, unafraid of judgement and non-judgemental themselves, listening to each other with joy. And the audience too senses that the quality of music that is being offered is different, the performance of it irrelevant. But these moments do not last for long, because both musicians and the audience want to be back in a place they are used to.

Sustained musical partnerships of such profundity are like generous scientistic collaborations. They seek the understanding of a problem, insights from various angles, the marvelling at intricacies, and attempt to inch closer to the truth. I will leave you with something to listen and watch. A performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udhHFt--10Q), performed by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and conducted by Claudio Abbado, that communicates all that I have tried to express in words.

Listen to the entire piece, experience the music flow into quietness and then, towards the very end, everything and everyone are still together!

Published 06 May 2023, 18:37 IST

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