MUSIC AND THE MAGIC OF PLACE
What is it in an object that seems to hold the energy of people that have used it before?
And why does the association with these places and objects of significance excite us?
I had the great fortune of joining the San Francisco Symphony on its Spring tour this year (2007). Our first stop was Carnegie Hall. I arrived in mid-afternoon for some solo practice time on the (gasp!) electronic organ, stored in some sort of wardrobe room. (It was wheeled onto the stage the next day for the performance.) After my rehearsal, I was walking by the stage door and noticed that the concert hall was empty. Asking the guard if it was alright, I walked through the artists’ stage entrance and right onto the stage, looking out at the empty seats.
There I was, on the stage of Carnegie Hall for the first time in my life. Frankly, I felt overcome with the emotion of the moment, the keen awareness of the countless musical giants that had walked onto that stage as I just had – Tchaikowsky, Bernstein, Casals, Callas, Caruso, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Menuhin, Rampal, the Beatles, Billie Holliday, etc. I was also very aware of the millions that still aspire to that stage, and how fortunate I was to be able to perform there.
As I stood there, feeling the strong thread of musical history and personages, aware of my own small part in it, I started thinking of the various places where I had previously experienced that ephemeral sense of connection to the past, that unique feeling of excitement that seems to transcend boundaries of self and ego and unites one with that enormously elusive world called “music.” Although it was my first time on the Carnegie Hall stage, the feeling of connection that I was experiencing was not entirely new for me.
On my 40th birthday, I played an organ recital in Hamburg, Germany on an organ that Bach, himself, had once dedicated and that Albert Schweitzer greatly loved. Recreating his (Bach’s) music there, I sensed the walls themselves resonating with sounds they knew and loved.
Several times this happened for me in Paris, once while performing at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where virtually every famous organist in history has performed and where Louis Vierne died during an improvisation. Another time improvising and performing the music of Olivier Messiaen at Ste. Trinité, the very seat on which he spent much of his musical life. Again while playing Franck at Ste. Clothilde where he spent his career; and again while improvising at St. Sulpice where Dupré and Widor, and Tournemire held forth. And while being given a private tour of Maurice Duruflé’s apartment, I experienced, once again, this invisible bridge to the past while playing the organ and piano in his study, staring out at the view of Paris churches and rooftops from his writing desk, and holding, in my own hands, his handwritten score to the Requiem.
In Venice, I was given an opportunity to play Vivaldi in the basilica of San Marco, on the very organ that Vivaldi, himself, played.
In Holland, I’ve experienced this sensation of connection at the tiny village church of Oosthuizen, where I’ve both performed and recorded on one of the oldest organs in the world – with pipes dating back to the 15th century. Here I recorded Sweelinck with sounds and tuning that Sweelinck, himself, would have known, and where he surely played at some point during his Renaissance lifetime.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I experienced this repeatedly over an entire year of working at Westminster Abbey. The organ sits on the pulpitum, directly above the monument to Sir Isaac Newton; it’s the most commanding view in the entire Abbey. When I played the music of Handel, his bones vibrated with the music as he is buried in the South transept next to Charles Dickens. In addition to the Abbey’s obvious connection to the political arena in history, the list of composers who gave part of their lives to making music there looks like a who’s who of English music. The memory of their contributions can still be found resonating in the walls, floor, and ceiling. Surely this is one of the main reasons that virtually all visitors to London feel that they have a “need” to be in Westminster Abbey; on a primal level, they are plugging into history. Yes, the building is beautiful, but it’s the billion or so people who have been through its doors for 900 years that give the building its power.
I’m not going to posit any theories of how literal my connections were to any of the composers just listed, but I can verify the intensity and keen awareness of the feeling. It strikes the body before it sinks in to the mind. Because I’m a musician, my cells seem to “understand” the presence of other musicians. So, does this imply that great musicians carry a more intense aura or energy that somehow effects the vibrations of the things they come in contact with? I would not have any difficulty believing that. Surely this is what makes them great in the first place. And the fact that it seems to reach the body (a sensation of ecstacy) before the mind (the cognitive awareness of the musicians who have been in a particular place) tells me that the body is more finely tuned to vibrational differences around us than the mind is able to piece together information.
I don’t think there’s any particular significance to this except to observe it when it happens, and take it as a blessing from the past. Like music, much of life has to do with vibration, moving between high and low levels, recognizing high and low levels in other people and places. I think we are only scratching the surface when we posit the effects that the Arts carry on our day to day lives. For me, these experiences just listed are enough proof of the continued blessing we receive from the past, and in turn, our potential for blessing the future.
© 2007 by Jonathan Dimmock
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