Monday, August 03, 2009

The Rest is Silence

Two eighth rests, how long are they?

I have had such a good time this summer playing with the Imani Winds while their oboist, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, is on maternity leave. I've enjoyed learning new repertoire for our concerts, but there is something special about working on pieces I've played for decades with Zéphyros Winds now with new colleagues. In these works—Barber's "Summer Music," Ligeti's "Six Bagatelles," Paquito D'Rivera's "Aires Tropicales," and Lalo Schifrin's "La nouvelle Oreleans"—I reengage my ears to another set of musical imaginations.

In these situations, a musician's opportunity to learn is ripe. And if we don't hear other players and play with other players, our various "chops" can atrophy for lack of attention.

In 1998, I was hired to play a single performance of "Annie Get Your Gun." It was a benefit for Lincoln Center Theater featuring Patty Lupone
and Peter Gallagher. The audience was filled with notables, Rosie was there, Barbara Walters seemed unpleasantly shocked by how politically incorrect the show was, Rex Reed was reported to have said, "Well, they didn't have to cut 'I'm an Indian, too.'" (Political correctness? And, yes, it did have to be cut.) And the orchestra, contracted by Red Press, was filled was the finest cats on the scene. I was pretty green (OK, very green). Out of Juilliard for just three years, I didn't know any faces in the band, but over the next decade I would come to. The first rehearsal began, naturally, with the overture. It looked pretty straight forward to me. Often in "tutti" sections (times when the whole orchestra is playing), orchestrators will give the oboe the same line as the first trumpet. The oboe doesn't make its most important contribution during these sections—you can't really hear it—so, we end up playing along with the loudest instrument, and that way we stay out of the way. Though I didn't know him at the time, one of New York's top lead trumpet players, Bob Millikan, was on the job. The overture started and I began to play my part, pretty much exactly how it looked on the page, in other words, totally square. The lead trumpet was playing in such a different style, and with so much style, I had to just stop and listen. "How does he know how to do that?" He knew. I didn't, but wanted to, and here, I realized was my opportunity to learn how it really went.

Each year in his Juilliard class, Albert Fuller would pick up a violin part to a Beethoven sonata and ask the students what he was holding. Always someone fell into the trap, "It's music." "No," Albert replied, "you cannot hold music. You can only hear music." Bob Millikan's trumpet playing brought that point home.

Lalo Schifrin's wind quintet, "La nouvelle Orleans," ends with an elaborate oboe cadenza meant to imitate the sound of a blues harmonica. After several performances with the Imani Winds, their flutist, Valerie Coleman, asked whether she could offer me a suggestion for that solo. It was a small thing, she assured me, but it would really help. The oboe cadenza begins after a loud chord played by the whole ensemble. There are two eighth rests between the chord and the oboe solo. "Could you wait a little bit longer before you start?" Valerie asked. One of the most challenging sounds for a musician to make on stage is silence. Modulating the right amount involves some risk. Concerts are about sound, after all. That night, I held onto those rests, the silence, just a little longer. The tension increased, and the solo landed with much more force.

When I was performing with Issa (Jane Siberry) a few years ago for her Carnegie Hall debut, she was coaching me on passage I was improvising. Again her urging was for less sounds, fewer notes, and more silence.

Listening to Albert Fuller's harpsichord recordings, again and again I am amazed at the role silence plays in his music making; especially as a tool to highlight a particular musical moment. He prepares that moment with a break in the sound, the silence features the next music.

Those two little rests written by Lalo Schifrin, how long are they, then? It depends on knowing what you are about to say next.

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