I recently read an article by a writer I adore, Tim Kreider, whose books "We Learn Nothing" and "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You" are among my favorites. In this article, entitled "Persistence of Vision", he finds a school picture from his childhood, and is startled to essentially see two things at once; the kids as he sees them now as an adult, and the kids as he saw them then as peers.
I find this sort of thing to be true with music, both as a listener and a player, especially for old warhorses/chestnuts/who-needs-another-recording-of-a-Chopin-ballade sorts of pieces. With music I'm hearing, or playing, it can disconcerting to resolve how I remember something going with how it actually is going in the current iteration.
A number of years ago, I fell in love with a recording of Liszt's Ballade No. 2, and decided to learn it. I worked on it for a year or so, playing it for concerts and auditions. I always imagined I could do it better (shocker, eh), but felt some real moments of playing what I meant to play (i.e., playing how I heard it in my head) at various performances. Years later, I listened to the same recording that had motivated the whole thing. I shan't name the performer, but it was a Very Respected Recording Artist (now deceased). Michi, I was taken aback. The tone (even allowing for an older recording) seemed unsuitable, pacing (notoriously difficult in this piece) felt incomprehensible..where was my beloved inspiration? Maybe this is part of what Kreider says of an old friend; it's impossible to view them objectively. We have too many memories when we live with a piece for months or years to see the piece as anything but something we are in relationship with, something we converse with as collaborators. In this way, my living and interacting with the ballade on an intimate level gave me such a different perspective of who/what this piece was in my world, and how I believed it was 'supposed to go'.
Kreider discusses - among other things - the idea that memory creates reality, in the same way that persistence of vision allows film (i.e., moving pictures) to be perceived as continuous. Countless memories of 'now' pile up to form an experience of a person (or thing).
So. All the 'nows' build my sense of who/what a piece is. And all the listeners' 'nows' form their own experience. But unlike a picture which can be seen all in one look, or a book we can read at our own pace, or any other number of things, the music has to be experienced along a time-continuum in order to be experienced at all. We give shape to this experience, because we are in control of the time. We are taught, as performers, to listen on several planes simultaneously. We need to listen to what just happened, so what we do is a continuation of the narrative. We need to listen to what we are doing currently, so we are playing with accuracy and sensitivity. And we need to listen to what will happen, so we are preparing for how to get there. In other words, we need to listen along the continuum of time. But if we believe in Barbour's theory of time (as referenced in Kreider's article), there is not such thing as time. Do we believe in time, at least as musicians? Maybe that's part of the magic of music - that we create an immediate medium of getting from one now to another.
Here are some parts of my puzzle. How do we play pieces already settled into the canon and consciousness and make sense of multiple layers of memory, from both ourselves and our potential audiences? And when we play something entirely new, we're essentially introducing it as what people might then experience as Kreider's 'dictionary illustration [...] (Fig. 1: CHERYL)'. That's a real responsibility.
All of which to say...repertoire, and presentation of that repertoire, feels incredibly important these days (probably all days?). If we want to Say Something with our music, maybe we can find a way of focusing on this memory-experience?