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A Brief Defense of the Symphony Orchestra

Busking Violinist

WHEN A COMPOSER SITS DOWN TO WRITE, he 1 is tasked with the documentation of his own experience. The composer draws upon his life, made up of contributions from other people: their own experiences, their emotions, their creations. The furniture in his life, the clothes he wears, the buildings he lives in–all are products of the application of human creative energy to a specific task. But these things, important though they are, stand a rung below the task of the composer. As one that stands in the venerated category of artist, his goal is much greater. A great chef does not merely cook a good dish; he maximizes the way you use your sense of taste. A virtuosic painter strives not just to paint a high quality work, but enhance the ways you use your sense of vision.

The compositional giants whose works have endured for centuries–Brahms, Mozart, Bach 2–their music presents the otherwise routine experience of “hearing things” in a manner that, simply, you do not experience at any other point in your lifetime. Some even say that composers simply align sound with the resonances of the human body. 3. When a composer sits down to write, he puts to paper a piece of his soul. 4 Those pages and pages of sheet music serve as a realization of the intangible: a revealing window into what he, at that moment, feels is beautiful–or ugly–about the world that he lives in.

We may call this window a soul snapshot: an immortalization of one moment in time in the composer’s humanity.

When a conductor stands up to conduct, she 5 is tasked with the interpretation of one human’s experience – the composer. Through her gestures, facial expressions, and even body movements, she conveys the breadth of this composer’s documented soul snapshot. But the conductor is not a thoughtless vessel merely delivering the composer’s interpretations to the orchestra and audience. Rather, the conductor combines her own storybook of history with that of the open soul on the stand in front of her, all to solve the puzzle of “How can I make this performance align with what I want to create in the world?” 

We may call this union a soul merger: the unification of two souls that occurs between composer and conductor as a byproduct of a common goal–sharing music with another.

When an orchestral musician sits down to play, he is tasked with creating sonority from staff paper: actualizing reality from the conceptual. After a decades long journey of learning and perfecting their instrument, the musician has the privilege of manifesting the organization of sound as imagined by the composer. But the musician too acts as more than a mere vessel that transports music from thought to sound.

In a performance, the orchestral musician accounts for the soul snapshot of the composer and its soul merger with the conductor. No doubt influenced by dozens of pedagogues and fellow musicians over his lifetime, he also imbues a piece of their musical concepts and ideas into his playing. More profoundly, the musician further infuses his own journey, storybook, and soul fragment to the final product. Everyone who has impacted the musician’s life in any way is present in the creation, in ways that are more and less subtle. Depending on the size of the orchestra, this phenomenon is multiplied by fifty, eighty, or over a hundred.

We may call this union a soul manifestation: a birth of the emotional abstraction of the soul into the physical processes of the universe.

When the audience stands up to applaud, they have completed the symphonic experience. Whether a sharer or listener in a symphony performance, all in the concert hall participate in the product–a collective shift in neurology. Each change in harmony, each turn of a phrase, each driving ostinato increases the listener’s capacity for creativity, as he is given a tiny fragment of all the souls who influenced this performance. This gift–shifting your brain and heart to a positive–transcends more than that can be achieved from attending a sporting event, as it is shared in collective silence, with the music solely capturing our attention.

Furthermore, in a refreshing change from media consumed today, there is no “marketing angle.” A symphony does not play to an audience’s (sometimes reluctant) proclivity towards sex, violence, and sensationalism. Rather, the symphonic experience tugs at beauty for its own sake –a devotion to the organization of sound in the finest possible manner, shared by a group of people who have dedicated their very lives to this devotion. This complexity makes orchestral music intimidating and confusing to many, but it is for this same reason that the symphony is the most profoundly affective. 6

Each performance of any work stands as a documentation of human experience at its most raw. From the composer through the performers through the listeners, one man’s lifeblood becomes augmented by the lives of hundreds, thousands–sometimes, if a recording is circulated enough–millions. Something profound is born: an entity that embodies the collective of human experience. In a performance, we see one man’s humanity stacked upon another’s upon another’s on an exponential scale. This entity stands uniquely in time, impossible to document even by recording. The lens that is our human experience changes from day to day, from listening to listening. A listener is not the same man he was yesterday. A performer will not draw from the same emotional palette tonight as tomorrow. Thus, two performances of Mahler’s Resurrection will affect a listener and performer in a notably different way, even by the same orchestra in back to back performances.

These performances are only possible with the influences of the rest of humanity on the composers, conductors, and musicians. An argument with a banker on the subway, exquisitely baked cookies from your roommate, a simple “hello” from a long-time crush. All influence the music. On a grander scale, each performance is unavoidably influenced by pieces of the whole of human history that happened before that performance.

This final, collective experience I call soul actualization. When you are imprinted with the souls of others before you, you experience the pinnacle of what it means to be human.

When I am asked why classical music is my living, I describe that experience. I then ask in return:

“Thus, is the world better or worse,
when a composer sits down to write?”

Composer

Thanks for reading. Come back for new content next Monday, every Monday. No clickbait, no fluff, just value. Thoughts? Leave a comment below, or send me an email. I respond to everyone.

Photo Creds: One|Two

Notes:

  1. Or she, of course.
  2. To name a few.
  3. Wagner in particular was known for his sexualized descriptions of music as “the feminine”.
  4. Defined here as a personal identity. This blog might get a little, or a lot romanticized. Just let it happen.
  5. Strong nod to Alondra de la Parra.
  6. Spelled as such because it “affects” people the most; emotionally.

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