About a month ago, I attended the first of six Harvard Norton lectures by Laurie Anderson. Her talk was unique to the Norton series not only for its content -- more performance piece than lecture -- but also for taking place over Zoom, with both its ease of access and inherent limitations. Despite the limited format, Anderson was able, through her resourcefulness, to create an experience that proved unexpectedly satisfying and immersive.
During her piece, Anderson posed two basic questions: "Why do anything?" and "How do you know what's good?" Her answer consisted of a series of loosely connected musings, while behind her ran a constant procession of animated backgrounds: black-and-white aerial shots over New York; winter forest walks through the snow and fog; slow drives down a rainy road seen through a car windshield. These Lynch-esque landscapes, hypnotic in quality, the latter two evoking a certain rural Americana, seemed gradually to eclipse Anderson's words as the focus of her talk. (Her series is aptly titled "Virtual Backgrounds"). Even while speaking, Anderson intentionally chose a delivery style that seemed to rebel against the autocratic nature of Zoom, deflecting attention from herself as an authority. In moments she even went so far as to technologically delete her virtual image, creating an unlikely sense of wonder as we were suddenly confronted by the combination of animated background with her disembodied words.
By highlighting this relationship between virtual background and voice, Anderson drew a seductive connection between inward reflection (voice) and outward-directed fantasy (virtual background), associating internal reflection with a sense of liberated possibility. The ability to reconcile these seeming opposites -- the journey inwards with projected fantasy -- has become for me, as I expect for many, an essential component of our collective experience of this pandemic winter, for better or for worse.
These winter months have led me to some unusual places in my reading. Usually immersed in novels and poetry, I have found myself strangely absorbed in Martha Nussbaum's writing on philosophy as therapy, while simultaneously reading, with equal seriousness, books entitled "D.I.Y. Magic" and "A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming" (both touted as guides to accessing the creative subconscious).
Exploring lucid dreaming in particular has far exceeded expectations of mere escapist fantasy. Lucid dreaming might most simply be defined as being aware of your dreams while inside of them. This leads to the ability to act purposefully while dreaming (which, of course, extends to anything you can imagine, be it flying, teleportation, or spontaneous manifestation of desires). In the past week of reading about the subject and some light attempts, I've become lucid in a dream exactly once, for only a few moments. Most people at this point, upon first achieving lucidity, immediately attempt a new experience such as flying. What struck me in this moment, however, was less a sudden desire for novelty and more a deeper realization concerning personal agency in dreams, and how that immediately began to color my idea of agency in the "real world."
From a practice point of view, something stressed in the book is the idea that our cognitive experience of dreams is no different from our cognitive experience of reality. In fact, the simplest technique to achieve lucidity involves little more than asking the question regularly throughout the day, "am I dreaming?" which leads inevitably to a habit of a mind that allows us to "catch ourselves" in a dream state.
Yet the idea that our experience of dreams and reality are cognitively identical is true only in a very limited sense. It's true that our experience of reality (dreams being a kind of reality) is indifferent as to whether it originates in immediate sensory input versus in memory. And yes, the possibility of recombining memories from within our own subconscious minds is potentially endless, allowing us to generate entire worlds in our heads. Yet the raw data we hold in memory is of course only an infinitesimally small fraction of our possibility of lived experience.
This matters not so much in what our "dream experience" vs. "real experience" ends up being, but in how we get there. If a loved one causes us pain or hurt in a nightmare, it may feel just as traumatic as if it had happened in real life. Yet no matter the resemblance to reality, the actions of someone in our dream may be equally the result of a recombination of the experience of that loved one with a past traumatic experience that bears no relation to them. Conversely, the actions of someone in the real world, even when we think we can make sense of them, are often the result of reasons or causes completely outside our knowledge, because our minds are only ever imperfect models of external reality.
Why any of this matters is, again, that question of agency. To truly enjoy and appreciate our own agency, we must be convinced of our ability to act and the power of our actions to effect change in the world around us. In the real world, that agency is often limited by external factors outside our control, yet in dreams, being convinced of that agency depends only on our minds. In order to effect change in a dream, we only need to direct our attention to it. This both drastically expands our agency and yet, at the same time, renders it somehow meaningless, tautological. What is our actual impact on the world around us when the world around us is us? Crucially, in what ways is this same tautology equally true of our "real lives" when we become artificially bounded or disconnected from others? Our virtual world offers an arena in which agency becomes cheap currency, but also hollow, removed from physical response.
Over the past few months I've started dedicating 15 minutes of my daily piano practice to improvisation. So I smiled when Anderson quipped in her talk, "improvisation is the perfect art form for the pandemic… it's unplanned; one is constantly revising expectations of what will come; and one is forced to be deeply attentive to the moment." It struck me that improvisation might be the best art form for the pandemic, not only for the reasons Anderson described, but also in constituting a kind of creativity that is self-begetting: creativity not as a recombination of existing ideas, but as a way of creating something from nothing. And is this idea of creating something from nothing really so different from our idea of agency in dreams? Certainly the notion that we can render an entire musical world from the initial germ of an idea can feel wondrous in a way not dissimilar from our wildest dreamlike manifestations.
Two experiences I had while lucid dreaming strike me as relevant to improvisation. The first was walking through a screen door. What was interesting to me about this experience was that it was only possible when I moved slowly and deliberately. At first it felt like this hesitancy stemmed from the need to address, in the moment, my own belief as to whether or not moving through a screen door was possible. Registering this doubt, my hand paused briefly against the screen before only then, slowly, being able to move through it. As I moved, however, I realized that this deliberateness stemmed equally from needing to be able to imagine the tactile experience of my hand passing through the soft mesh. In other words, while the belief that I could move through the screen door at all was a prerequisite to putting my hand through, the subsequent imagined sensation became equally important to maintaining the belief that it was happening.
I would describe this experience as similar to achieving the kind of flow state necessary for fluid improvisation: a state wherein doing, experiencing, and evaluating must exist always simultaneously in a kind of mental juggling act. On the one hand, there is the sense of intentionality; the momentum of will; the thrust of an idea through time. On the other hand, there is the necessity of reacting in the moment, lingering over a timing here or there, and responding to the continual feedback of the sounds themselves as they're generated: how they re-inform and redirect the existing thrust and intention of a musical line. Just as the experience of moving through the screen door unconsciously slows down our gesture as we begin to process and incorporate these new sensations, so is there a difference in improvisation between an initial intention (perhaps thinking ahead to a series of notes to be executed as a group), versus when we begin experiencing those notes in the moment on a more granular level, slowing things down or adjusting timings as we move from one note to the next.
These ideas apply equally to performance as they do to improvisation. An ideal performance to my mind is just as spontaneous and responsive to the inspiration of the moment: perfectly planned but infinitely flexible. The best performance and improvisation, then, is fundamentally linked to attunement and peace with one's innermost self. Good piano practice to me has always felt like a form of meditation, so it makes perfect sense= that one technique for achieving lucid dreaming also involves a kind of meditation that bridges the gap from wakefulness to sleep, a fusing of conscious and unconscious worlds.
To her statement about improvisation, Anderson adds the caveat, "of course, it's best with other people…" Besides the pang of loss that this statement evokes for many of us during the pandemic, Anderson's words also return us to this unlikely parallel between turning inward and connecting outward.
In these winter months, I've had a growing sense with each day of the pervading fragility of our virtual world. Not having a car, I've been avoiding public transportation and visiting many of my Boston friends through walks or long runs, social excursions that often require blocking off an entire afternoon. With snow and ice making this difficult during the winter, the virtual medium becomes even more necessary to preserving these already tenuous connections.
Yet here, too, dreaming and improvisation offer strategies. The precarious "trick" state we achieve in lucid dreaming, when we combine a heightened awareness with a simultaneous suspension of disbelief, has become equally essential to conducting meaningful social interactions over Zoom. By a similar logic, when we remind ourselves that our conversations are a form of improvising (certainly best with other people), we regain an agency and ability to surprise ourselves even within our monotonous virtual contexts.
Near the end of her talk, Anderson brings in the idea of the Hudson River as the backdrop for much of her creative work: looking out over the water to catch the perfect sunset over Jersey; listening to the tracks of a just-recorded album against the lapping rhythms of the current, asking, does the flow work?
Last month I walked out over the Mass Ave bridge to Cambridge for the first time this year and was struck with a sense of wonder and awe that the river was frozen. What inspired the awe was the way the river had been transformed by the whiteness of snow into a boundless expanse. Having grown used to being hemmed in by houses and streets, the river suddenly felt like a vast, open field, a revelation of natural beauty: directional flow becoming omnidirectional extension. What struck me most was also this idea of boundary becoming possibility: the line of the river that usually separates the two cities becoming a connective plane (plain); the idea that what initially delimits our experience can itself become the site of exploration. Perhaps this idea of transformation is the operative metaphor. What are our techniques for creating a newfound space, for externalizing the internal, whether through dreams, improvisation, or virtual backgrounds? How do we find meaning in the cracks?
This weekend I put my phone aside, as I often do, less as a kind of digital detox and more as a way of quieting my mind and leaving myself open to the kind of thinking and hearing necessary for writing about or engaging deeply with music. It often strikes me that the music I play was intended to be heard in a world much quieter than our own, and so this exercise of quieting the mind is crucial to getting at the actual "sense" of classical music.
All my greatest teachers have always brought up the idea of "listening to the room," which is, I suppose, a way of trying to hear something in silence. Ideally this is something that leads you to feel more comfortable playing in different spaces. A seemingly similar idea is that of "projecting for a hall." Fundamentally, however, these two activities are opposites, because listening is inherently reactive in nature, as opposed to "projection," which can be done obliviously. Listening is also essential to how chamber music can come to life. One teacher's definition of room listening is, "hearing the silence of the room and playing into that." Another teacher always says, "your trio has four players, the three of you and the space you're in."
Some other people who like room listening are audio engineers. I always smile at that first track whenever engineers send along a batch of takes: the one that's simply called "room noise." It sounds like a piece of contemporary art music with a possibly downtown vibe. Of course the irony of room noise is that it is recorded to be eliminated. Even so, recordings define rooms; they recreate the impression of a room in that they depend on real relationships in space. Microphones are placed relationally to instruments, and those distances suggest different kinds of listening. A distant microphone often gives the best sense of including a space in one's listening. Close microphones might suggest intimacy or even listening too closely. There is also a subtle sense at any distance of whether playing is intended for the microphone or ignorant of it -- whether the microphone participates or simply overhears.
I love this sense of overhearing in the early piano trio recordings of Artur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, and Gregor Piatigorsky. This sense is created partly through the position of the microphone, which all three instruments share. The microphone is placed at a medium to close range, which means that the microphone is much closer proportionately to the strings than to the piano, more so than if it were placed further back, and there is a sense of distorted balance that comes from the strings being right up close. At the same time, there is a sense of all three players filling the room with their sound, of playing "past" the microphone, and creating a sense of overhearing. You can get an even better sense of this visually through in this short video segment from a "documentary" made of the Trio:
When Heifetz introduces the Mendelssohn slow movement that they perform, he speaks -- as he plays -- past the microphone, to the interviewer at the back of the room, which we realize when we see the microphone itself set very close at 0:05. Later we also see a man listening outside at 1:40. This moment feels delightfully unscripted and reminds us of a point earlier in the documentary (before the attached segment), when our interviewer's -- and our -- first "hearing" of the Trio is from outside the garden window. There, the microphone, placed outside with our listener, is very literally overhearing, with the sound almost completely muffled by the glass.
Today, the recordings that most imitate this impression of overhearing are those made in concert halls using only hall microphones. Here, though, the kind of overhearing is decidedly more objective than in the Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatigorsky Trio; the purpose of such recordings is often archival. One recording that comes to mind for me personally is of my trio performing "Schubert B-flat" from a recital last year at Jordan Hall:
Here, the further microphone placement conveys both a strong sense of the space as well as relatively accurate balance between the three instruments. The less positive side of this recording is that all three instruments sound a bit dampened. The dynamic nature of the performance has been lost. Often, however, it strikes me that we experience these archival recordings more similarly to how we would experience memories, where the act of memory itself recreates and alters the remembered fact. Thus, these recordings are most effective and valuable to listeners who either were there or are familiar with the space. The strength of these recordings is not in their fidelity but in their associative meaning; nostalgia, or at the very least imagination, is essential on the part of the listener in rendering the performance vibrant once again. The qualities of balance, space, and proportion, created by the microphone placement, are paramount because they allow the listener to imagine, or to recreate, the effect of the room, not dissimilarly to how an artist might produce a painting from a sketch.
Today's recordings are mostly done in studio, using close micing of instruments, followed by mixing that is used to recreate something of the original balance. These techniques amount to a kind of transcription that makes us aware of the fundamental differences between the medium of recording and the medium of performance. Ironically, close micing creates a much more accurate picture of the sound produced by instruments up close, but has very little to do with what a listener hears in a hall even twenty feet away. Yet, because of the dampening effect of recordings on the overall impression of performance, somehow, close micing in a recorded medium often has a more similar impression on the listener to sitting further away in a live medium.
Of course, the one way in which modern studio recordings do more closely resemble live performance is the way in which they are closer to what the musician hears. Certain classical musicians (and many more non-classical musicians) do employ close micing to create a very specific, but different effect of overhearing. This special type of overhearing has very little to do with whether or not the player is playing for the microphone or for the room, but simply with the voyeuristic sense (or its auditory equivalent) of hearing what the performer hears coming back from the instrument. I think of this as the great attraction of Igor Levit's recordings in particular. I find his recordings in some ways even more compelling than his live performances, in part because he plays so softly and with such specificity, but also for microphones that are uncomfortably close. There is a real sense of hearing something in his recordings that would be impossible to hear or even perceive in live performance, yet in his recordings this quiet speaking quality of the more intimate dynamic range is etched almost painfully into your mind. In his recording of the slow movement of Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata, I was amazed that in the muted chords of the first theme I heard not only every voice of these sometimes seven-note chords, but the sounds of the dampers lifting and re-touching the strings with each pedaling, which began to take on a primary quality in my listening focus:
I have a feeling that this almost painful intimacy takes on a special quality in Beethoven's work, Beethoven who was known for his "difficult" but heroic characters and his extreme dynamic contrasts that "exploded" the range of what composers dared to do. Yet there is an intensely introspective quality to his late works such as the 'Hammerklavier' that were written in his period of total deafness. With these works, then, it would seem to make sense that the most quiet utterances would also be the most compelling, the closest, perhaps, to the inner hearing that emerges from deafening silence.
In her essay, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," Audre Lorde makes a case for the erotic as a "source of… information" that is fundamentally nonrational in nature, reclaiming it from the domain of shallow sensation to which it is often relegated. In opposition to rational systems of thought (exemplified in Descartes' cogito ergo sum), the erotic provides an opportunity for a foundation of self cast in the often uncomprehended depth of our innermost feeling. Lorde writes:
... the considered phrase, "It feels right to me," acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge… and understanding is a hand-maiden which can only wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born." 
With erotic knowledge, feeling precedes understanding. Piano playing, too, offers knowledge sought in the darkness of unrecognition. Touching a key is always as much sensing as sensual. With other instruments, the physical sensation of plucking a string; the felt vibrations of a mallet; the way that breath transforms the human body into a powerful resonator: all of these interactions suggest a definition of music-making as a deeply embodied act. Even when touch is mediated by reed, bow, or mallet, this mediator becomes a sort of talisman that connects the instrument back to the body. One vibrates through a reed. One feels the flexion of the mallet or bow returning feedback to the hand.
With piano, the touch is always more ambiguous, and it is this combination of sensation with imagination that renders piano playing ultimately more erotic than athletic. Each manipulation of a key is a question that echoes Lorde, asking, "does that feel right to me?"
What creates this space for ambiguity is the piano's mechanism, which is neither fully tangible nor fully abstract. On the harpsichord or clavichord, tangible instruments, one can literally feel the "pluck" of quill or the strike of metal against string. On the organ, more abstract, each key is simply a switch that allows the already present, mechanized breath of the bellows to pass freely through a pipe. The piano lies somewhere in between, while possessing qualities of its own.
Crucial to the sensation of piano playing is its lack of weight transference. Pianists use their weight to balance the hand, control articulation, and achieve finer control of keyspeed, yet the key itself transfers no weight to the hammer. The hammer, for its part, starts out resting against the key, but at a certain point is released, flying freely toward the string. Its acceleration, and by extension its force, is determined only by the key's acceleration at the point of release. Mass is fixed. It would seem, then, that piano sound would be a single variable calculus.
Yet there are other variables. Key depression influences damper height, and damper height (how high the muting dampers are held above the string) influences the rate of decay or blossoming of a note's sound. The pedal adds a third dimension, multiplying the blossoming or decay effect of a single damper by allowing other strings to sympathetically resonate. By varying the relative activation of key and pedal (how deeply each is depressed), pianists can influence not only the shape of a note, but also its overtonal composition.
When a high school teacher of mine first directed my ear to these subtleties of piano sound, he confessed that he had always imagined such factors to act primarily as a musical guide for the pianist. Effects such as "blooming" a note's resonance with the pedal to achieve a kind of crescendo are more helpful to the pianist in feeling exactly what the dynamic of that next note should be than they are to an audience listening for the expressive shape of a line. The audience, for its part, will intuit the expressive shape of a line in retrospect -- they will sense that there has been a crescendo -- if the pianist is able to manipulate the dynamic of connected notes well.
But, by this logic, if listeners are able to pick up on such subtleties as an implied crescendo, shouldn't we be encouraged to put every effort into rendering audible those gradations of sound and pedaling (yes, even pedal crescendi) that can actually be heard? For, surely if listeners are already filling in gaps with their imagination, then, assuming that they can hear even a fraction of what the pianist hears up close, surely their imaginations will also amplify these barely perceived subtleties?
For these reasons, we can see that two fundamental aspects of piano playing are already imaginative at their core: (1) basic instrumental mechanics (being able to imagine the specific weight and interaction of hammer against string, amplified by pedal, always on a unique instrument in a unique hall) and (2) expressive playing (manipulating sound to communicate expressively to an audience through illusion or, better yet, suggestion).
Yet we can go one step further: into the very philosophy of playing. Glenn Gould used to say that it only took an hour to learn everything one needed to know in order to teach oneself the piano, but that teaching oneself the instrument could take a lifetime. The duality of this lifelong struggle is perhaps no better expressed than through the musicianship and temperament of Glenn Gould himself, whose creativity was only matched by his meticulousness. Gould's urge to mastery stemmed from this deceptive fact that the piano is a machine with finite noise-making parts that should theoretically be comprehensible and controllable, given enough time.
I used to interpret this formulation of piano playing as a challenge — the idea that one could somehow adjust and compensate for the deficiencies of any given instrument, let alone one’s own physical limitations from day to day, assuming the right preparation and through sheer force of will. Each performance becomes a kind of heroic struggle. These days, I prefer to think of each performance as an act of searching imagination, depending less on our ability to navigate this piece of clunky machinery than our ability to utterly transcend the circumstances, given the right frame of mind. In doing so, we arrive at a performance that we had perhaps not originally expected to deliver, but that is paradoxically more representative of “us” than if we had attempted to contort ourselves to produce an exact, desired effect.
In other words, we can do our best to understand the array of variables that go into performing a given piece on a given piano, assuming some blank canvas idea of what a piano should be, but pianos are such wildly temperamental creatures that we would do well to cultivate, equally, a sense of the sheer scope of how such variables might fluctuate on a given day. Such an understanding, in a rational sense, is aspirational at best. Theoretically, Glenn Gould is right. We can comprehend each of the variables with full lucidity if we isolate each and practice creatively. But in the moment of performance at an unfamiliar instrument, as we begin to take in each of those variables fluctuating in different ways all at once, the attempt to control our playing becomes a futile, self-defeating effort. We must fall back on a trust in ourselves, on a trust in the unique, embodied knowledge of being a pianist that, paradoxically, does allow for the creation of a physical connection to the instrument, even as the physicality continues to be largely imagined.
Just as Audre Lorde's definition of erotic knowledge depends on the construction, "it feels right to me," so must piano playing become a searching within oneself, of attuning one's body to a both a purposeful flow and a spontaneous, inspired choreography. By this definition, piano playing at its very best is an act of becoming, an act of imagination that rises to the circumstances and transforms not only the audience, but also the performer in its navigation of these myriad interactions (pianist to audience, instrument to audience, pianist to instrument).
: Lorde, Audre. "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" Sister: Outsider, Random House, 1984, p. 43.
: Lorde, Audre. "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" Sister: Outsider, Random House, 1984, p. 46.
Pianist, writer, arranger, coach.