“A public performance is a miracle. You never know who’s watching, but you feel a communion between yourself, the audience, and the composer who wrote the notes two hundred years ago. But [forget] the notes. The notes are not important. They were the composer’s only means of communicating. The important thing is what’s between the notes and behind the notes.”
~ The original quote, from an unnamed member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and published by Humans of New York, did not contain the word “forget”. The word “forget” replaces another, less polite, word also beginning with the letter F…
Moving right along…
Here’s a quote from another, more local, musician: “Make beautiful music”. And from Mozart: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”
Of course, notes are important. That’s why — or at least partly why — we spend so much time rehearsing. Notes are vital building blocks of music. It’s important that they’re correct: sometimes when they’re not, choristers begin to see death stares from the other side of the music stand (nowhere near as scary as it sounds…sometimes it’s hard not to meet each other’s eyes and smile — we all know the humour and goodness behind the facade). But beyond that, music should be one of the things at a cathedral which draws people towards the Divine; no one wants to be responsible for the bad note or slow dip in pitch which undermines that.
But at the end of the day, music is about more than notes. It’s about what’s beneath: it’s about beauty and pain, about love and loss and everything that surrounds them; it’s about the most glorious arches of heaven and the depths of loneliness. When we sing, we are singing the emotion of a long-dead or last year’s composer; we are singing the feeling of the often unknown poet responsible for lyrics or prayer. And not only that, we are singing our own feeling and history. We are singing our own experience and wisdom and fatigue and anxiety and pain and joy. And, if we do our job properly, a congregation will hear in our singing their own story, as well as the great and endless story of our faith.
Some of the music we sing is hundreds of years old; it saw Mary Tudor’s reign give way to that of Elizabeth. Some of it is new, just starting out in the world. Some of it was written by people who lived through the horrors and blessings that the twentieth century brought us. But it doesn’t matter how old it is: music is alive. It is not the notes, but the space between them, the feeling that goes into them, which brings the music to life, which keeps it alive over centuries.
It’s an amazing feeling, to sing a piece of music written by someone at the end of the sixteenth century (we sang William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices yesterday). Australia — let alone Newcastle in the early twenty-first century — was not even a part of the composer’s known world, but that doesn’t matter. Singing those notes forges a connection between us and Mr Byrd, between the cathedral congregation and a long-dead holder of our faith. And so the somber beauty of yesterday’s Mass, and all the music we sing, can never die — as long as choristers sing not just notes, but the music in the space between them.