Playing What Is

A musician sits practicing alone in his room, as he has done most of his life. He is a beloved performer, respected and revered by many. He is concentrated and fearless in his focus. Time passes effortlessly here. Time stops.

The light in his room dims. He looks up from the piece he is playing, the solo part from the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Above his music stand, there hovers a soft violet glow. He hears a chorus murmuring.

(voices of listeners from all time):You play the music in our hearts. You play things we feel. You are deep and wise.

(performer): No, I play what I am told to play. I play what I know you will feel. But I do not feel what you do. I am not wise.

This saddens us. You are not what you seem. Tell us why.

I think and feel as you do, but I am empty. I fill myself with things which give the impression I am full. I show you yourself.

But how can you show us so much knowing so little?

I feel my pain with doubt. I question everything. I challenge reality. But the structure of the music gives me strength. It quells my doubt.

But you do not feel what we feel, if you doubt your pain and question everything.

I feel what you feel in my own way. When I lay my head on the breast of my mother and weep from joy and gratitude at the gift of life she gave me, I feel what you feel when I play the music. But I do not feel the music as you do.

What do you feel when you play?

I see patterns of structure, puzzles laid out by the composer, shapes and form, lines and colors. I see how I must fit into that puzzle. I have many choices, but only a few good ones. I struggle to play effortlessly. I am a machine, a thinking machine, adjusting constantly to fit into the puzzle and become nothing but the composers dream.

But what do you feel?

I do not feel. I calculate, I listen, I sense. But I am not there to feel. If I feel, then I am lost.

Then why do we feel what you do not?

You feel what I do not because I do not allow myself to feel it. I give up my feeling so you may have it.

(the voices recede. the violet light fades above his stand. he is alone. he continues his practice, shaping the perfect phrases of Mozart’s perfect music. he is content.)

Inspired by-
The Man with the Blue Guitar
Wallace Stevens

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have the blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

This is my response to a challenge from Jessamyn at Theriomorph. Take the first line of a favorite book. Personalized it. Take the leash off and let it go.

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14 thoughts on “Playing What Is

  1. Hooray, Garnet!

    This has such a strange and lovely alien quality about it; as if aliens are having this conversation with human beings, or gods with people – some gap exists that seems larger than just the narrative voice…and yet, the gap is bridged in the art-making both in the piece and of the piece.

    “I have many choices, but only a few good ones. ”
    What a KEEPER of a line.

    Nice one! High five!

  2. This truly was a “take the leash off, let it go” and how beautifully it turned out. How does it feel to know that all of those words are indeed the man I think so highly of? A philosopher I met not very long ago said that confusion is the way it’s supposed to be and the hard part is learning not to fight against it. I’m starting to see the beauty in that. Your writing helps me see that.

  3. Jess- This man with the blue guitar does not feel things as he plays them. He cannot be in both places at once. Thanks for your encouraging and gentle support. This neophyte writer is hooked. Write to evolve.

  4. Liz- It’s funny what things come out when letting go. And that raw truth is both revealing and painful in its nakedness. The only way to grow. It’s amazing how well I hide from myself.

  5. Dear Garnet,

    You unveil another mystery — I have been in the audience when you have received long lasting standing ovations and been swept away by the emotions your music has brought me. I hope the enegy taken from we your listeners, will always nourish your artistic machine. Play on — we need you.!

  6. I give up my feeling so you may have it.
    That might sound sad, but I think it’s true to varying degrees for most musicians because there is always a part of us that must be in control, aware, calculating the next move, using the skills we have to bring the effect. It is such an honor when the audience responds.

  7. Garnet, you are right, the listener feels something different than the performer, but the performer surely FEELS. It’s the difference between a real magician and a charlatan. A chef creates a masterpiece and serves it, the lucky diners enjoy the fruits of his labor… which is both an art and a craft. He doesn’t have to digest it because he made it. He takes care to make sure the end result is well presented, in a professional manner, made up of excellent ingredients, but it is truly his SOUL which brings the meal, the music to life. If it is just craft, methinks there is no standing ovation. On the other hand, often you can present something with true deep emotion which is not absorbed by your listeners… yet the creation of it should still be satisfying. Where’s Ayn Rand when I need her?

    Thank you for your story, you have a unique way of telling and one can’t help but have their own thoughts bubble up while reading you.

  8. Thanks, rambler- I like the meal metaphor. “He doesn’t have to digest it because he made it.” I often weep at great music making, but I can’t do that in performance. Yes, I do put my soul into the show, but then I often miss some technical details. It’s like a puppeteer, who runs the emotion of the character from above. I feel, but at a distance.
    And yes, there’s still satisfaction at having played well regardless of the audiences reaction. (my colleagues usually take up the slack)

    I also think Stravinsky had a good point when he said in his “Poetics of Music” that the performer should play what’s on the page with great integrity and nothing more.

  9. Perhaps Stravinsky is right. I spend a lot of time without pages, I suppose, different perspective. But I maintain that the written music is just a scientific approximation for what an artist/composer hears… (thanks to the Greeks, and Italians) but music is ephemeral, it is all meant to be interpreted. I believe the role of the performer is to recreate the moment of inspiration when the piece was conceived. Muse-ic, is the work of inspiration and should be conveyed as such. Someone has a vision in it’s reproduction, the conductor, I suppose, in the case of an orchestra. But what about chamber music? There is surely interpretation in that realm… and this is where improvised music and classical music meet.

    But in the long run, I defer to you, Garnet, since you sit in the trenches day in and out, where I bounce around like a butterfly. Perhaps we are really talking about the degree of art vs craft, hmmm?

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