- Richard Narroway
It is always a pleasure to spend some time home in Sydney. In the past five years that I have been studying abroad in the US, I have come to treasure these trips back home since they do not happen very often (perhaps once a year if I am lucky). It is a wonderful opportunity to forget about the pressures of student life, catch up with friends and the rest of the Narroway clan (including my two pet dogs and cat) and soak in the irresistibly fresh sunshine of Australia. I should add, however, that my most recent visits have been plagued by the tendency of dog hair to float around the house and cling onto absolutely anything, including, most annoyingly, my clothes, my face and even my food (I don’t blame the dogs, for all that fur can’t be doing them much good during Australia’s hottest months). But let me tell you, a sensitive sinus does not mix well with incessantly shedding pets. Ugh.
Anyhow, this particular visit was one to remember. It marked the first wedding for the children of the family, an emotion-filled day that saw my eldest sibling, Lisa, marrying the love of her life. I had the great pleasure of playing the cello at her wedding - the Bach/Gounoud Ave Maria with organ for the processional, and Bach’s Sarabande from the first suite during the signing of the registry. It was such a surreal occasion. The inherent significance of the day, combined with the close emotional bond I feel with Lisa transformed this performance into a truly special kind of experience. I have often thought about how music takes on such a different meaning depending on the context of its performance. But this was an occasion that really spoke to me in a new way. Throughout the five minutes of that Bach Sarabande, it was as if I completely let go of all learned academic and stylistic thinking and could instead focus on following and responding to the music with my soul. It was a liberating experience. There was a direct connection between my emotions, my body and my ears, the result being that the very sounds I was producing on the cello were in essence a tangible realization of my feelings. For once I wasn’t focusing on the need for the phrase to follow a logical path or for the pulse to remain recognizable. On the other hand, I focused simply on the way I felt, my love for Lisa and overwhelming sense of pride for her marriage, and on the realization of those feelings in sound.
As aspiring musicians and performers, we are often taught to pull apart individual works and analyze them in terms of harmony, structure, key and so on. In an effort to achieve a more thorough understanding of the music, we might read treatises and biographies or analyze the score at the keyboard or listen to recordings. And sure, this is all absolutely essential. How can we perform something truly convincingly without having any knowledge of the composer who wrote it, his life, his character, his works and so on? We are trained to dig deeper and deeper, to immerse ourselves in the music, to get closer to the composers, always inward. But sometimes all this effort, I think, leads us to forget that we also need to reach outward and let go. Trusting and following our instincts is one of our most powerful expressive tools, and something we, myself included, often forget about. Don't worry, our bodies and minds will remember what we have practiced! My point is that sometimes the most spiritually gratifying kinds of performances come when we let go. If we free our minds of any anxieties regarding technical perfection, “pleasing” musical taste or engaging stage presence (all easier said than done), we can instead channel all of our energy into the sound and the communication of the music, trusting that our instinct will pave the way for something truly meaningful. It is all about trusting oneself, I think. This is when the most exciting kind of music making takes place. I know you might be wondering how or if it is even possible to let go of such preoccupations with the performance, and the honest answer is probably not. It is human nature to worry about the judgement of others or the precision of one's technique and so on.. these are constant battles for me. But I do think self-forgetfulness should be one of our goals.
This particular occasion stood out to me because the very nature of the event induced a sense of self-forgetfulness. It wasn’t about me. It was about Lisa. And perhaps the emotional implications of the event became so strong inside of me that it was no longer a matter of me trying to let go - letting go simply happened - but more a matter of the emotions inevitably taking over. After all, music is emotion right? Or more specifically, music gives flight to emotion. It gives emotion a tangible quality. In this instance, it gave flight to my love, pride and happiness.
Some might refer to it as the “magic of the moment.” Spontaneity. This is also why I don’t quite agree with the approach of learning concertos and sonatas incrementally with the metronome until it is completely ingrained in one’s body and muscle memory and there is absolutely no possibility of the performance following a different course. These performances never quite come to life. I think we should expect that every performance is going to be different. It goes against the communication of the spirit of the music if we strive to recreate every singular gesture in each performance. Instead, I think, we should try to embrace the magic of every occasion, of every day and night, unique in itself. This way, it is not only our understanding of the music that is being communicated, but also our understanding of life, of our emotions and of the vicissitudes of human experience. And I am absolutely certain that listeners can distinguish this emotional quality in the sound because all of the most powerful performances that I can remember have had this “magical” quality to them.
Anyhow.. at the moment I’m sitting on flight VA 1 from Sydney to LA somewhere many miles up in the sky over a frightening mass of ocean below, seven hours remaining until I land in Los Angeles. Having to say bye to loved ones is never easy.. but I am glad it will only be five months until I am back in Australia for my Bach project. It is definitely happening! I’ve been putting countless hours into making this project a reality and I hope to have an official website up in February with itinerary and all. I am also super excited about the prospect of having a few pre-tour fundraising concerts - one even in Kalamazoo thanks to my wonderful friends and colleagues from the Stulberg competition! So excited! In addition to the six Bach cello suites, the project will feature six Australian “interludes” - roughly two minute pieces composed by Australian composers, inspired by each respective suite. I’m truly excited to be collaborating with these young Australian composers. I think it is safe to say that the project will only continue to grow in the coming months and I can’t wait to share my experiences with all of you.
It was so great to see my beautiful siblings and parents doing so well.. in such good health and spirit. Looking forward to seeing more wonderful human beings in America. Don’t worry, I have not forgotten about the Piatti Project. It was put on the back burner for a few months due to other projects, but will make a reappearance this semester!