Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Do You Play The Notes Or The Song?

This past Sunday evening harpist, Greg Buchanan, presented a concert in Paris, Illinois. I had heard of, but never heard him before. It was a great experience, one for which superlatives have been laid up and must now be set forth. If I could sum him up in one sentence I would say that he is a musician who plays songs rather than notes. I believe that he would appreciate that assessment. I’ve known it to be a real distinction, and in the past few days I’ve been thinking again about what it means and what the heart of music is.

The one occasion out of my past which Sunday night reminded me of was a concert we attended in the late 1990s at the Hollywood Bowl. It wasn’t that the music or instruments were the same, but that the spirit was. Jean-Pierre Rampal, the great flautist, was playing. I had been listening to his recordings for years, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming presence of the musician in the flesh. As he played the fourth Brandenburg I knew we were experiencing the kind of worship that goes on in heaven. This was not just a response to artistry, but to the heart.

The virtuoso can play all the notes and play them as no one else can, but he doesn’t always get to the soul of the music. There is a soul in all music. Pachelbel, whose canon Greg Buchanan played Sunday night, had it. My personal favorite classical composer, Haydn, had it more than Mozart did. Bach had it even more than any other. That’s why Glen Gould could do three recordings of the Goldberg Variations (one of them was a recording just recently released for the first time which was originally done for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the year before the famous 1955 recording) and each time breathe a new life into the notes. Gould was a great eccentric in many ways. In the later recordings you can actually hear him humming along with his own playing, but this was a sign of how deeply the music was rooted in him. He didn’t care what anyone thought about him, only what he thought about the music.

I would be the first to acknowledge that I don’t have the skill of a virtuoso when I sit down at Gould’s instrument, but that hasn’t kept me from finding the soul of the songs I play. It’s there, but it has to come from inside of the player. Neither the printed score nor the instrument contains it. This is something that we shouldn’t just discover when we listen, but something that we should express in every area of our lives.

All that we do is art for God’s appreciation. A person does not have to play a musical instrument to do something original for God. Whatever we create, let us create a real message to the world of God’s grace and mercy and love. Let us not just make music. Let us breathe praise to God.

Bach signed every composition Sola Deo Gloria.

So let it be.

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