The “happening” of music

On Sunday evening I conducted Ma mère l’Oye of Maurice Ravel in the concert of Columbia University Orchestra.  I was particularly moved, almost into tears, by the time the fifth movement approached.  There were audiences who told me that they were moved to tears.  The musicians also noticed a significant different in the way they played.  But here I find myself insisting on attributing the success of the performance to someone else, not me.  Not just out of humility, but it seemed to say that the success of the performance exclusively was dependent on my conducting, seemed inaccurate to say the least.  But to whom should I attribute such positive acknowledgements?  To the performers?  Certainly, but would that be enough to justify the experience?  Or to the composer for writing such beautiful music?  Sure, that is certainly one large factor, but then again, would that fully warrant the singular experience that filled the auditorium last night?

In fact, does the word “success” even qualify what happened in the performance of Ravel?  I would perhaps say that when we were playing Ravel, we ceased to exist as individuals, but rather one large collective “being” that was inherently communicative through the medium called music.

It was an experience, inexplicable in words, that caused me to think about life itself.  Perhaps this is what is meant by “Pure Experience” (junsui-keiken) term coined by the founder of the Kyoto School of Philosophy, Kitaro Nishida.  The experience, in turn, becomes transparent that through it we can see and think of life in retrospect.

In the course of the semester, I was very much interested in the contextual elements of the five “children’s pieces” that Ravel composed.  For example, the third movement is really about the “instant” (snapshot) of the tale Serpentin Vert by Mme. Aulnoy.  Then in the fourth movement, Ravel follows, teleologically, the narrative of The Beauty and The Beast.  Especially the transfiguration of the Beast, both in the story and in Ravel’s musical treatment, is one of the most significant life concepts that lead to such philosophical/religious thoughts.  The second movement depicts only one tiny scene of the epic story, Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb, Hop-o’-my-thumb, etc.).  In short, each moment I confronted with the score, which I thought I knew intimately before, I realized that there was much more to discover.  Then when I rehearsed with the orchestra, while I asked a lot of things out of the orchestra, I nevertheless realized that the whole experience was teaching me something.  (Also of course, the tutelage of the artistic director Jeffrey Milarsky was indispensable in this process!)

Then in the moment of performance, I let everything go, and I am sure that the musicians also let everything go as well.  We were individuals playing, yet there was paradoxically no “individual” to speak of.  As we were attentively listening to each other, each of us “melted” into another.  This reminds me of the “emptiness,” and the following quotation by Eugen Herrigel in his Zen in the Art of Archery, which I borrow from Wikipedia:

“(…) The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art (…)”

Perhaps it is a futile attempt to understand what happened at the concert with the concept of zen. But there are some common threads that I cannot ignore.  After all, the underlying message here is quite powerful; when one does something so dedicated to the point his/her mind does not allow the self-consciousness, something happens.  And when there is a group of people doing the same,  often the experience is beyond anyone’s expectation.