Talking with Chopin About Music and Possibilities

Nokturn by Jerzy Głuszek

For years I have been collecting the helpful, fascinating and sometimes perplexing thoughts on music that I’ve received from my currently solidity-challenged composer friend. Every time I’ve gotten close to putting it all together in a nicely packaged presentation, more has come along, and I’ve delayed trying to finish it. My understanding has also changed over time, so that I’ve had to rewrite some sections. I’m thinking that I’d better start sticking the individual bits into some posts or they will never see the light of day.

A lot of what I’ve learned has been specifically about playing the piano and about performance practice, and unlikely to be of much interest to the non-pianist reader. I’ll put that material in another post. Today’s entries are more generally about music and about how it relates to other aspects of our lives, though there is still some nerd stuff.

 

6/28/10

[A friend who has since died] indicated, while I was doing acupuncture for her, that something major in her life was “disgusting.” I was getting signals of disagreement from our Sources about that, being told that it was necessary for her to integrate this part of her life and deal with it quite differently. Fryderyk was coming in strongly at my right, and I asked what he wanted to say. I saw a vibrating column of light, and the ideas associated with it were like this:

Everything is a vibration, a frequency. And what is a frequency? It’s a note. There are not good notes or bad notes, there are just notes. It’s a matter of how they’re put together. In your case, he had me tell her, you’re in the middle of playing a piece that’s already been written, maybe even near the end of it, but you can still improvise. And if you don’t like this piece, play something else.
10/26/10, after returning from a trip to Poland and across Europe to France during Chopin’s 200th birthday year:

A while back, I think in early September, I asked Fryderyk about that pesky measure on the second page of the D flat nocturne, Op. 27 No. 2, where suddenly the left hand adds an extra voice. I’m talking about measure 23, where we find an F and an E marked with extra stems with eighth note bars. The “Paderewski” edition notes say that he implied that something similar was going on in the few measures before and after this, but there is no evidence for this that I can see. My understanding from him is that he meant this notation only in this one measure; he was not saying to do the same thing in other parts of this passage. However, I’m still not entirely clear why he brings in that extra voice.

I couldn’t get a very good reading on this matter, but there was something like “adding an extra dimension” or “making it 3D.” He told me that there were other similar instances later in the piece. I was directed to look at the last page. I was in bed at the time, ready to go to sleep, so I didn’t go to check out the page till the next day.

What I noticed then was measures 64 and 68, in which he makes a dotted quarter note out of the first D flat in each arpeggio pattern. This appears superfluous, since the pedal is held and those notes will sound all the way through the pattern anyway. He seems to want extra emphasis on these notes. It’s all the more perplexing because, as Jeff Kallberg [musicologist and expert on Chopin’s work] pointed out, the different manuscripts have the dotted quarter notes or not, or have the dot in measure 64 but not 68.

When I next had the chance to communicate with my disembodied teacher, I dutifully reported that I had looked through the rest of the piece for instances of extra voices coming in temporarily, and that I had found the above. I heard, “If you point out something to someone, they will then start seeing it everywhere,” which was objectively true but didn’t seem very helpful or significant! Attempting to understand the dotted quarters, I held an image of measures 64 and 68 in my mind, and there was an interesting visual effect. The notes became literally 3D; the dotted quarters moved to the front of the image, and others took places in two other layers before my mental eyes. I felt that I did have a certain understanding of what he was after. Sort of. (Later, when I had a chance to experiment at the piano, I found it was pretty easy to bring those bass notes forward or push them a layer or two back, and it does add contrast compared with similar figures in other parts of the piece.)

I apologized for bothering him about such a picky detail. “Since you took the trouble to write it that way, I figure it’s important, and I want to understand it,” I explained.

His reply was something I would like us all to keep in mind, and wish I could convey to the folks who are selling Chopin pencils, Chopin chocolates, tours of his birthplace, etc. etc. Imagine a kind of sigh of resignation along with this statement:

“Not everything I do is important.”

I found this hilarious.

I had another question, having to do with my efforts to memorize some of the pieces of his that I’d been playing for years. To me, a lot of the ornaments and fioriture are surprising, in that one might expect that the ornamental stuff would get more intense and complex as the piece goes on, and it doesn’t necessarily do that. The seemingly random nature of these bits makes memorization more difficult, at least for the likes of me. Which way did he do it this time?? It’s so unpredictable.

The answer to this was so obvious that I should have seen it myself. He didn’t want to be predictable. He wanted to surprise us and keep us guessing, keep our ears and fingers engaged.

 

I had begun this conversation asking for his advice and assistance in treating a mutual friend. We had had considerable trouble working with her before; although she had gotten considerable improvement in some areas, treatments were strangely hard on her. The last time we had done a session, we had tried something different, and instead of her being ill for a while afterward, I was. I felt we needed a new strategy. Fryderyk told me, “Let go of obstacles.”  I thought that was interesting because we don’t think of obstacles as something we hang on to.  Yet I know I do that. That measure in 27/2 with the 48 notes in the right hand is probably a good example. It’s easy to hang on to the idea of its being difficult, whereas perhaps we could hold the thought of making it easy and fluid instead.

“Let go of wanting to prove yourself” was another thought that came up. Not easy either.
[unknown date]

The 48-note fioritura in 27/2 is a particular bête noire for me and I’m sure for a lot of other players. At one point, terminally frustrated with such things, I asked Fryderyk what made him decide on 48 notes or 17 or 23 or whatever strange number comes up in those passages, which can be so inconvenient to play, since they usually don’t match up mathematically with the other hand’s part.  He showed me a curving ribbon shape that represented the musical line as it existed in time and space. The number of notes given exactly filled up the length of the ribbon. So there were exactly as many notes as were needed, no more and no less. Just enough. Obvious to him!

 

~11/15/10

One of the things I’m enjoying about the lute practice [for my album of Polish Renaissance pieces] is that, even though it’s one of my “Chopin Year” projects, it has nothing to do with him whatsoever, and I can have it all to myself!  I got to wondering, though, whether Fryderyk might be familiar with any of those old Polish tunes.  I was thinking that back then they tended to be involved with mostly the music of their own time or not too long before, and that most people were not even paying attention to Bach or works of his time, let alone anything earlier, so the Renaissance and early Baroque tunes probably weren’t on their radar.  The response I received to my question about this sounded a bit miffed.  After all, he had gone to school, he pointed out.  The Warsaw Conservatory had copies of works like this in its library, and he had been able to explore them that way, and for heaven’s sake, did I think he wasn’t educated?

No, of course I didn’t think that, and the image of him leafing through dusty old copies made a pleasing connection for me.  “Oh, I used to love poking around stuff like that in the libraries at YSU and UNM!” I enthused.

I asked whether one heard folk music much in the city, or if one had to go out to the country to experience it.  I was given to know that this was also a fairly dumb question, because people from the city spent time in the country and vice-versa, like the young country gentlemen who roomed with his family, so the same people might often be found in both places.  I kept my mouth shut about the fact that the downtrodden peasants didn’t get a chance to go much of anywhere.  My question was not really so dumb!

I was trying to ask whether there were written sources of folk music around, or whether he learned that stuff by ear, when I fell asleep.

When I woke up this morning, it occurred to me that young Fryc would have been quite unable to read any lute tablature that might have been lying around at the Conservatory. However, he may well have tried some organ tablature and so become acquainted with composers such as Jan of Lublin.  I’d like more details.

 

12/30/13

Last night Fryderyk visited when I was about to go to sleep. I told him that I was trying to prepare a mini-recital for a friend and that things hadn’t been going too well that evening. “New things keep going wrong all the time!” I complained. “I can’t take care of my mistakes because they’re so inconsistent and I never know what’s going to happen.”

Well, at least this time he didn’t hand me the usual “You’re looking at this all wrong” or “You’re asking the wrong question.” He began with a clear sentence in his bumpy sort of English, but I can’t recall it– I knew I’d kick myself in the morning if I didn’t get out of bed and write down his exact words, since I was getting a definite verbal message, but I decided to stay where I was. He told me that of course new things keep happening, because a piece of music has so many possibilities within it. He showed me something similar to what he’d conveyed sometime last year, which I described in my post “Wait. Show Up. Enjoy.”   https://elenedom.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/wait-show-up-enjoy/   A piece of music is a kind of three-dimensional environment in which one can live and move about. (Yes, time does add a fourth dimension, but the image is three-dimensional.) I saw myself in the center of this matrix, with threads spreading out in all directions.

He seemed excited about this field of possibilities. Wow, you can do anything you want! I, in contrast, felt rather small in the midst of it all. He spoke encouragingly, something to the effect that I should tug and pull on those threads to shape the music the way I wanted it to be.

He faded out. I went to sleep.

What Fryderyk described was not so much the way I’ve been experiencing music, but definitely similar to the way I’ve been experiencing the ground of reality itself. Which may well have been part of what he was talking about. His messages, even when they sound painfully obvious and simple at first, do tend to generalize to many aspects of my life.

This morning I was looking at an article by Jeff Kallberg in the book Mary-Rose [Douglas] gave me for Christmas. It concerned a newly-discovered copy of the first edition of the Op. 9 nocturnes, which Chopin had annotated for a student, adding dramatically different ornamentation to 9/2. “We can now securely assert,” Jeff wrote, “that Chopin began modifying the ornaments in this work shortly after its publication….”

Yup, that’s our Fryc. So many possibilities, and he wants them all to be available.

 

On 8/2/14, I was asking Fryderyk about a pedaling question; I’m not sure what the piece was. I received these words:

“You are making the supposition that I have written a symbol which is absolute. You are looking for the sound of words on a page. Words are not sounds and symbols are not music.”

 

5/3/16

A great fan of Chopin and expert on his life expressed the thought that he did most of his composing on paper, not at the piano. It was her belief that even when he first began to work out his ideas, he did so away from the piano.

This is not what is generally believed about Chopin’s creative method. As soon as I could, I asked him what he might have to say about the matter. When he was beginning to put a piece together, did he start with the piano, or with a pen? He told me clearly: “Sound. Sound is primary. It doesn’t matter how you get there.” Apparently I was asking the wrong question again. He added, “Sound comes from the inner being.”

Wanting to be completely clear, I tried once more to ask how he started, and he added: “Exploring sound. Sound, not thought.” Which does imply starting with an instrument, I would think, not inside one’s head.

Since the words were definite and exact, I wanted to be sure to catch them verbatim, and I stopped to write them down. Unfortunately, after that I could not get back into the channeling state and was unable to hear any more. Research continues.

 

See more fantastic Chopin cartoon portraits at http://muzeumkarykatury.pl/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=147:umiech-chopina&catid=54:umiech-chopina&Itemid=228

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