Daily Archives: December 1, 2008 8:09 am

Advent 1: Solving musical problems

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Click to see a real portrait of Sylvia Marlowe

Click to see a real portrait of Sylvia Marlowe

The opening of Mark Morris’s Drink to me only with thine eyes, choreographed to piano etudes by Virgil Thomson  begins with a bizarre, meandering bitonal extravagance called Chromatic Double Harmonies (Portrait of Sylvia Marlowe), which the on-stage pianist plays for a long time without the interruption, so to speak, of any choreography.  In one of the theatres where I was performing this with ENB, it looked like there would be a problem getting the piano on stage.

I talked the problem over with Mark:

‘And if we really can’t get the piano on stage, and I end up having to play in the pit, what about the opening?’ I asked.

‘Oh no, if that happens’, he said, laughing,  ‘cut the opening. We don’t want to sit and listen to you solving musical problems in the pit!’.

It’s my favourite description of a piece of music. It describes and explains in three words exactly what the music does, better than the music itself can, which is why it has made me laugh ever since. It also encapsulates what I love about choreographers – they aren’t afraid of music in the way that musicians (including myself) are. They hear it, and know what it is, and strangely enough, for exponents of what is supposed to be a mute art form, they can be more eloquent and articulate about music in fewer words than a thousand music critics.

As friends know, I’m currently engaged in a module at the IoE on the Philosophy and Aesthetics of Music Education, and it’s precisely this kind of remark, with all its context (i.e. why should it be OK to watch someone solve musical problems, but not hear them? Answers in a ballet, please…) that invigorated my intellectual curiosity about such things in the first place.

And as it happens, I’ve solved another musical problem today. I had always wondered in what way this piece could be considered a portrait of Sylvia Marlowe, unless she were a lunatic that looked like a cubist painting in the flesh. But at last I found a photographic portrait of her at her dual manual harpsichord, and it all makes perfect sense.