Reality Beyond Imagination

A composer imagines a piece of music in its entirety. Many decent performances don’t quite recreate the piece as one heard it in his imagination. Sometimes one gets really lucky, and a performance exactly matches a piece as the composer heard it in his inner ear. A few times in a composer’s life, a performance goes beyond what one’s heard in his imagination. Not only is every detail of the notation heard in acoustic reality, but immanent structures within the piece are brought out, exaggerated as it were, and the composer hears and becomes aware of things he only inchoately or subconsciously intended. The performance becomes a result of not only what he wrote, but of what other people began to imagine as they internalized the notation. The performance is not merely a perfect realization of what the composer imagined, but a collective creation, a collaboration of superbly musical musicians all focused on the piece, that goes beyond what the composer was able to imagine by himself. I’ve had this happen frequently with performances of my piano works by Sarah Cahill, in part with the Orkest de Volharding’s recording of my piano concerto Sunken City, and with Aron Kallay’s performances of my microtonal keyboard pieces. And tonight it happened in a dramatic way with the Dessoff Choir’s performance of my Transcendental Sonnets, conducted by James Bagwell. The acoustic reality achieved what I’d imagined, and went beyond it: sonorities swelled and shaped beyond what I could have notated, continuities aligned into innovative textures I’d only partly heard internally. In particular, the choral seventh chords in the final movement flattened into a mystical backdrop against which the soloists (Megan Taylor and Jeffrey Hill, singing gorgeously) were foregrounded in a way that I realize in retrospect I’d subconsciously hoped for but didn’t know how to achieve. In the first half of that movement the text isn’t intelligible because it’s unsynchronized among the SATB parts, which was intentional, though I’ve been criticized for it; tonight it truly became a kind of ecstatic speaking in tongues slowly resolving into understandable words. The piece took on a life of its own for which the notation could be only partly responsible. Physical reality is thought of as an imperfect reflection of Platonic forms, but, contrary to theory, sometimes in the fusion of collective creativities the physical rises above the ideational. That happened tonight. 

Several strangers in the audience told me afterward that they were moved to tears. I myself enjoyed recurrent waves of goosebumps. More than a couple dozen of the singers told me that performing the piece had greatly moved them. One woman who’s a Jones Very fanatic (Jones Very is the poet whose sonnets I set) told me how she had longed for musical settings of his poems and now found what she’d been waiting for. No moment of a composer’s life, I suspect, gets any better than this. If I can, I’ll post the recording as soon as I get it. Forgive the self-praise of my reporting it, but it’s frustrating that I get these kinds of reactions to this piece when it’s occasionally played, but it’s never written about or performed by the efforts of anyone but James. I am certainly grateful for what he’s done for it.
Before the concert, I went to Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble and found seven copies of my new Cage book prominently displayed. I complimented a sales clerk on the fact, who then offered to let me sign them, and I did, so there are a number of autographed copies at that store. I was a little taken aback, though, that he didn’t ask for ID. I could just as easily have walked in and signed their Messiaen biography “Robert Sherlaw Johnson,” and I’m afraid the temptation to do something like that in the future may be irresistible.


  1. says

    ‘Congratulations’ just doesn’t seem adequate. Everyone who writes for performance soon understands how much the players bring to the realization of a piece. Yet when it happens it always seems like such an unexpected surprise.
    I think this must be magnified in vocal music. The human voice is capable of so many sublte inflections and emotions – a good performance is bound to take a piece to new heights. It is a special experience for composer and performer alike when the whole so greatly exceeds the sum of its parts.
    KG replies: I imagine you’re right. Relache was able to give me that effect in the Venus movement of The Planets, because they had played it so many times. It’s in 3/4, but there’s an overlay of virtual 25/16 meter, and they’re so used to doing it that I can no longer even hear the 3/4. I don’t even know how they do it, sounds like magic. But being instrumental, it doesn’t have nearly the same effect on the audience. And the poems in TS are fantastic, so the audience reacts to those as well as to the music. Lyrics matter.

  2. Christopher Platt says

    From the perspective of one of the Dessoff singers who performed your piece this past Saturday, I must say that the variety, the depth, the resonance, the sheer inventiveness of your settings gave us as singers so much to latch onto, explore, and enjoy. As I’d said to you after the performance, I do hope Dessoff will continue performing your choral works, and that they find more and more partisans in more and more quarters.
    Thanks for your gifts to the choral arts!
    KG replies: And thanks for the best ensemble performance I’ve ever received!

  3. Jackie Jones says

    I loved, loved, loved singing your piece–it moved me immeasurably. I hope we continue singing your works!

  4. Cyndee Socci says

    Thank you again for several months of choral prep work as well. The journey to the performance certainly trumps the performance in terms of the sheer length of enjoyment time, and I can tell you that your Transcendental Sonnets harmonies and phrases were in my head A LOT, and I loved having them there. The performance got to me too though, in just experiencing the sheer joy of being in the middle of all those layers of sound.
    Get busy and write some more please!
    KG replies: Bless you and the other performers for writing in. I’m still riding high on the performance.
    thanks again –

  5. Christine Hoffman says

    So often a good choral performance is made great by a sensitive accompanist. And so often does Steve Ryan do that for Dessoff. This time, having both him and Renee Anne Louprette urging us to greater heights by their sonorous interpretation of the 2-piano score was an incredible experience and must be remarked upon!
    Thrilled by your choral writing and inspired by James’s support of your music, I too hope we see more of it.

  6. says

    “Faith” is still lodged in my brain a week after singing the concert. Thank you for a memorable and exhilarating musical experience.
    KG replies: Me too, and thank *you*.