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.