Transcendent music

Some years ago, I compiled a list of purposes that may motivate composers, performers or listeners of music, under the heading What is music for?

An objective that may motivate many performers is that of reaching a transcendent state, as the Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, describes here. His blog post was written after he had performed all five Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Brussels Philharmonic (under Thierry Fischer) across three evenings, in February 2020 (blog entry of 18 February 2020):

The high point for me was No. 4, during which I experienced something which until now I’ve only felt while playing Russian music: a kind of floating, when your brain disengages or splits in two. One (small) part is alert and following the performance, and perhaps directs the musical flow a little bit, the other (much larger) part is completely sunk into the music, experiencing it in a kind of visceral, instinctive way which precludes logical thinking and seems wired directly to your deepest feelings, without any buffers or defenses. After that concerto I was drained, bewildered, exhilarated – a complete mess. But what an unforgettable night.”

Paragraph added 2024-06-22: And here is pianist Lucas Jussen, in an interview with La Vague Classique published on Instagram on 21 June 2024:

At one moment, I don’t think you are even aware anymore [as a performer] that you are playing. So the music just comes and the mind is completely together with the music. . . . When you are really in the music, you become one with what you are playing . . . You don’t really think about anything. It is just – Everything comes naturally.”

As a player of music, I have not experienced such a state, although I have often experienced being in the zone, in other words, reaching a flow state, also a kind of mental floating, where I am no longer aware of anything other than the music. This feeling is so euphoric that it motivates me to keep practicing, despite the many challenges and frustrations encountered.

Someone recently asked me why I listen to music. As a listener, I have on several occasions experienced a state of transcendence or sublimity. These experiences are immensely pleasurable, even if ineffable. I thought to list these experiences as best I remember them (here in reverse chrono order):

  • The London Orlando Orchestra under Claudia Jablonski playing Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto, with soloists Alexander Doronin and Volodymyr Bykhun, in St Cyprian’s Church Clarence Gate, London, on 16 June 2024.
  • Emmanuel Despax, playing Busoni’s arrangement for solo piano of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, from Violin Partita #2, in London in November 2023.
  • Kasparas Mikužis, playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue #8 in Book 1 of the 48, in Eb/D# minor, in a solo piano recital in Sittingbourne, England, in November 2023.
  • The Rite of Spring, arranged for two pianos in performances in London and Paris in January and March 2023, played by the Jussen brothers.
  • Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, performed by the Orchestre National de France under Aziz Shokhakimov in the Maison de la Radio et de la Musique, Paris, on 14 April 2022.
  • Handel’s Messiah, performed by The BBC Singers and the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, Temple Church, London, December 2014.
  • Pekka Kuusisto, the Sacconi Quartet and the RCM Chamber Orchestra playing a thrilling, edgy interpretation of Vivaldi’s The Seasons, in Folkestone, England, in May 2014.
  • The Firebird performed by Orchestra Mozart and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra combining forces under Diego Matheuz, in Bologna, Italy, April 2011.
  • Rolf Hind, playing John Coolidge Adams’ Phrygian Gates in Liverpool, England, circa 2002.
  • Courtney Pine Quartet, in The Basement, Sydney, in December 1987 and at the State Theatre, Sydney, in November 1988.
  • Wynton Marsalis Quartet at the Sydney Opera House in 1987.

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