Composer Michael Colgrass's adventures offer rare and valuable display of practical wisdom
Theorists are common, but people with practical wisdom are rare and valuable.Composer Michael Colgrass is one of those special people.
His memoir, Michael Colgrass: Adventures of an American Composer, published today by Meredith Music (click on the book image to go to the company's website, then click on "what's new"), is filled with life lessons big and small.
I wanted to highlight one particular lesson here. It appeals to me as a keyboard player and as a critic -- especially given last Friday's Angela Hewitt recital, where she played Bach and Brahms. This lesson also beautifully illustrates the elegant incisiveness of Colgrass's mind.
Here is the chapter, "Casting a Spell on Bach," from Colgrass's book:
When the University of Louisville asked me to give a talk on Tradition and Memory, I asked for a pianist who felt at home in different styles -- baroque, classical, Romantic and modern. They gave me a graduate student named Jeff Myers.
At the talk, I asked Jeff to sit in a chair facing the audience and play a Bach prelude on an imaginary piano. I wanted him to do everything he normally did when performing Bach except produce sound. His back straightened, his breathing evened out and he began to play on the imaginary keyboard. His hads moved so evenly that they could have balanced stacks of quarters.
When he finished, his body relaxed and his breath deepened. It was as if he had temporarily become someone else. I called this state his "Bach trance."
Next was imaginary Brahms. The audience watched him lean forward with a rounded back, breathe deeply and press his hands on the invisible keys. Those hypothetical coins would have fallen off this time. I called this his "Brahms trance."
When I asked what was going on inside him in each state, he said, "In the Bach state I was counting, but not consciously. in the Brahms I was feeling more and my body felt heavier."
Next I suggested he become Ravel. Again his breathing changed, and his fingers seemed to float over the keys as his body swayed slightly.
Finally I asked him to play the music of one composer while in the state of another -- on the real piano. He laughed and said he'd try. He took time to prepare himself, looking at the keyboard and leaning forward with a rounded back. He played the Bach prelude, but I knew from his body that he was in the Brahms trance. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock this stylistic crossover produced. I was momentarily convinced that this Bach prelude was, in fact, written by Brahms.
The audience was just as surprised by the mix of music and style. We concluded that Bach and Brahms weren't so different after all -- and that it was the performer who held the ultimate power over a piece of music.
For much more from Colgrass, check out his blog.
Here's a snippet of Colgrass talking to high school students participating in workshops called BandQuest, organised by the American Composers Forum. He explains how he creates music starting with a particular performer, not a musical idea, in mind: