Tuesday, December 06, 2005

the ascetic sensualist

My first summer at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, we had a bass coach named Wolfgang Güttler, a long-haired bear of a man, born in Transylvania and seemingly possessed by some sort of demonic force. I'll never forget the time while playing Scheherezade's storm scene he decided the bass section wasn't swaying enough to the music, and so he grabbed me and began throttling me from side to side, almost capsizing me off my stool, instrument and all. Another time he tried to teach a Chinese bassist named Li to play with more dance-like character by waltzing around the stage with him, as the rest of us played Blue Danube and watched in disbelief.

After a marathon 6-hour sectional with Güttler, we would often go back to the castle (the orchestra lived in a castle - a small one, with a bar) and listen to bass recordings and drink red wine. Güttler had brought several of his own recordings, of Bottesini solo pieces as well as a very avant-garde group he formed called Trio Basso. Other people also had interesting recordings, and not just bass solo recordings, but Güttler would dominate the proceedings by repeatedly insisting, "Very nice! Now maybe we hear again the Riehm, how it sounds after this..." It was never enough to hear his recordings just once, and every other recording seemed to inspire him to want to hear something of his again.

At the time, I thought this was just more evidence of Güttler's crazed megalomania, though I've wondered about it a lot since then. I think we musicians are all very sensual people, in the pure sense of the term (I'll leave the impure sense to Blair Tindall et al.!) Like wine connoiseurs, we're rarely satisfied by one taste of music - we need to try a slower sip, or after a nice curry, or maybe with dessert? The experience of sound fills everyone with delight, but it also fills us with unquenchable curiosity: but how would that sound if...?

And when you think about it, who but a sensualist could spend hours alone in a practice room, deeply absorbed in questions like, "But how would this feel if it were slower? Faster? Maybe slower but with more forward movement...and what about using the second finger rather than the third?" I notice my musician blogger idol Jeremy Denk has a recent post entitled "How to Climax," which makes me wonder in what other profession can you occupy hours of meditation and study with such a question? Certainly not tollbooth collectors, mail delivery people, pet groomers... probably very few professions, and most of them illegal.

Of course, I prefer not to think too carefully about the sensualist leanings of my first bass teacher, the grandmotherly old lady with the gold star chart who loved to use the word 'discombobulated.' Or those of Wolfgang Güttler, or most musicians I can think of, for that matter. Still, sitting here comparing Bylsma's and Wispelwey's Bach recordings, I'm reminded of that "Maybe we hear again, how it sounds after this?" And it makes me think that within each of our ascetic practice room existences, there lives a decadent sensualist, indulging shamelessly in the endless permutations of sound, where hopefully we can't do very much damage.

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