The *Sight* of Music

Suzuki brings the chorus in during the first movement, Herr, unser herrscherHang on, isn’t that supposed to be “The Sound of Music?” OK, that too!

Bach’s Saint John Passion epitomizes Easter for me. Accordingly, on Easter Day, I went looking for my recording of the work. Oh bother, it was on the external drive on which I had backed up my data before reimaging my machine. Never mind, since I had my hands on the keyboard I went hunting for a performance of the work. The first hit was Masaaki Suzuki conducting the Bach Collegium Japan. I clicked through and was, once again, swept up in the music.

I performed the Saint John Passion in the 1990’s when I sang with the Acadia Choral Society in Maine. The music, the comeraderie with the other performers, the sweet peace of the final chorus following the anguish of the crucifiction, the breathless moments between the release of the last note and the applause, all of it combined, a thrilling and deeply moving experience. A deeply moving, stricktly auditory, experience.

I’ve ben blind for over thirty years. Yeah, in those early days I tried, desperately and usually with catastrophic results, to use my 20 over 2000 vision to “see” what I was doing or where I was walking. I’ll never forget my orientation and mobility instructor saying, Keep your head up. Concentrate on what you can feel with your cane instead of what you can’t see with your eyes.” That was good advice and, eventually, I took it to heart. With the passage of the years I eventually gave up trying to use my vision. I was getting on with life and, although I occasionally caught a glimpse of this or that, I learned to just accept the visual input but not rely on it.

So, as I listened to the performance of the Saint John Passion, I just listened. Hang on, what was that? A flicker of movement caught my eye. Turning my admittedly limited visual attention to the screen I watched carefully. There it was again. The conductor, he/she appeared to have long light colored hair. I grabbed a screen shot and sent it to jim with the question, “Is this a dude or a dudette?” “Dude,” came his reply.

Armed with the knowledge that Suzuki was a guy, no idea why that seemed important but it was, I magnified the screen so that the video window occupied the entire screen. Then I started using my vision. I watched in amazement, as this dynamic and exciting conductor drew the music out of the performers. It wasn’t just the dramatic parts of the music that were exciting. I watched as Suzuki used his entire body to draw out the most nuanced bits of the music, the gentle release of the final notes, the subtlety of the repeated phrase, a little bit softer than the preceding phrase.Suzuki signals the release of the final note, "Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!"

Adding the visual experience of this work to my purely auditory memories was a unique gift. Sitting right here in my chair in Alabama, some twenty years after performing this magnificent work, I was, quite literally, moved to tears as the visual experience informed and augmented my twenty year old memories.

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2 Responses to The *Sight* of Music

  1. Patty Newbold April 28, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    Wow, Sue! The brain is a wondrous thing. Do you think the intensity of the musical experience permitted you to see Suzuki?

    • smartin April 28, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

      That’s a good question Patty. But I think it’s not quite what was happening. People who are sighted and who haven’t been around folks who are blind find it unbelievable that I choose not to use the bit of vision that I have. The answer is quite simple, if I tried to do what I do every day visually I’d simply never get anything done. It takes too long and I have to work too hard to accomplish stuff visually.
      So what was going on with this video? It’s been a long time since I sang this work and listening to it now is quite different from the way I listened to it when I was learning it and singing it in concert. It was a bigger picture kind of listening. I didn’t find myself thinking stuff like, “Wait X beats after the altos come in before I come in.” Or, “Remember how to pronounce that word in German!” And I think, because the music is so familiar to me that I actually didn’t need to use very much concentration to hear and enjoy the music. That left me with the energy, or concentration, maybe, to try to see what was on the screen. And I was rewarded, over and over again, by actually being able to see Suzuki. He’s such a distinctive figure amongst all of the other performers. And the way he moves when conducting is so dramatic and energetic.
      So I had all that going for me. But I think the main thing that allowed me to visually experience this work is that I was really determined. And, possibly even more importantly, it was fun.

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