Thursday, August 11, 2016

Music and Imagination, Aaron Copland 1952

I love Mariachi music. As a boy of 4, when I first learned how to work the old Philco radio in our living room, I knew exactly what number to turn the dial to for the Mariachi station and I also knew which knob to turn to make the music louder, which I liked to do. Among Superman, The Lone Ranger, The House of Mystery and The Shadow, Mariachi music was one of my favorites. 

I especially loved the trumpet playing and the sound of thirds or the intensity of that Mariachi three-part harmony. This was my first contact with the reality that I loved music. This Mariachi trumpet playing seemed to always be happy, always heroic and always powerful. Living now in Oaxaca, Mexico, I hear this kind of music daily and I still enjoy it.

As I grew musically through 50+ years of ensemble experience playing in symphony orchestras and subsequently conducting, I heard that my beloved Mariachi sound was not always perfect. Rarely were the trumpets and violins together, balanced or in tune. I still adored Mariachi music.

Yesterday while returning to my home from the Zocalo, Oaxaca’s city center, the taxi had Mariachi music playing on the radio. It took me a few seconds to realize something was wrong; it was absolutely perfect. The intonation was perfect, the balance was perfect, the attacks between the trumpets and violins were perfect and even the vibrato, that typical Mariachi slightly bottom heavy vibrato, was perfectly together. It made me a little uncomfortable. Obviously, it was an electronic Mariachi band, a very good electronically synthesized Mariachi band but it was not real.

Immediately, I was reminded of something I read in the book, Music and Imagination, by Aaron Copland, which was given to me in 1952 by a family member. Mr. Copland discussed the somber opening theme in the basses and cellos of the Shubert Unfinished Symphony. He mentioned that he had never heard that passage played with perfect intonation and further that the imperfect intonation, which we normally hear, sounds far more musical and dramatic than if it was played with perfect intonation.

As a very young, inexperienced and idealistic musician I was haunted by such a thought coming from such a great master composer. How was it possible something would sound better ‘out of tune’ than in tune?

It’s interesting how a listening experience in a Oaxaca taxi in 2016 could remind me of something I read in 1952, But this ‘perfect in every way’ Mariachi band playing on the radio lacked the charm and atmosphere of the real bands that played on the street.

We always strive for perfection in our preparations for the performance of music and many of our greatest players and ensembles come very close to this goal. Today it’s possible to electronically create performances of absolute perfection, but we need to remember that it’s our human individualism that makes music beautiful; we are not programmed computers, how boring it would be if that were so.

As we work toward achieving perfection, music requires our hearts, souls, imagination and our individualism to be a piece of that perfection. Imagination is the essence of an individual. 

Oaxaca, Mexico, August 11, 2016 It’s the e