I love watching musicians listen to each other. They resonate together, embodying what their instruments are doing too.
I watched 16 chamber orchestra musicians (NYC-based The Knights) sway and dive and reel with their tunes. Most were standing, which gave them full access to physical expression.
I watched the first viola player catch the bass player’s eye, both grinning; the flute player turn to the first violin as they got in synch; the strings all begin at exactly the same moment in the middle of chaotic musical beauty.
I watched Syrian musician/composer Kinan Azmeh soulfully embody and share a piece about his “multitude of homes,” wandering toward the audience, then whipping back to greet the percussionist as they met right on beat.
This is human magic, folks.
These self-described “adventurous musicians” surrounded the audience in their first piece, a meditative drone growing out of nowhere and surrounding us – first the violins scattered around the room centering us and bringing us present with a note that hummed and vibrated from corner to corner, then slowly the other musicians joining in, building and building, until they were all onstage, together, taking us on a journey.
They were a great example of democracy at work: a group that was at least half people of color, about half women, with a relatively wide age range, and most importantly, they rotated roles.
The first violin was not always the first violin. Leaders and followers changed it up. There wasn’t a conductor onstage, just breathing together and playing together, listening and joining in. Some were highlighted, of course. I’m sure there were designated initiators for certain parts; there were special guests and soloists.
But overall, this is what I love about music at its best: watching people do it together. They find each other, they listen, they respond, they are present, they play. They – not just their instruments – have to be in tune with each other and everything around them.
Azmeh writes of one of his pieces we heard tonight: “In this piece, everyone is a decision-maker and part of the creative process while giving room to the two main characters (in this case, a clarinet and a violin) to tell their stories.”
That is how I experienced the entire night.
This is also the way I dream of theatre, the way I work to make theatre happen when I get to choose. Roles get shared around, rotating to everyone’s strengths. We all listen and contribute, sometimes pausing and breathing, sometimes driving it forward.
In fact, it’s the way I dream of any workplace, any group undertaking, any partnership.
Great performances come from great listening, from collaboration, from equalizing and sharing the leadership roles – as does great work in any venue, in my opinion.
At the end of the evening, The Knights brought in another favorite element of mine: delightful surprise.
After a night of instrumental journeys (meditative and jazz-like improvisations, Bach, Schubert, Roma-influenced tunes, Yiddish lullaby, rhythm-driven pieces), in the final encore after a musical lead-in and no verbal introduction, a woman from the back – an unobtrusive string player who I hadn’t noticed much – appeared downstage and brought a microphone to her lips.
“Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken…” she began singing, her voice vulnerable and clear.
Voice, a clear voice, a woman’s voice, the voice of a woman who had mostly blended into the background, coming forward and singing American Tune, so heartbreakingly perfect.
Perfect for the night, for our time, for this group. It’s a song I needed to hear, a song we all need to hear.
Paul Simon wrote the song, set to a variation on the tune of an old hymn; others have covered it. I wish I could share the version from tonight, but barring that, my favorite version is the one below.
Take a listen. And then listen to what’s around you. Can we find each other, listening and resonating, leading and following, playing together, collaborating, creating human magic, wherever we are?