An Intercepted Letter from Beth Levin

Beth Levin

[March 2003.]

Dear Mother,

I am rehearsing today with Kalin Ivanov, the Bulgarian cellist of whom I spoke. He called Bulgaria from my apartment last week to arrange travel to a music festival in Russia. Can I afford to rehearse with Kalin Ivanov?

This past year I followed my freelance impulses, performing with a soprano in Edinburgh, with a mezzo in New York, and generally saying yes to everything put in my path. I set a poem of Wallace Stevens to music, gave a lecture on Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, and wrote for an online music review. Next I’ll be bungee jumping.

Seriously, playing music and writing about music are two distinct acts that sometime split me in half or, perhaps, cinch opposite sides of my psyche. Performing Chopin’s G minor Ballade, for instance, reaches into the realm of the unspoken to such a great depth. The ideas one has about the music relate utterly to sound, to emotion, to portraying music organically. The aim after envisioning a final structure is to ride the best musical path to its fulfillment — a path of sound, phrasing, motion and emotion. It’s also a matter of trying to see what Chopin meant, to exercise one’s judgment, instincts and taste at the service of those ideas. In the end, one cannot try to perform this music. One must simply do it, after all is said and done. It is all in the doing, in the moment of performance.

Writing about the G minor Ballade or any piece of music at first feels artificial. Music is its own language. One speaks it at the piano. Then to write in another seems superfluous, as if layering a fur coat (faux of course!) with a sweater. All one can do is describe events as they occur in the music and at the same time describe qualities which may bring a reader closer in. What I cannot describe is the vast space that exists between performing the coda of the first Ballade and writing about it. One is a visceral act, the other an act born of the mind.

On the other hand, the more background one brings to a performance, the better. Examining a piece of music, in a sense tearing it apart, may lead to a richer outcome. A performance is a distillation of information, some intellectual, some physical — one’s instinctive and cultivated sense of rhythm, say — some psychological. The difference is that one might have an image or thought about a phrase, but by the moment of execution it is too late. Thinking must stop for a true performance to begin.

When one writes about music one has time to waste — lovely time. It is this different experience of time that may lie at the core of the two arts. In writing, one can live the performance again, elongate the experience. But one cannot live it first-hand. That can only happen onstage.

So, mother, Kalin comes in an hour and I must prepare.

Love to all the Levins,

Beth

 

[More Beth Levin]