* Listening with the breath

Listening with the breath

When we speak, we breathe:

  • My name is Julie. (long, contemplative breath)
  • I love sunsets. (long breath, followed by a quick in-breath)
  • In fact, I love sunsets so much (very quick breath) that every evening I'm on my deck facing west watching for every nuance and shade of color. (long sighing breath)
  • What are the colors of a sunset? (quick, but deep intake of breath, in preparation for a recital)
  • (Breathlessly) Red and orange and pink and mauve and bits of blue and black and violet and green! (Quick breath)
  • Cream and burgundy and even yellow sometimes - have you ever seen a yellow sunset? (Quick breath)
  • I really love sunsets.  (Long release of breath, relaxing)

We breathe as we speak, not only to stay alive, but to emphasize ideas, to create excitement, to relax, to stretch out a dramatic pause, to signal that something is coming.  Our breath is as much a part of our sentences as each word and phrase!

Music is also a form of speech, and relies on breathing.  In some cases, this reliance is physical - woodwind and brass performers, for example, must breathe in between short or long sections of creating sound by blowing out.  A composer who writes for flute would allow for more breathing space than if the same passage were written for violin.

Inexperienced composers, eager to put a lot of notes on paper, all too often do not allow their music to breathe.  Even violinists have to breathe!  Even pianists breathe - and cellists and timpanists and harpists - and especially conductors.  The quality of breath of an upbeat not only determines the exact moment of downbeat, but also the type of attack, the volume, the expression, the mood of the piece.  Informed, conscious breathing is essential to every performer.

But perhaps even more importantly, the audience needs to catch its collective breath at well-chosen moments throughout the composition.  The masterful composer listens and writes from the breath and silently instructs the active listener when to breathe, for how long, and with what degree of excitement or relaxation.

Here is a well-known piece which invites us to breath at regular intervals.  Try listening with your breath to this exciting, historic performance of the 4th movement of "The Trout" Quintet by Schubert, played by five stupendous performers, back in 1969:  Daniel Barenboim, piano; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Pinchas Zuckerman, viola;  Jacqueline du Pré, cello;  Zubin Mehta, double bass:

Schubert - Piano Quintet in A mojor -  IV. Andantino-Allegretto (theme and variations)

When we actively listen to "The Trout", we're relaxed and happy, almost floating downstream, so to speak!   Part of that happy mood is created by the lilting melody, the joyous harmony, the wonderful balance of familiar and new within the theme and variation form.  But a big part of our relaxed enjoyment is the way the music breathes at regular, predictable intervals, and the ease with which we can breathe along with it.

Here is another piece in which the composer, the performer, and the listener never have a chance to catch a breath.   No more relaxation or floating downstream.  Now we're caught in a whirlwind, with not a moment of rest or pause.  We might call this a breathless piece!

Chopin - Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb minor, Op. 35, 4th movement - Finale: Presto

In this piece, Chopin creates an almost unbearable tension and excitement by never allowing the audience to breathe!   We are swept along in a relentless, never ending wave of music and can simply hold on until the pianist arrives at the last emphatic chord.   This level of intensity and breathlessness has to be very skillfully timed.  With the duration of a little over a minute, Chopin has captured our attention; a minute more of this and we'd be on the floor, gasping for breath!  The wise composer knows exactly how long to stretch out tension before he or she releases us to relax and breathe again.

In this next piece, Samuel Barber allows us to breathe at regular, peaceful intervals as we follow along with his beautiful Canzone:

Music happens in time and is perceived in time.   During the common practice period, we often breathed at well-defined intervals - every two or four bars of 4/4 or 3/4 time, for example.  The Canzone from Barber's Pulitzer-prize-winning piano concerto was written in the middle of the 20th century, but breathes in the old way, at regular intervals.

Other 20th and 21st century compositions began to follow patterns of speech or naturally occurring sounds and rhythms and do not rely so closely on the old measurements of duple and triple. 

The first piece in Modest Mussorgsky's song cycle "The Nursery", written 1868-1872,  follows the natural rhythms of a child talking to her Nanny  - or Nanoushka, in Russian.  This delightful recording was made by 11 year old Josie Carr-Hill, a very young opera singer who is half Russian, half Canadian.  Even though we may not speak Russian, we can hear the energy and the natural breathing rhythms of a young girl asking for a bedtime story. 

Mussorgsky changes time signatures in almost every measure:  7/4, 3/4, 7/4, 3/2, 3/4, 3/2, 5/4, 6/4, 5/4, 3/2 ... and  that's only the first 12 bars!  Try breathing along with Josie as she sings, and see how the breath shapes and informs the music.

Another famous example of jagged breathing is found in Stravinsky's 1913 masterpiece, The Rite of Spring.  Try breathing along with the music in this  piece that turned Paris upside-down almost one hundred years ago:

Stravinsky - Selection from Rite of Spring - 1913

Notice that Stravinksy creates the ragged, uneven breathing patterns while still retaining a regular time signature.  Even though the time signature is a simple duple, we find ourselves breathing at odd places, as the music transcends any thoughts we might have had about counting to two ....

By the end of the 20th century many composers stopped using time signatures completely and invited us to listen with the breath of nature or of the cosmos.   Here, in the last piece he completed, Olivier Messiaen brings us "Illuminations from the Beyond", or perhaps in a more apt translation, "Flashes of Lightning from Beyond".  The great composer was already dying as he was writing "L'Éclairs sur l'au delà".   With his usual huge spirit and endless generosity, he shares with us the music he already hears from the next world.  As we breathe along with the various selections from Éclairs, we are breathing with birds one minute, angels the next. 

Olivier Messiaen - Éclairs sur l'au-delà  - 1992

When we learn to listen with the breath, we feel the heartbeat of the music, its ebb and flow, the times it pauses and the times it runs away with us. We can feel the music in our very cells.  As performers, we will pay more attention to the nuances of phrasing, and the vastly important rests and cadences.   As composers, we learn to give our own music breathing space and to invite our audiences into each unique world with its own pace and rhythm.

-- Julie Harris


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