Finding the Moments

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I wrote a while back about the experience of listening out for our favourite bits in familiar music, and the obligations thus placed upon performers to make those eagerly-anticipated moments special. This opened up the question as to how we identify which moments these are if we’re new to the repertoire – either because we’re relatively junior in the genre or because the music itself is not yet widely performed.

That’s a good question, I thought, and then: hmm, that’s a really good question, how do we do this? What looked on first sight like a nice rhetorical question to which I thought I knew the answer actually had me more baffled than I anticipated.

As a musician, I’m coming from this from a number of angles: as a director preparing arrangements with my chorus I’ve not necessarily heard sung by others, as a coach supporting other groups in the same situation, as an arranger responsible for putting in the bits that will in time become people’s favourite moments. And I’m also experiencing it in my newly reactivated identity as a pianist: one of the pieces I’m learning, though written in 1932, was only published in 2020, and so has yet to accumulate much of a performance tradition.

It’s not that I have any doubt that I do find the special bits, you understand, it’s just that I’m not sure how I do it. I think other people might be in the same boat: one of my favourite music-coaching exercises is to put people in small groups including people from different parts and have them jointly identify the ‘moments’ in the piece of music we’re working on, and I’ve never had anyone ask me how to go about it. (They may not have previously noticed the moments in other people’s parts, mind you, which is why we do the exercise so they know what to listen out for, but they know where theirs are.) And I guess audiences are like this too: if it took analytical knowledge to identify the good bits, listening to music would be a less popular pastime than it is.

But, still, it feels like the people delivering the moments could usefully have some sense of method in addition to our intuitions to help us on our way. Because it is, as in the coaching-under-glass example that got me thinking about this, possible to miss moments – intuition alone doesn’t always come up trumps.

Interrogating my intuitions has so far pulled the following thoughts from my practical consciousness into conversant awareness. The moments that I find myself looking forward to while playing, singing, or conducting will have one or more of the following features:

  • Surprisingness. Like the use of a particularly vivid or unusual word in a piece of writing, moments often have some element of the extraordinary compared with their general context. Of course, strictly speaking, this is surprising only the first time you encounter it, but the factors that mark that initial experience continue to stand out on repeated listening. These moments are set apart from the general flow by some combination of [easeylink=harmonic_charge | text=harmonic charge], change of texture, register or dynamic, or virtuosic flourish. This is why it is important not to mess up the tricky bits, because the bits that trip up the performer while they are learning the music may well be destined to be the bits that the audience come to love the most.
  • Convergence of parameters pointing towards it. There can be a sense of inevitability of really key moments, because their arrival is signalled in advance. There can be a sense of the culmination of processes in multiple dimensions: harmonic and/or melodic sequences, build-up (or wind-down) of pitch, dynamic and/or orchestration, coordination of hypermetric units can all shout ‘here it comes!’ so that we’re all ready for it when it arrives.
  • Placement in narrative structure. Moments may mark a key point in the story (in the case of songs with lyrics), or in instrumental music, a turning point in the form, e.g. major point of arrival. They may also be marked as surprising, but it is their position in the overall arc of the music as much as their content that makes them special.

I’ve put this in ascending order of importance for defining the really focal points of a piece of music. You may have any number of passing moments on the way through, little frissons of musical surprise that keep the attention and interest engaged, but the bits that people get ready for and really lean into mentally and emotionally, are often involved in longer-term structural processes. The material with which they are articulated doesn’t even necessarily have to be that surprising – though it often is, you also can have great moments made from the simplest of materials because they’ve been placed and signalled so well.

Conversely, I was reminded recently of a particular barbershop chart in which there’s one embellishment quite early on that I really love and nothing quite as remarkable for the rest of the song. I always feel a bit conflicted about it, because on the one hand I really look forward to that moment, but once it’s happened the rest of the performance can never quite live up to it. So, whilst this whole discussion came out of what the performer needs to do to bring out the bits that the audience will love the most, they’re also at the mercy of composers and arrangers to make that possible.

This is pretty consistent with how Stefanie and I talked about moments in our VHU class:

I like your point about the convergence of parameters, that seems especially worth thinking about from an arranging perspective.

Stefanie recommended a book to me a few years back about creating memorable experiences - like, musical moments but in real life. I wasn't thinking about it consciously when I wrote this post, but I'm not at all surprised to find some resonances between our thinking!

I did also remember a conversation you and I had about arranging that involved referencing the build up to the finale of Sibelius 2, which does this kind of sign-posting. (I can't remember exactly why we were talking about that, just that it was a useful reference for whatever it was!)

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