...CHE SONANDO APPARISCONO - desire for sounding meanings through a musician's practice

...la differenza de i loro effetti, che sonando appariscono.

...the difference of their effects, which appear by playing.

(Girolamo Frescobaldi, 1615)

I have opened a modern edition of the first book of toccatas by Girolamo Frescobaldi. The book is on the music stand of my harpsichord, and I am sitting on the piano stool at my instrument in my room. In the room there are also books, clothes, dust, a bed; an air humidifier is making a low noise and spraying cool mist in the air. Under the harpsichord there are stacks of music, photocopied sheets of paper. I am alone.

I am sitting here because I have a desire to play a toccata by Frescobaldi. I want to feel the pleasure of using and developing my ability to read music in order to turn it into action in my body and in my fingers, and listen to the sounds that come out. I have a desire to touch my instrument, to feel the pleasure that results from the sensations of my brain becoming connected with my body, of my fingers moving along routes that have been implanted in them since childhood. I also feel enjoyment in encountering unfamiliar routes, which will turn into familiar ones through problem-solving and repetition. I am desiring to hear the tones that are written on the pages: the abstract dots and lines will turn into sounds that will relate to each other, form lines, directions and eventually meanings. So I start playing a toccata, reading and taking my time, sometimes stopping, stumbling or repeating a section. As I probe the notes, I recognize figures and feel the suspensions and resolutions created by tonal relations of the music. Dissonances create a desire for release; in some bars they do so as naturally as breathing out after breathing in, and in other bars they turn into an unexpected direction and leave me with a will to continue the line. These desiring dissonances become part of my desire to play this toccata.


Multiple layers of my personal history function at the same time as I read and touch and listen. I remember Frescobaldi´s forewords which I have been studying and note figures that correspond to his mentions on them, trying to turn his words into a way of moving my fingers. I remember comments from my different teachers in the course of years, even decades. I desire to touch the instrument so that I overcome the physical fact of a starting-then-fading sound that the plucking of the string produces, and simulate all kinds of dynamics through my touch, use of time and imagining. I enjoy the pitches of the sounds: today I have tuned my instrument, and the pitches are that of a quarter-comma meantone temperament. The distance of an F#, for example, to a G is very big and this distance enhances the desire to lean on an F# on its way to a G.


The music of the toccatas resembles affective speech and as such it is directed towards other humans. As I proceed in approaching (but never fully reaching) the objects of my aforementioned desires, I start to wish that in the room there were someone else to play the tones for. I even desire to go out of my room and play the tones to a few other people, to experiment how my practice and its physical and imaginative processes turn the piece into a performance. The imaginations that I have had during my practice will stay private, but the sounds that they have helped to formulate will be shared. The speech-like nature of this music is creating one more direction for my desire: to reach out to other persons. I am longing to share the gestures of desiring and reaching-for, to somehow speak the language of desire.



I am sitting in front of my computer. I am about to write about finding meanings in a toccata through a musician´s practice. I am about to venture in a strange project: there is a text (musical text, complemented by written text) that I am approaching with action (playing), sending its contents to another dimension, that of sound – and then again I am trying to approach this action with a text. So I am working with something frozen, stable and abstract, which then becomes something temporary, disappearing, bodily, and then becomes frozen again in the form of written words that try to describe it. Converting a sounding meaning into writing is like drawing an impression of a space on a flat surface, and using abstracted lines to suggest depth.


It is no wonder that when writing about music, it is very probable to end up writing about the text. Writing about music attracts the textual dimension of music, whereas the sounding reality is repulsed and constantly escapes the way of the words. By the act of writing, I am doing different things to the music than by playing it. In writing, the verb “to be” is loaded with different meanings than in playing. In writing, when something “is”, it seems to be there permanently. In playing, something “is” something for a fleeting moment, but next moment it “is” different.   


I read about toccatas. I am turning to Frescobaldi´s own forewords to his music (the first book of toccate e partite d´intavolatura di cimbalo 1615, extended in the publication of 1616 and complemented in 1637 and il primo libro di capricci 1624). In the second paragraph of the al lettore text in the 1615 publication, I read that it should be taken care that the sections should be distinguished by the difference of their effects, which appear by playing, che sonando appariscono. I love this sentence. This is what I desire to do.


But how to write about the multidimensional happening of meaning-making that takes place in a musician's practice? (Perhaps the performance itself is the most efficient way of speaking about it.) In the process, many different things are happening simultaneously, and the problem with words is that they can only deal with one thing at one time. When I play, various senses work in a parallel manner, sight, touch, hearing. I am living in the present tense, but also already perceiving what will happen in the next seconds, much like walking on a nature path and using perceptions to accommodate my body to the changing surfaces. At the same time, I form meanings in my thoughts: I notice tonal relations, intervals, rhythms, and they all mean something. Their meaning mixes up with the sensations of hearing and touching: a quart, for example, is a measurable ratio, but in the context of these other notes, it has a colour, a direction and a feel in my body. The meanings become more pictorial, more metaphoric, I search for them actively and let them change the way I play. My articulation and timings will be affected by a picture of, say, a limping dog, or being lost in a dark room, being contentedly in love, saying thoughtfully “but”, cursing, or imagining a sticky, viscous material. There is no story, no need for cohesion, I can jump from a dog to mortal jealousy. Actually, often I must change idea immediately and completely forget where I was the second before. This imagining is very fluid. In fact, again, writing it down makes it appear fixed like the written music. The next time I play, the dog may have changed into a landscape with fences. But the dog has done what it was supposed to do to my playing: it has helped me approach the object of my desire a tiny bit: to play with a meaning and, perhaps, to be able to share my embodied version of this toccata with other people.


I am not desiring to illustrate my imaginations or to transmit them literally to someone who might listen to my performance. Still, it seems to me that involving my imagination is a precondition for making the toccata understandable. Verbalization is an arrow thrown into the infinite space between me and the desired. What I am desiring is the directional action itself, the reaching-for, that will never end.



photos by Joona Kivirinta