Tanya Anisimova

Cellist, Composer, Artist

Musical Sound as Substance and Transcendence

Tanya Anisimova and Matt Palmer, cello and guitar ensemble:
from making the instrument’s sounding palpable to thinking about what makes music musical.

tanya matt

I wanted to write about the music Tanya Anisimova and Matt Palmer played at Blue House studio on May 21, 2017 immediately upon my return to Boston from DC, but things beyond my control got in the way and only now—almost three weeks after the event—have I had a chance to address the subject of enormous interest, joy, and importance to me. Although maybe this delay is for the better because a temporal distance from the music I heard helps to shape a reflective perspective needed to understand and appreciate its novelty.

It is hard to write about new things, especially in the area in which you are not equipped with special terminology. The only guidance I have is my belief that I witnessed something extraordinary—and I want to testify to this very fact with my words. Of course, I am not going to “translate” a musical message to a neutral “content” that can be easily transcribed into a text. My impression from the music is the sole driving force in what I write here; I will stay within its scope and will try to explicate it as fully and clearly as I can.

One more propaedeutic paragraph is needed to focus on the area that is my “problematic field” here. All of us at some point in our lives may experience a certain discomfort and discontent with this or that form of art. We get “fed up” with fiction, poetry, the visual arts, or movies. They just stop “working” for us and begin to seem “fishy,” inauthentic, pretentious, shallow, predictable, naïve, missing the point, repeating themselves, offering overly general explanatory schemes, and feeding us with empty semi-intellectual speculations. Or just the opposite—the art becomes overwhelming, it generates even more emotional pressure than we are presently under and makes our mind boil; it overpopulates our memory with too many images, paralyzing our will... Mentally they might really hurt, disarm, crash, or even wipe away our Self, our personal mental core, our capacity to identify what we experience as ours. Existentially we may find ourselves unable to breathe, to see, to listen; hence we retreat—not only from merely entertaining art, but from serious “highbrow” art as well. And not only from experiencing art—going to museums or listening to music—but from other forms of personal engagement: from our work, our life, and eventually even from our Self. In other words, if art does not truly serve as an expressive means of one’s experience, one becomes a totally estranged person who is buried under one’s emotions and thoughts, just as Midas the king found himself buried under the ruins of too-much-gold-turned-to-dross. It takes a miracle, a lucky chance, and an effort on one’s own part, of course, to find expressive means for the complex experiences and states of mind that require a more integrated and comprehensive ways of articulation than you have been enjoying in art so far. That would be a precondition for returning to your Self and your life, and—what is even more remarkable—rediscovering unlimited powers of art.

Miracles do happen, all kinds of them. People meet new people whose close presence energizes their psyche; they come across exciting projects that spark their creativity; they find authors whose writings speak to them intimately and personally. In fact, any true art can routinely produce such miracles: it is called catharsis and it is what illuminates human experience, offers form to amorphous emotional streams, and empowers Self. The cathartic capacity of art is unusually strong in newly constructed artistic genres, musical or otherwise. And here I finally come to Tanya and Matt’s performance. What I heard at Tanya and Matt’s concert was not just a striking new performance of old familiar music; neither was it a demonstration of their superb professional skills, which enable them to handle new musical styles, techniques, or manners effortlessly, extending the limits of the music we already knew; nor was it a radically new “literary” interpretation of the old score—that would be music for an art critic’s ear. Rather, through the process of their performance they led their audience to a place no one has been before. They discovered for us a new musical galaxy which I would call thematization of the instrument’s sounding and musical sound per se. The key factor here was playing two musical instruments—cello and guitar—in ensemble in such a way as to extend the individual sound of each instrument far beyond its standard capacity. This is comparable to the way true love can reveal in a person talents and potentials that were seemingly never present in him or her before. In this sense, love and art become transcending tools enabling a person or musician to go beyond himself or herself emotionally, intellectually, creatively, relationally. A person can become more delicate, more nuanced, more open, more observant, more generous, more tolerant—in other words, more integrated with and attuned to the enormous challenges of the contemporary global world.

We love most and are most familiar with music that appeals to our emotions, moods, and feelings: folk-dancing rhythms, epic singing, uplifting and purifying spiritual chorales, infinitely soothing baroque sound-ornaments, court ceremonial tunes, mellow romantic and ecstatic melodies, heroic hymns, celestial angelic singing, country songs, and city blues. Even the “big league” classical symphonies evoke feelings, though complex ones, such as empathy, social and political concerns, discontent with wars and devastation. This music reverberates strongly in our hearts. We also enjoy music with more abstract metaphysical content—mental states or dispositions of consciousness such as melancholy, desperation, joy, creation, salvation, apocalypse, spiritual quests, zeitgeist. They are more profound than mere emotions, calling on the abstractive capacity of human intellect. Moreover, we are curious about more sophisticated music, which abstracts elements of “musical form”—rhythm, harmony, tone, scale—and makes them its content, i.e., it thematizes them. So-called modernist music often sounds “cold” because it appeals more to our reason than to our emotions. And the post-modernist music tickles our emotions and shakes up our perceptive expectations when it utilizes all possible kinds of musical genres and musical traditions, mixing them all in order to create spontaneous musical happenings.

It is not my goal to determine the place of Tanya and Matt’s performance in the context of the history of music—though I think it would be a good idea. I am just trying to understand my astonishment, the impression I got from hearing them play together. I want to trace this experience reflectively and become aware of in what it consists. As I mentioned, Tanya and Matt’s cello-guitar duet sounded different than all music I have heard before. True, this music was emotionally charged and passionate; after all, the guitar is a Spanish instrument par excellence, and Tanya’s composition—in memory of the outstanding Hungarian cellist Janos Starker who recently died—was a sort of spiritual emotionality, full of sorrow because a friend had passed away, expressing appreciation and gratitude for a fellow musician, and it was victorious: death was defeated in art and music. One of the pieces Matt played was written by Russian composer Sergei Rudnev and we were all transported by its sweet and mellow elegiac moods. Yet there was something in this music beyond emotions and passions.

The music Tanya and Matt played required from them professional technique of the highest order. It goes without saying that both are virtuoso musicians with original approaches to making their instruments sound “all the way and beyond.” One can google Matt’s websites and come across his book in which he describes his revolutionary technique. He offers explanation of his “secrets” in terms of fluidity, playing with three fingers four-note patterns, or incorporating elements of heavy-metal guitar playing into his style. But even if a musicologist who is classically trained, knowledgeable in the latest developments in the musical world, and highly appreciative of performers’ idiosyncratic manners, were to discuss Tanya’s and Matt’s performance using the finest conceptual terms—speed, range, scope, volume, swiping, precision, syncopating, shredding—I would not recognize my listening experience in it.

I heard profoundly new music that delivered a sophisticated emotional and spiritual message, required the command of extraordinary technical skill, and allowed both instruments to go beyond their capacity in producing and thematizing their sounding per se. The human ear can hear only sounds or harmonious sounds; it takes the human mind to hear—or, more precisely, to absorb the meaning of—the sounding of a particular musical instrument abstracted from its emotional or spiritual content, or the sounding as such. I am not talking here about engaging human memory, which helps one understand the “literary” content of music or the historical circumstances at the time of composing of a particular piece. When a musical sound is not just produced but thematized—that is, presented as something irreducible to a set of characteristics such as sequence of notes, speed, intensity, depth, and so on—it acquires an intellectual dimension. The sounding unfolded as substance, as thematized, not only makes it possible for me to listen to the music but makes me think about music, about how sounds turn into notes, sequences of notes create harmonies, and certain combinations of notes form melodies. The sounding invites thinking not as a historian of music or musicologist but as a philosopher.

Because the thematized sounding transcends the limits of music as an art form and reaches out to thinking about the meaning of a musical tone, a sequence of notes, harmony, and so on, we begin to reflect on the necessary elements constituting the meaning of musical sound by the human brain. Rephrasing and supplementing Paul Klee’s observation that “art does not reproduce the visible; it makes it visible,” I would say art renders the invisible visible—angels, for example. I would also say that Tanya and Matt’s music does not reproduce sounds; it makes sounds stand out, makes them visible and tangible. Moreover, it makes silence—what is not heard but is tacitly presupposed in harmonious sound—audible. After all, any musical tone is an interplay of what sounds at a particular moment with what has just sounded and faded away, though it is still preserved in a transformed pattern, does not completely disappear. A note is a tone with a seven-degree modification tacitly reproduced as preserved. The sensation of harmony or a particular sequence of notes is not the result of a sequence of sensations. These sensations, once they have occurred, must be modified and preserved by our memory; the modified preservation of sensations will be incorporated in our consequential perception of harmony. But does this not remind us of the mechanism by which human consciousness functions? So then, in thinking about music and sounding per se, we are thinking about the human mind, consciousness, sensations, perceptions, memory, and how these all work together. This is exactly what I mean by transcending music as an art form.

Certain strains of music make us cry; they interact with our emotions and passions so powerfully and so arbitrarily that we lose control of ourselves and literally sink into the bottomless abyss of psychic elements. This kind of music gets into sync with our emotions, amplifies them, and by upsetting the bridge of reason more and more, causes its collapse. Certain musics elevate us above pain and anxiety, illuminating our emotions, feelings, and other mental phenomena; by offering a cathartic resolution to dead-end emotional states and the treacherous chaos of swirling passions, it grants us a relief and freedom from ourselves, brings us into the realm of tranquil spirituality, or empowers us with self-understanding. Certain musics transcend both emotional and spiritual levels of the human psyche and appeal to thinking. They have a more comprehensive cathartic impact because they make a person contemplate reflectively about his or her response to music. Not in terms of forces—emotional, spiritual, or even supernatural ones, though they could be considered this way at least metaphorically—but rather in terms of the activity of the human mind, consciousness, and various mental occurrences—sensations, perceptions, memories—that underlie the event of music as such and constitute the meaning of musical tone, harmony, and melody.

This brings us to the Self as a hub and carrier of these mental occurrences. In fact, we would not be able to listen to music did we not have the sense of Self, no matter how weak or strong that sense is, and no matter to what degree a person is conscious of it. Earlier I invoked certain situations when the arts suddenly stop working for a person. I was not talking about “bad art”—cheap commercial mass production, empty art-simulacra, clumsy and tasteless performances, or pulp fiction. One might feel that art has lost its capacity to appeal to one’s experience, to address one’s questions, to offer any illumination of or consolation for one’s torments, to shape one’s take on what is grandiose or whimsical, or to feed one’s curiosity, and so on. In other words, one’s personality is no longer articulated in any form of art and one’s Self seems to be bypassed by the arts. Whose fault is it when this occurs? Is it art’s fault, or the person’s fault—or a little bit of both? Here I deal with only one issue from this complex set of issues, that is: What elements of artistic events can restore the value of the arts when they have seemingly lost their significance for people? After all, rediscovery of the value of art is rediscovery of the Self that was lost or destroyed. Let us look one more time at what Tanya and Matt have accomplished.

At the concert they played some pieces separately and others together. Listeners could get the first glimpse of Tanya as a composer in the piece, which she had dedicated to her fellow cellist Janos Starker. When Matt played a piece by Czech composer Stepan Rak, he amazed the audience with his new virtuosic technique of guitar playing. But it was when they played a composition for cello and guitar in seven parts by Manuel De Falla and Tanya’s original Sinfonietta that their full musical capacity came forth. It was a duet that delivered music in a new way, not only disclosing its emotional and spiritual content, but transcending it and making it possible to hear the sound of each instrument and the sounding of the music as such. Very often when musicians play together they sound as though one is leading and the other accompanying: one is a voice and the other is an instrument. A duet becomes more complex when musicians play as though they are dancing a tango, a relationship drama of two equally strong outstanding personalities that are running toward each other,throwing themselves into each other’s arms, crashing into each other, recuperating and running away from each other, yearning for each other as if deprived of their very existence when left alone; together they climb lofty musical peaks.

But Tanya and Matt demonstrated that musicians can do something else: they can play together as if they complement each other in making their instruments sound beyond their capacity, as something else, disclosing their true, but so far hidden sound identity. It is a cross-referential musical sound, a mutual recognition of both instruments in their sounding. The sound of the one instrument becomes a transcending device for the other. The two instruments awaken a metaphysical dimension in one another; they touch on the sources and the potentials of their corresponding sound. This interaction between musicians, in turn, initiates the audience into a thoughtful mode of absorbing music. First, they engage listeners emotionally and spiritually and illuminate them in the catharsis. Then, by means of the superb individual technique and absolute mastership in duet playing, they unfold before the audience the mere sounding of both instruments and make it reflect on the conditions of possibility of musical sound per se. Eventually this reflection will reveal that human consciousness in general, and the active Self in particular, play a major role in constituting musical meaning.

Tanya and Matt’s performance delivered a new, totally perplexing, artistic message for me. Needless to say, it made me re-appropriate my interest and faith in the arts, transcending my dissatisfaction with what I have been hearing and seeing in the last couple of years and reaching for some terra incognita in myself. The music I heard managed to transcend itself both as emotional-spiritual content and as aesthetic form (i.e., virtuosic performing technique), digging out the instruments’ sounding per se, which stands on its own ground as a full-fledged musical occurrence. Their music unfolds its own foundation musically, revealing the very conditions for the meaning of music, the constituents of what makes music musical. The thematized musical sound, in as much as it unfolds itself in a sounding instrument, tremendously extends the limits of experience of listening to music by integrating into it mediating functions of the human mind.

After the performance I asked Tanya and Matt how they first began to play together, who found whom, what attracted them to each other, who came up with the idea of playing together. After all, cello and guitar are not paired easily and there are not many composers who have written music for such an ensemble. Tanya replied that when she heard Matt’s sound—even before he began playing a real musical piece—she was surprised with the tone of his guitar. “It was not ‘just a sound,’ an empty neutral sound, a pure form without any content . . . which is to be used in creating musical phrases,” she said. “It had a substance, it was tangible, it had depth and character.” Matt was very scarce, but artistically suggestive with words, he just said: “I liked Tanya’s playing.” Their friend who was taking lessons with Matt, who had known Tanya for many years, introduced them to each other: “I knew that they would like each other.” As they say, the rest is history. Their collaboration began only a couple of months ago, but it has already proven to be very fruitful.

I would like to add one thing in closing. The substance of a musical sound is a self-contradictory entity—and it is legitimately so. On the one hand, to make it work for music, it must be thematized in a certain highly skillful and strong performance; but on the other hand, it works for the music only if it transcends music as an art form. Although this sounds counterintuitive, it makes sense if we think about it in analogy with spoken language that disappears once it delivers a message. If we understand what was said, often we do not remember words used, but we do retain the meaning of the sentence. The act of linguistic communication presupposes grammatical, lexical, syntactical aspects of the sentence being in place, and yet makes them disappear at the same time. Music can cathartically handle our emotions, elevate us to spiritual heights, and offer purely aesthetic experience. But music as a thematized, substantive sounding transcends all these levels of musical meaning and opens the way to human consciousness—the reality this is traditionally studied by philosophy. That is why the instrument’s sound as such simultaneously proclaims itself as substance and enacts its own transcendence, very similarly to the way human consciousness constitutes itself and the manner in which philosophers model it.

Lydia Voronina

Ms. Lydia Voronina has graduate degrees in philosophy from Moscow State University, Boston University and PhD from Catholic University, Washington, D.C.
She has a number of publications and is well regarded in professional circles.

Copyright 2014-2017 Tanya Anisimova (All rights reserved.)

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