It’s Just an Illusion

May 27, 2010

It’s such a commonplace that we may not much think of it. In music performance we count on making things seem evident that simply aren’t objectively true. Some of them are so present that we hardly notice them: the piano, with its fast-dying-away tones is physically incapable of legato. But thanks to the artistry of good players, we have the impression of smooth, connected, cantabile piano-playing. Piccolo players, playing high arpeggios, sometime seem to place shimmering high chords above an orchestral texture, when those evident chords are really individual, sequential notes.

Last night, after a relaxed dinner with an old friend that I had not seen in some months, I played a couple of harpsichord pieces for him. He’s an educated musician who, however, knew nothing about how a harpsichord works. In answer to his queries, I removed the jack-rail and showed him how a jack functions: plucking the string as the key causes it to rise, damping the string as the key is released and the jack falls. “How then,” he asked, “are you making some notes louder than others?” That’s one of the greatest compliments a harpsichordist (or organist) can get — playing, as we do, an instrument on which there is no direct control over the intensity of the individual note. Having a listener confirm that the illusion of varied volume is getting through is a real affirmation.

I then gave my friend a little demonstration of how the illusion of comparative dynamics is created, but all the time I was glorying in that question he had asked.

It was ever thus. Illusion is everything in art.

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