A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 19: Remembering

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The Art of Memory: Benjamin Bagby sings Beowulf.
The Art of Memory: Benjamin Bagby sings Beowulf.

Everywhere around me leaving two great concerts at Tanglewood this week, the talk was of those phenoms of memory, Benjamin Bagby and Pieter Wispelwey. Mr. Bagby spoke, sang, and roared Beowulf, and Mr. Wispelwey played all six of Bach’s Cello suites. What is it about memory that engages people? Do they think they can’t do it themselves? They’re probably wrong about that. We are told that toddlers have a nearly photographic memory. The skill can be greatly enhanced with steady practice. Just ask a soap opera actor. Do we have so many machines that memory is becoming a slow information feed for us? Musicians and actors know in their minds and their bodies how second nature memory becomes when a great work is concentrated on. There is something else to it. I remember a great teacher saying when asked what artists do replying, “Artists remember in public.” The whole act of performing is one of memory or if I may make a word work for me, rememory. Rememory is not the same as memorization. The latter is a technique; the former a state of mind. Easy memorization skills can be limiting. Nothing about a performer’s work should be facile. Rememory is a state that leads the great work out of the performer’s imagination with some kind of a dependable flow which can be trusted.

Mr. Bagby gave a concentrated performance that flowed out naturally. This was especially remarkable because the sounds he made ranged all the way from yelps and groans to finely judged singing, with everything in between.  He moved among all of these vocalizations with cohesion. By the end I heard his human voice as something different, something more capacious and full of surprise, something that took the ear almost like a phrase of Mozart’s, quick to change and alter. He showed me something about the epic style, the bellicose tale of conquest and defeat. Lists of arms, for example, were trumpeted out, like the finale of the narration they followed. This made sense. The heavy but somehow jumping rhythms of the Anglo-Saxon propelled the flow of sounds various and arresting. Bagby made me understand how Odysseus, loved by the young Nausicaa, could have wept as the Cretan bard sang of fallen Troy, thus betraying himself and saved at the end only with the help of his young lover, never to see her more.

The first memory stirred by Pieter Wispelwey’s playing was a sweet one for me. I am thinking of it now, sitting in Sanders Theatre, listening to his teacher, Anner Bylsma, play the cello in a new (old) way. Of course I had been told that Baroque music was a kind of rhetoric, over and over again. Again, this is the kind of statement that one memorizes, but Bylsma made me hear it as, my word again, rememory. I think the best thing I can say about Wispelwey’s playing is again a remembering of how at the end of the sarabandes, the slowest movements, he would play the final note on the tonic with just the right separation from the main body of the piece and with a sound in the center of the note which held the breath. It was a quietness, as if the note were remembering the rest of the movement from a distance. Everything about this artist’s playing was eventful. The energy of the prelude in the third suite was like a force of nature, the notes nearly blurred. Nothing was smoothed out. Nothing was played — all was spoken. This is the best concert I have heard this summer. It will live long in my memory.

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