What keeps people coming back to live performances — even when there’s a good recording that you could sit comfortably and listen to at home — is catharsis. Witnessing an outburst of emotion, even when it is not your own, provides release. I was accustomed to this philosophy as a reflection on theatre, but a piece of music I saw performed this weekend made me consider how the action of playing an instrument can have just as much emotional energy as spoken words in a scene. Jamie Sandel’s senior thesis, “and we all play,” — a seven-movement jazz suite that incorporated elements of post-bop, fusion, modern classical and Brazilian samba inspired by the life and death of his father — eloquently brought the audience through a process of pain and release, and it is rare that a musical performance will achieve this emotional transition as successfully as Sandel’s did.
Sandel described his thesis as “a musical exploration of experiences in my life and experiences in the life of my father” and provided his audience a generous offer in his program notes. “Narrative in instrumental music is a tricky thing. This music derives from very specific experiences, but as soon as it leaves the stage and reaches your ears, it’s as much yours as mine, and I encourage you to treat it that way. If you can hear people or stories in the music, it doesn’t matter which they are.”
Reading this after seeing the performance made perfect sense. The emotion Sandel put into the music translates into the different lives of each audience member. His awareness of this musical power made the whole experience more meaningful. Ultimately there is so much selflessness in letting go of your own experiences and opening the door for others to explore theirs, thereby encouraging your audience to connect with your creation in the same way that you do.
The intimacy of this experience was not only in the relationship the audience had with the music but also between the performers themselves. Sandel played so passionately that his music had a confessional quality. He made it clear during the performance that the music arose from personally painful events, so witnessing this outpour was incredibly poignant. If it had not been for the program note, I, as an audience member, probably would have felt intrusive. The musicians who performed with Sandel in his thesis formed a high-functioning team with him, as if they were all sharing in this intimate moment and they all had their own emotional stakes in the performance.
The piece consisted of five movements played by a combination of strings, wind instruments and brass with Sandel playing the electric violin. Sandel spoke about the process of constructing the piece.“The compositional process usually starts with a seed, one musical idea that I really like,” he said. “It’s like a papier-mache thing, you take one thing that it’s centered around and you add layers on top of it. You create structure around the seed and then that becomes a song. For one movement, I would create a melody one day, and then I would add chords and a groove and form around that melody. For others, it was a chord progression … Basically I construct these scores for 11 different instruments just based on what one instrument is doing. And it spirals out from there.”
Each movement was followed by an interlude played by a different part of the ensemble, and it was in these interludes that some of the most unique parts of the piece occurred. In the fourth interlude, Sandel played a solo that, for me, was the most amazing display of skill both in composition and performance as well as emotional expression. It was the beautiful and painful climax of the piece, so to speak. The progression of the piece from movement to movement was well crafted. After the solo in the fourth interlude, the performers exhibited sorrow and then a melancholy release in the fifth movement, comprised of sections titled Goodbye and Breathe. It was an exquisite demonstration of a difficult grieving process that I would like to thank Sandel for sharing and letting the audience play a part in such an emotional process.
When asked what he hoped the audience walked away with, Sandel said, “I hope that I was able to provide an experience for people that allowed them to take a deep breath and understand themselves more fully in that moment. I think there is a lot of power to instrumental music, and I think people don’t give it enough of a chance to mean something to them, just because words are more accessible, and instrumental music can be weird. I hope people can discover just how much instrumental music can say to them.”
Rebecca Ruescher’s senior thesis in choral conducting, titled “The Heart’s Reflection” followed Sandel’s on Friday night. Her performance had a completely different feel, but it was equally wonderful. Ruescher demonstrated refined skill and conducted her choir of 16 students on nine pieces in six different languages. She drew from a diverse selection of choral music, beginning with a South African folk song in which the singers used the synchronized movement of their bodies as a percussive force. It was exciting to see her explore many time periods, musical styles, and cultures throughout the whole performance.
She titled her piece after one of the songs she conducted — a fairly contemporary piece written by Daniel Elder in 1986. Ruescher was right to name her thesis after this piece, for it was both incredibly beautiful and a great accomplishment in terms of conducting. Ruescher glided effortlessly through the song’s ethereal moments and delicately led her choir through the ebb and flow of the piece, never making the transitions rocky or awkward — which would be easy to do in such a piece.
Ruescher learned how to lead a 16-piece choir over the course of a few months, “I showed up at Amherst in July to start exploring repertoire, and choosing rep was the very first part of the process. After that it involved recruiting singers. It also involved historical research and above all, so much language learning. And it’s a lot of teaching. My biggest job was to teach all this to the choir, we only met once a week, and we had a tremendous amount of music to learn with just 2-hour rehearsals. I had to keep their drive as well and come up with ways to convey the vision I had in mind. It’s not just words on a page, it’s a lot more than that … Sometimes it would feel like we made a ton of progress one week and then the next we would have to work harder. So coming up with creative ways to combat that was really difficult and also I didn’t want anyone to feel bad if they forgot their part from the last week. So it was a real balancing act keeping up morale but also keeping everyone on the same page.”
If not just from the title, it was clear that this piece meant a lot to Ruescher, and that kind of emotional stake is necessary for a conductor to transfer their energy into their choir. If they do not put enough of themselves in, the performance will fall flat. Ruescher overall did an excellent job in relating her own emotional energy to her choir. Her gestures were graceful and confident as well as expressive. When asked what she hopes the audience gained from her thesis, she said, “I think choral music is the most beautiful and most powerful thing in the world, but a lot of people who came on Friday, for instance my parents, it’s not their passion. For them, it’s something to enjoy. So even with all levels of interest and appreciation, I hope that they enjoyed it in some way, whether it relaxed them or took their mind off some stuff that happened to them earlier in the week. A lot of my pieces were more complex and emotional, so if some of the audience felt a little bit touched by one of our performances, that would be a nice bonus. My goal was to make somebody cry. I heard one person cry. Just any kind of breakthrough, whether it was closing your eyes and having a moment of peace, or just getting into the music deeply. Either would have been satisfying to me.”
In her program notes, Ruescher wrote, “If I believe anything, it is the healing, productive and spiritually connective powers of choral singing.”
Through these two performances the audience witnessed several ways in which music unites groups of people through the process of feeling. Great artists, regardless of how they do it, invest their own emotions into their work to form visceral connections with other performers and audience members.