by David Bruce
"To understand all is to forgive all, the French saying goes. In "Zoli," a novel about the Gypsies of Eastern Europe, Colum McCann imagines a deeper, darker watchword for this immemorially wandering and persecuted people: to be understood, even in part, is to be violated and destroyed." NY Times review of Zoli by Colum McCann
One of the fascinating themes of the novel Zoli (and I promise all this does relate to composing!), is the difference in attitudes between the Western/White attitude to the meaning and permanence of culture; and that of the Gypsies. Where the non-Gypsy protagonists in the story attempt to 'save for posterity' Zoli's brilliance as a poet and singer, the Gypsies find this very notion absurd and eventually outcast Zoli for what they see as her betrayal of their culture by allowing her words to be written down. At the end of the novel Zoli sends a message to her English/Czech former-lover and documenter who has spent lovesick years trying to find her again. The one thing she has to say to him after all this time is "nothing is ever fully understood" - that the white man's impulse to attempt to understand and document everything is doomed to failure. Culture and meaning are impermanent, incorporeal, impossible to capture. Indeed, like a quantum particle, the very act of looking changes their meaning.
Whilst I am a composer whose method of expression is tied completely to writing down my music, I can't help feeling us 21st Century composers fall far too far into the very trap the book so beautifully portrays. When we fetishize every last detail of how a note should be played, we are trying to turn music into something it is not. Our compositions are not physical, quantifiable things, however much spotlessly perfect CD recordings and Sibelius midi playbacks might lead us to believe they are. The meaning of a piece is passed by a performer from paper to the vibrating air the same intangible way friendship is sustained - through trust and respect, thoughtfulness, attention and understanding. Those are things you can't notate. A good musician will bring those things to your score however many dots and lines you add to a note. And in the spirit of friendship I believe it's important to give that trust back to the player as much as you can. If you love someone, set them free...
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