One chilly Saturday afternoon, my BFF, Emily, was driving my sister, Gigi and my sister’s boyfriend, Sal and me around Huntington. We were listening to STAR 99.9 in the car, and on the program was a song I had not heard in ages- Susanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.”
This was Sal’s first time listening to the song. Of course he had heard it many times before on television commercials, but that Saturday in Emily’s car was the first time he ever listened to Vega sing, “I am sitting/ In the morning/ At the diner/ On the corner/ I am waiting/ At the counter/ For the man/ To pour the coffee…”*
“What?” Sal remarked, “Those are the words? I can’t believe I never noticed. She could have probably sang a song about using the toilet and I would have never noticed.”
Sal’s reaction to Suzanne Vega’s song is just one of the many common reactions I’ve observed in my family members and friends as they stumbled across a piece of minimalist music on the radio. They say, “this just repeats…”, or very appropriately, “that’s it?”
I had a similar reaction when I had revisited a piece by Satie. The piece is “The First Gymnopedie” (for Mademoiselle Jeanne de Bret, 1888). I replayed it for the first time when I was 19 years old and I said, “I can’t believe I practiced so intently [as a 15 year old piano student] just to master a piece so simple and lethargic.”
A few years past, and I played it again at 22, just for fun, and I understood why it was important to master. When I was learning this piece, I wasn’t mastering the technique because of the composition’s complexity or length; I was mastering the physical feeling of the Gymnopedie.
Tranquility in the wrists and fingers are vital, just like the decisive striking of the keys: all the notes of the chord must be played with the same volume and all voices have to sound as one. If the player diverges from the specifics of the piece, becoming too fast or some notes of the chord louder than others, you might deprive the song of its simple right of being.
Some of you may be wondering what this means. Imagine this, try listening to a virtuosic mezzo soprano sing the lyrics to “Tom’s Diner” while the rest of the song remains the way you and I have heard it all this time. Yes, the sound would be equivalent to that of a broken garage door falling on a car horn and in the process smashing the car.
So here is what “Tom’s Diner” and the “First Gymnopedie” have in common—they are songs for hearing and feeling, not for listening and analyzing. You might also argue this case to be true for many minimalist compositions and popular songs. So let me take the time to say, “Hear; don’t listen.”
*Lyrics were borrowed from this source, http://www.lyrics.com/toms-diner-lyrics-suzanne-vega.html