A few days ago I played for a group of music students at a local college. Immediately after I finished playing the faculty member presiding over the gathering lead a discussion with the kids about what they had just heard. In my experience these interactions can be awful or wonderful depending upon the skill of the moderator, the collective maturity or experience of the individuals in the room, or the particular lunar phase marked on the calendar for that date. In other words, it’s usually a crap shoot and I never know what I am going to get. My playing went reasonably well and I had enjoyed telling a few brief anecdotes about the three composers whose music appeared on the program. I was not prepared for one of the first comments that popped out from one of the bodies in the seats, "I really liked the dissonance in this music." This was a first. I don't remember anyone commenting on that element, especially in connection with the music I was playing--Scarlatti, Chopin, and Villa-Lobos. As a rule, this was pretty melodious stuff.
The student went on to explain that he had heard a very clear sense of the musical tension rising and then releasing through these composers' handling of dissonances. I have been reflecting upon this notion for a few days and I continue to be surprised at how insightful the comment was in reality. For my part, those tensions had become familiar and no longer carried the same sweet and sour tang that they would have when I was hearing the music with fresh ears. The fallout from the experience is that this week I am noticing these qualities in fresh ways both as I listen to recordings and as I listen to myself practice. Click here to hear a beautiful performance of a Scarlatti's Sonata in B minor, K.87. Listen the way the harmonies morph and shift through moments of dissonant tension and release.