Double bass player Chris Carson has been a member of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra since 1974. He's married to SLSO violinist Deborah Bloom. They have two daughters, Naomi, 27, and Ariel, 21. Naomi majored in dance and is now in Campus Ministry at the University of Kansas. Ariel is a senior at Boston University in the theater department, majoring in acting.
Carson plays an instrument known for its deep timbre, and Carson himself is one given to considering more than the surface of things. Recently, he sat down to describe the experience of being on stage in the midst of a transcendent musical performance.
Playbill: Do you have a specific concert in mind that fits into the criteria of an extraordinary musical experience?
Chris Carson: The first that comes to mind was when David Robertson came to conduct the Mahler Second Symphony on short notice. Many of us were looking forward to working with Jerzy Semkow because he's a real character, and then he bowed out. But the timing was fortuitous. It worked out really well because David was available and he was ready to do the piece.
The Mahler Second is extraordinary. It's like entering this huge story: you really have to get into where it takes you. It was thrilling to have it all come together the way it did with David. When it happens like that it's like you're no longer listening to music. I've noticed that some of the best performances don't sound like musicians playing instruments anymore. It can be like watching a play or being in another place.
Often there are visual experiences for me, which is a little tricky because my job is to play. I don't want to zone out and blow an entrance or something. I have to keep two tracks going, at least. One of them is counting measures. The other is… Have you read Narnia? You know the idea. This child goes through the back of a wardrobe and into a world. [The experience on stage] is a little bit like that.
Playbill: Can you talk more about that feeling, when it is not like listening to music anymore?
Carson: In conversation, do you ever have a time when it doesn't feel as if you're talking words anymore? It's after you've discovered a flow of communication with whomever you're talking to: you've taken care of all of the business, you've taken care of the itinerary, and now you can talk very easily. The words and the syntax are still there, but it's as if the speech center of your brain doesn't have to work very much at all. If somebody said, 'What did you just say?,' you might not be able to tell them. But you would have a feeling for what it was.
The same kind of thing happens in music. One of the things that a trained musician needs to overcome is listening as a student. A lot of our training is listening for mistakes. It's part of the deal. And that means a good part of what you're trying to do is not make mistakes. But if you're trying to not make mistakes, you haven't reached the inner circle yet. You haven't gotten to the place that is the heart and center of what you're doing.
If I'm in the student mode and somebody asks me, 'How is the performance?' I can say it's very accurate, the tempos are good with an even tone — that sort of thing. But if I'm in that deeper mode and somebody asks me, there's no critical language involved. It's an immediate apprehending of the music. It's unfiltered. When that happens, I might not be able to say what the performance is like.
Playbill: You must maintain a delicate balance between counting measures and falling into the sublime.
Carson: An important part of my job is to be mindful of the group of people I'm playing with, so that I'm not sticking out, yet I'm contributing fully. It's a very narrow interplay. It's the getting in there — you can get in there and experience all the freedom there is to be had. But working your way through the process of learning the piece, or even being selected to play in the orchestra — that's huge. You figure out, how am I going to fit in? Who am I when I'm here? If you can work your way through that narrow passageway, you find yourself in a boundless realm of freedom and experience.
But I'm not going to say that it's easy. For me to be part of that — there's a lot of anticipation and mental conditioning. You want to be great, so you have to figure out what great is in that context. I don't get to be great by my self. We need to be great together.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.