Interview with Eugene Forish (En)

(02. 12. 2019, made by Ellen Moysan in Pittsburgh, PA, USA; transcribed and edited by Joel & Dana Boyer)

Gene organ DU 1

Interviewer: Ellen Moysan

Interviewee: Eugene Forish,

EM: What do you understand by “inner song” or “inner music”?

EF: There is a spirituality about it. If we’re talking about “inner song” we’re talking about something very intimate, it’s very real, authentic, and right now, Psalm 139 comes to mind, “Oh God, you search me and you know me, you know my thoughts, you know my feelings. You know me through and through.”


There can be no disguising, there is no place to hide or be deceitful. There we experience total openness and freedom and honesty. And that inner song, the inner music lives in the heart and the soul – but it cannot stay there, it needs to come out.

EM: So, it’s a dialogue with God or a spontaneous song, something exploding with joy?

EF: It is pure emotion. It is not just joy, because the inner song can sometimes be sad, sometimes reflective. It can be any number of emotions, but it is always authentic emotion. So, yes, it’s inner, but if true and valid, it comes out, it’s communicated with honest integrity. Music is not selfish, it cannot be accumulated, music is not for selfish isolation – it is our world’s universal language, we have a necessity to communicate it.

EM: So, are you not supposed to play all by yourself, but play for someone or with someone?

EF: You can be physically alone, you do not need an audience, however, your soul is engaged and the Divine Presence is participating with you. I often use music for prayer. I am communicating with that inner song, and I am fortunate in that I am able to share that with a community of people. It is not something that I possess, something I can accumulate or store, it is so infinite.

EM: How does it become prayer?

EF: You can formalize and solemnize music into prayer. There are also different levels of intensity. different levels. I’m not saying that every time I make music it is a profound experience. There are times when I simply take time to use music for prayer – not for practice, not to prepare for mass, but simply just to experience the music with the Divine. There are also more profound moments when there is an ecstatic experience, when the music transcends words, we can’t describe it but it’s that beauty and emotion that is at a higher plane.

EM: For me it became prayer also. I started my research because when I was 20 I started learning cello and my teacher noticed that I was playing out of tune, but I had a good ear. She asked me to sing and then play it, and the playing wasn’t necessarily in tune, so she said to me, “Hear the note. Play it.” One time, I remember, we spent one hour on one measure, to make it good. So she trained me, she connected me with this inner song, and I realized that, if I hear the note before playing it, it’s different. There’s this moment of internalizing, and that makes the difference.

EF: Sometimes I liken it to when we have a lector at mass, someone comes up and they read the scripture reading. Sometimes their diction is good, sometimes they pronounce all the words correctly, sometimes they may project with appropriate volume; however, something is missing. It sounds like they are reading from a “telephone book” – sterile and without life, a string of dull words. There emotion, very mechanical. But when a lector proclaims those same words and embodies that message in their soul, the words take on life and meaning. The same thing can happen with music. There are musicians who are very mechanistic, their muscles are doing all the right things, but their soul is not engaged. They do not hear or play with their inner voice.

EM: There’s a connection missing, and the connection is, as you said, embodying. It’s looking for a sound, finding the right sound. The heart of playing music is not happening when you read the score, it’s happening when it becomes something that is within you. And then it can come out. If you think the note before playing it, your finger goes naturally at the right place, which is amazing for an instrument like cello where you have no fret to indicate where it is. I think this is the key, this interiority, this thing that happened within me, is the key. And a great musician is someone who, Itzhak Perlman is an example for me, when you hear him, it’s like you hear his soul, his sound is so personal, that you can recognize it in three seconds on the radio. It’s like there is no filter. So I was wondering, what happens? What makes it so magical? What makes it so special that it changes things?

EF: I used the word, soul. Because of its deep connection with the brain, music is intrinsically meaningful to humanity. It drives our actions and emotions. Its influence on our brains creates a sense of unity with our souls through the music. When we are talking about music, we are also involving translation. We start with a sheet of paper with ink symbols on it – that is not music. We look at it and receive it visually, it comes into us, then it is translated into physical kinesthetic movements, and then we have a response which is created sound. That then is received and translated as an aural message. The quality of that aural message, if it is authentic music (and not simply noise) it engages our emotions and touches our souls. That gives “life” to the music.

EM: Pablo Casals says, the score is not alive until you give life to it. So then, how do you prepare for that?

EF: I think back to my early years as a college student. I did not play with much soul in my music at that time. I played correct notes, and I was very mechanistic. During junior high and high school years I had an excellent teacher who taught me wonderful technique. I was playing some fairly advanced repertoire – but I had not yet discovered my “inner voice” until later in college. In time I discovered that deep emotional dimension of my music…achieving a deep aesthetic experience. Over time I have nurtured and developed my musicianship. Frequently I hear musician friends comment that later in life, the depth of music making is broader. We do not play the same way we did 20 or 30 years ago.

EM: But it’s not your technique which changed, it’s the way you engage with music.

EF: Technique could be one part of it, I’m sure it’s a factor. I mean, I have more arthritis now. (Both laugh) So my technique is not as sharp as when I was 30. I think it might be akin to wisdom through life and experiences as we continue to grow and mature.  An image I find meaningful is that of a spiral. Our lives should not move forward in a straight line and our music should not reflect this narrow approach. Rather, I think of my artistic experiences as a spiral – a journey of continuously encircling experiences that move forward, upward, and downward. For me it has been a process of evolving. I’m not sure I fully understand how I do it. It is a progression of maturity, self-actualization, and connectiveness.

EM: It’s like me connecting with myself, and because I’m so connected then the music just comes out. There’s something to say about technique, to understand that technique is here to serve the music and give a different quality of sound, a different emotion.

EF: A different nuance.

EM: If you don’t have the right amount of technique you cannot truly express yourself. And also, if you don’t know exactly what you want to express then you cannot learn the technique properly. Unless you like technical things. In Augutine’s Confessions, in the third chapter, when he’s a student, there’s this wonderful transition from the outer man, enjoying his life in Carthage and then suddenly he realizes that God is inside of him and has this change in his life, from the outside to the inside. For me, that was what changed things: when instead of focusing on the score outside, I started to have this reverse movement. And what is fascinating about Augustine is that he discovers God by listening. I think it’s this capacity to be inside of yourself that makes a difference to you. That’s why it’s not necessarily a question of age. It’s like dwelling on yourself.

EF: It is the journey of honestly knowing yourself. Our Chapel Choir sings a song, O Beauty Ever Ancient, based on St. Augustine’s Confessions. The students identify with the text very thoughtfully and prayerfully.

EM: That’s exactly the passage, where it says, I was outside and You were inside of me. The condition for him to create this intimacy with Him was to go inside and listen.

EF: In our society and culture today, many people hear sounds, but they don’t listen. There needs to be a time for quiet, there needs to be time for prayer. It is not a matter of quantity, but more important quality. In working with college students, I see some students spending time in the chapel and some feel that the quantity of time is better and “demonstrates” their devotion. I cannot say they are they are wrong. They are on their journey. It is for them a pilgrimage journey and they have to go through it.

EM: I think it’s also a certain understanding of religion. I think the key is this: listen. Augustine says, Knowing is remembering. If you seek something, it’s because you had this experience before. He says, God was always there, that’s why I was seeking Him, because I had this experience before. But he needed to start listening. And I think that’s what makes a musician too, it’s someone who is able to listen to this inner song, before actually starting to play, before performing.

EF: That moment before playing is important. I face a challenge every Sunday morning with Chapel Choir. My musical circumstances are good, but not perfect. Sunday morning, the Chapel Choir arrives and we have a short time together to prepare. I must be extremely efficient in our preparations. After racing through our rehearsal time, I dash to the organ loft to play the prelude. Take a deep breath to center myself musically and spiritually…and then enter into my musical prayer. Sometimes the rush makes it difficult. I sometimes feel disappointed because I know it was not the quality I strive for. While over the years I can enter the “inner song” more quickly and efficient, it still requires an intentional and mindful effort.

EM: One bassoonist from the PSO told me, “For me the inner song is this breath that I take before playing” and I think it’s because you gather yourself, in one breath, and you channel things. That was an interesting transition for me: how, instead of listening to this song that you are playing with the cello, if you listen here, you will be more available to listen to what you’re actually playing. If you connect with this inner song, then you also see the difference between what is here and what you are actually playing and you can learn. I think that’s what rehearsing is, reducing this difference between the inner music and outer music by going back and forth between I play – I hear – I want to do that differently, and progressively you reduce this difference. And the great musicians are the ones who have such a tiny difference between what they actually hear in the inner song and what they play. That’s why we have so many interpretations of the same piece.

EF: Yes, and they feel different to me, we receive them different. This “inner voice” is active when making music, but also active in receiving music. In our society we are bombarded with noise. I get in a car with various people and when the engine starts, the radio is playing. No one is intentionally listening to the sounds. During conversation, we need to talk louder than the radio volume. There is all this noise. It affects the conversation and communication. This constant commercial dimension has deadened the artistic experience with music. Many do not know how to listen to music. Listening is vital finding our “inner voice.” People hear sounds, but they are disassociated. Individuals sit in office cubicles with ear buds in their ears, hearing sounds, but “block out” the sounds so they can concentrate on something else. They have never learned to listen.

EM: Right. So two things come to my mind: first when Augustine says I was outside and You were inside, he was outside in the noise. When you listen to the voice of God, in order to listen to something, you have to be in a quiet place to be. That connects me to the Gospel when Jesus says, “When you want to pray, go in your room, close the door”. And that’s the condition, I think, to hear this inner song.

EF: We hear a similar message in scripture when Elijah is searching for the presence of God. God is not in the wind, God is not in the earthquake, God is not in the fire. Elijah finds God in the gentle whisper. Scripture informs us and validates this experience. Thomas Merton wrote his Seven Story Mountain about conversion and his experience with self-actualization. He speaks of sacred silence and how it informs our soul. It is part of mysticism. It is getting rid of all the garbage, moving beyond our human defects and limitations. Achieving a state of mind that is authentic and true.

EM: I think, for me, the sacred silence would mean creating this space of openness and listening, creating this space when you gather with yourself, because we can be physically somewhere and mentally somewhere else.

RF: We do not practice silence well here, Increased silence in our liturgies would be beneficial. We have some, but I would like to have more.

EM: So you need this time of stepping back and preparing before actually saying something. I was watching a young French cellist the other day, playing Bach’s Suites, and he had his eyes closed the whole time, and you can see that he’s inside. If the music is so touching, it’s because there’s a conversion, you know.

EF: Music is very spiritual. There is a spiritual dimension among musicians who do not participate in organized religion. They find it in their lives. My religion is directly linked to my musical conversation.

EM: What do you think changes for us, in the music, if we engage spiritually in the liturgy?

EF: Without that connection, the music is not authentic. It does not have soul. It does not have that life. I have observed that with some choir choirs and musicians. I call it “on” and “off” approach to liturgy – like a light switch – on and off. The musicians prepare to make music. They turn “on” their music. It is all technique. They have perfect vowel sounds, exact accurate rhythm, clean diction and rehearsed to perfection. The music ends and they go into “off” mode. The achievement is notable, but not authentic. By embodying the spiritual and theological components, the music has a fuller and meaningful message that can be felt. It is higher dimension.

EM: This makes me think of how some kids can just hug you so spontaneously, it’s this kind of fullness, you know, no filter. If they are sad, they cry, if they are happy, they rejoice, it’s authentic. You use this word a lot, I was wondering, what exactly is being authentic? Is it achieving a certain degree of confidence to be yourself? It is the way we engage with our heart and how the preparation moment is so important, why this musician would tell me the inner song is this breathing before starting, it’s so important to prepare the first note, because I think that’s when you engage and how you said, it’s an embodied sound.

EF: There is a certain degree of confidence in being authentic. It is a dedication to being the very best “me” I can be. I am far from perfect, I make many mistakes, but I try to do the best I can do. That enables me to connect with my inner voice and my inner self. You speak about preparation, the importance of the first note. Additionally, there is a special moment at the end. This past Sunday we sang a contemporary song called Restless. Chapel Choir sang it well, fully engaged, with honest conviction.

Father Bill was at the altar while we were approaching the end of the piece. He stepped back from the altar and stood. Chapel Choir sang the final coda. The music came to an end, but the prayer did not end. God was lingering in those moments of silence and awe. The presence was real, it was authentic. It is a sacred moment than penetrates the soul.

EM: It’s as important to end well as to start well.

EF: Yes. Both are important.

EM: Right, it’s a true conversation, there’s a beginning and there’s an end, and both are important. Because you can ruin the experience by ending too quickly.

EF: There is one additional comment I would like to make. It is about the power of music. When an important life event occurs, music is there. I will first address tragedy. When the devastating and shocking event of 9/11 occurred, we witnessed people singing God Bless America among the dust and rubble. Society was compelled to react. They made music. The first formal civic response to 9/11 was to have a musical concert. Westminster Choir College performed a national broadcast of Verdi’s Requiem. With our family and friends, we sing Happy Birthday to celebrate life. When our loved ones pass from this life, we use music to accompany the event. Music helps us express our humanity. It authenticates the experience and connects with our emotions. Music is at the core of our humanity.

EM: It’s also true at an individual level. If someone you like passes away, I would play, I think.

EF: I do. Music is my prayer. Music is my life.

EM: It’s not just a stress relief, like smoking. I think it has to do with the fact that you gather within yourself. One thing that fascinates me about this inner song is, I think, by going all together within ourselves, we connect together, our interiorities connect together. If I’m grounded and playing and you have the same attitude, we can communicate without going outside. There’s a kind of empathy going on here which brings us together while bringing us within ourselves. Like Benedictine monks are very good at making one sound with 25 people. And it’s not just technical, they create this very unified sound while having different voices. I think they long to be together through their inner prayer or inner song.