Knowing Music

November 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Image of Symphony Hall at night

Symphony Hall at night

Today I’m thinking about the different ways we know music.

Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to have tickets for a classical music concert in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. The event was, I think, the first all-Mozart concert I’ve ever attended, and it was wonderful.

The program began with the Marriage of Figaro overture, ended with the Requiem, and in between we heard one of Mozart’s loveliest pieces, the Piano Concerto No 21. It’s sometimes called ‘Elvira Madigan’ – not by Wolfgang Amadeus himself, but since it was used in the 1960s movie of that name.

I like listening to Western classical music for many reasons, but one is because of the depth and range of experiences involved. The music’s structural complexity and long traditions allow it to tap into many emotions. There’s the sublime simplicity of Mozart, which held the Birmingham audience completely spell-bound. There’s the exhilaration of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, or the exaltation of Wagner’s great ‘Valhalla’ motif from the Ring cycle. You can get a supernal chill from Bartok (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), breath-taking flamboyance from the likes of Sarasate (his Zigeunerweisen), heart-breaking grief from Bach (in the St Matthew Passion), or overwhelming awe from Saint-Saens (try the Organ Symphony) or Berlioz (in his Symphonie Fantastique). You can hear the sea in Britten’s Peter Grimes, feel the seduction in Bizet’s Carmen, sense the Shakespearean tumult in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and smile at Rimsky-Korsakov’s bumble-bee. And these are only a few examples.

(Other genres, like hip-hop, pop and R&B, are doing something quite different, in which tunes and chords share the limelight not just with rhythms but with images and dance moves. Often their structure is simpler, their emotional range narrower, and their dynamic range set permanently to ‘loud’. Personally, I find the results immensely boring, just as fast food’s dull compared with decent home cooking. But there are times when fast food’s what you want.)

As well as the emotions, how you listen to classical music can vary, often within a single piece. Whether you’re consciously savouring the flow, self-consciously attentive to the structure, letting the feelings wash over you, or even drifting off into other thoughts (i.e. hearing, not listening) – that depends on how well you know the music, your concentration, the performance, and much more besides.

It was the piano concerto that set me thinking about how we listen to, and recognise music. It’s a piece I got to know when I was very young, as my parents had a tape of it, performed by the great Hungarian pianist Geza Anda. I’ve never formally studied it, though, so I don’t know it the way a musician would. And until the concert, I hadn’t heard it for years.

Yet as soon as it began, the gap of time was bridged. The feeling of recognition was like relaxing into a warm bath. I knew instantly what was coming next; I knew every point at which the performance differed from the Anda version, and if the pianist had put a finger wrong I’d have been instantly, wincingly aware of it. I’ve often, hearing something on the radio, known that it wasn’t ‘my’ recording, without being able to say what piece it is or who wrote it. And hearing something live, of course, is quite different from hearing recordings, especially when the acoustics are as fantastic as they are in Symphony Hall.

At two points in the piece, there are cadenzas – show-off moments, basically – where the pianist has a choice of what to play. As soon as the pianist started his first cadenza, I knew it wasn’t the one Geza Anda played, and I felt the internal switch from warm emotional bath to cooler cognition. I became interested in the music, its structure, how each phrase reflected aspects elsewhere in the concerto … in other words, I was listening much more analytically.

The slow central movement switched me back into the fuzzy glow of – not memories, exactly, but the feelings associated with them. It’s surely one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written (available on YouTube, if you can put up with the preceding ad for something very different). It needs limpid, delicate lightness – think sunlight gleaming through a waterfall – as so much of Mozart’s music does. I was on tenterhooks for the first few notes of the piano’s entry, until I realised he’d basically got it right. Phew!

And yet, as I said, I’ve never played this piece, and hadn’t heard it for years. Music digs deep tracks in the mind, especially in childhood. Works I’ve learned to love as an adult, and listened to much more recently, don’t bring the same intense awareness of details.

Research suggests that, like language, music is easily and naturally picked up in childhood, and that children who don’t encounter it early in life may lose the ability to revel in it later. Yet many schools, and parents, see classical music as too difficult, or an unnecessary luxury (even nowadays, when recordings are cheap and orchestras are working hard at outreach). Anyone classically-trained can easily move into pop music – and many have – but it’s harder to move the other way. Yet for many kids, all they ever hear is what Freddie Mercury (I think it was he!) called ‘Kleenex music’: simple, disposable, forgettable.

People claim that classical music is elitist. (Here in the UK concerts are cheaper than football matches.) I can’t help wondering how much of that response is defensive. Calling something elitist gives you an excuse for not making the effort required to learn more about it. Classical music needs work, certainly, unless you’re young enough to soak it up without effort. So does learning any new skill, but does that mean that anyone with a skill is somehow ‘elitist’?

A child who learns to love classical music has been given a great treasure. He or she will have immense resources to fall back on, in good times or bad. Music engages our brains much more extensively than many other activities. It’s good for us, too, reducing stress markers and promoting that sense of ‘flow’ which is associated with rest and relaxation. It’s “amongst the most rewarding experiences for humans”. And learning to play teaches teamwork and self-discipline, quite apart from being fun to do and a boost to self-esteem.

It’s a real shame that so many children miss out on these life-enhancing joys.

(The performers at the concert were the Orchestra of the Swan, with the City of Birmingham Choir, Anthony Hewitt piano, Rhian Lois soprano, Anna Huntley mezzo soprano, Samuel Boden tenor, Benjamin Cahn baritone, and Adrian Lucas conductor.)



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  1. Thank you for your beautiful piece about the concert. Well written, too!

    As we know, music opens a number of doorways into how the brain works. But firstly, isn’t it curious how the history of music, along with the histories of painting, drama and literature, reveal the principles of how evolution works? Human-inspired evolution works the same way of natural evolution in that there is no overall designer, that there are only seemingly arbitrary rules that bring about the whole process of evolution. The rules do it, not gods, nor intelligent design. And musical and all creative evolution generally works by abiding by few simple rules.

    We are looking at evolution, from a banging drum to a symphony, from a painted pot to a masterpiece by Rembrandt, from a letter home to Shakespeare, from a mud hut to a cathedral. The hidden principle that is so difficult for the religious to understand is that evolution in The Arts and in Nature, produces ‘stable states’. And those ‘Stable States’ become entities in themselves. In that way ninety two elements and several physical forces, become an infinite number of objects and processes. It explains the seemingly infinite varieties of living things, and also the infinite possibilities of music, literature, painting and so forth. It is all really a branch of Communication Theory.

    What of those ‘Stable States’. And here it baffles the human brain! It is easy to identify Stable States in the Arts, but much more difficult in Nature. Every composer or writer is within him or herself, a kind of Stable State in that their outputs exist independent of the writer or composer, and can be performed elsewhere, and at another time, and long after they are dead. There is a coherency in their oeuvre. And the individual ‘forms’ developed by creative practitioners; such as the sonnet form, the play, the symphony, the sonata and the quartet, also exist as Stable States. There is a coherency in those different forms.

    A Stable State entity is a curious thing because it seems to take us back to the beginning of a few elements and forces. The appearance of Stable States acts as if the whole creative process is back at the beginning; back to a time of only elements and physical forces. In other words, everytime a Stable State is created, by humankind, or by the progress of evolution, – so a whole new opportunity for creativity begins anew. Each Stable State seems to become a crucible for a further run of evolutionary fervour.

    But the complexity begins. Those different forms of music may exist as stable states, and each carrying the curious characteristic of being utilisable elsewhere and in different circumstances ( a life independent of the composer), – but then each of those Stable States generates further and different Stable States. It happens this way. The ‘invention’ of the symphony, or the sonata, allows fresh faces to generate more symphonies and sonatas, and each of those fresh compositions can become fresh Stable States. Future composers can draw upon those given Stable States to make new kinds of symphonies, – think of Mahler. And so on ad infinitum.

    Now here’s the thing. Beethoven and Schubert lived down the road from each other, and probably never met. Look at the three greatest piano sonatas, all composed a street away and around the same time.

    Beethoven Opus 111 Number 23 C Minor 1822
    Schubert A Major D 959 summer 1828
    Beethoven F Minor Number 32 ‘Appassionata’ 1805

    When new Stable States arise, they so often prove to be an immediate starting- point for rapid and numerous experiments in new forms, new directions, and new stable platforms. It happened in the Cambrian (misleadingly called The Cambrian Explosion, of which I have a trilobite on my desk. And those trilobites went-on to develop thousands of new forms, and to utilise ‘eyes’ in new ways)

    But sadly, most new Stable States, even after early activity, atrophy and die off. Nobody has since tried to ‘improve’ upon Beethoven and Schubert. We now need a new word to explain the process whereby a fresh Stable State begins a flurry of activity, but that fervour dies, presumably by natural processes. (I think Steve Gould played with the idea of ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’)

    I suggest ‘Nodal Atrophy’. It is a process we do not yet understand. But when we do understand it, perhaps it will explain the 30 million years of Cambrian to us all the better.

    One of the real failures in religious thinking is to fail to recognise that, firstly, the Living World is an abattoir whereby most new generations die-off. Out of a hundred thousand tadpoles in my Spring pond, about a hundred emerge as frogs. Secondly, that by far the largest number of new Stable States that are thrown-up by evolution, die off for being unsuitable for the environment. Soon, the tigers, then the rhinos.

    Adapted from ‘Origins of Belief and Behaviour’ 2000 pages. Explains everything.

  2. […] second city, Birmingham, and recently went there for a concert in its fabulous Symphony Hall (see my previous post). Whenever I visit Brum, I’m always conscious of being deliberately unsurprised by how pleasant […]

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