Monday, February 17, 2014

Something Thoughtful


I am, I know, a musical barbarian. I cannot read music and I cannot play a musical instrument. When it comes to singing, I can get away with declaiming things parlando so long as I’m part of a larger group and the people around me are shouting loud enough to hide my voice. I have only a passing acquaintance with the technical terms of music, although having a music teacher for a wife, and having a brood of children who have all received some sort of musical education, I have over the years learnt to distinguish my andante from my prestissimo, and I am aware that crescendo means the rising note and not the final crash, as many people mistakenly think. Once I did plough my way through a book explaining the structure of the classical symphony, and I went a little cross-eyed. When my wife mentions a tonic triad, I think she’s talking about Chinese gangsters peddling drug-infused tonics.
I repeat, I am not a musician.
But here is a phenomenon which drives my musically-literate wife crazy. If (most often on a car journey) we turn on Radio NZ Concert halfway through a piece of what is miscalled “classical” music, I am able either to name the composer or to place the approximate date of the composition.
I hear the small orchestra and the short movements and the classical chiselling of it and I say “Hmmm – Haydn”. Or I hear the lush, overblown post-Wagnerian Late Romantic grandiosity and I say “Ah yes – Richard Strauss.” Or that curious, full-orchestrated bleakness, like ice dripping off trees, reveals Bela Bartok to me.
I’m not overplaying my accuracy. I do have my failures, and sometimes they are spectacular. When I first heard it (in a coming-in-halfway-through situation), I mistook Liszt’s spare “Prophet Bird” for a 20th century composition, maybe by the likes of Erik Satie. I once confidently identified as Stravinsky’s something by a New Zealand composer. Oh woe! Still, I’m pretty good at this game, and it drives my wife spare.
“How do you do that?” she asks, when I’ve just accurately identified something.
“It just sounds different”, I say, in my complete ignorance of the technicalities. The orchestration alone (even if I can’t identify specifically how the instruments are deployed) will tell me if it’s Late Medieval or Renaissance or Baroque or Classic or Romantic or Late Romantic or Impressionist or Modernist, and it’s usually quite easy to attach the probable composer’s name once the era is identified.
There is another element to my untutored knowledge. I listen to a lot of classical music on CDs or RNZ Concert or (the best classical music station I know) “Radio Swiss Classic” which I listen to through iTunes on my computer. I love the gentle German-language voices which announce the recordings without any other commentary – although if I chose I could listen to the same play-list as “Radio Suisse Classique”, and hear the announcements in French. Inevitably over the years, I’ve got to know many pieces by ear, and so can easily slide in halfway through Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” or de Falla’s “Three-Cornered Hat” or Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony or Dvorak’s cello concerto or many others and know what’s cooking. And there are favourites. Of course Beethoven’s Eroica, 5th and Pastoral are the three greatest symphonies ever written (this is simply an objective fact – not a matter for debate), just as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Otello are the two greatest operas ever written. (Wagner? Pfui!). But I would make a case for the opening movement of Brahms’ 4th as the greatest single movement of a symphony ever written – by which I mean, of course, that I love its “sea surge” effect like incoming waves.
So – as you know I can – I could witter on referring to many other beloved pieces (Oh! Elgar’s two completed symphonies and his violin concerto and his cello concerto! Ah! Vaughan William’s Symphonia Antartica!) But I am forced to one overwhelming question.
Is there any value to appreciating music in this uninformed way?
I would not dare entering into a conversation with trained musicians about music, as I know I would have nothing to contribute to it and would not be able to follow all the necessary technical terms. But I would guarantee that I, and people like me, are more representative of the symphony-concert-going audience than the musically-trained. I know there is an art to producing all those musical effects and colouration and emotional pulse. I do not have that art. But I can recognize music as original or derivative or pastiche or genius or talent. I can do this because I am familiar with it. I am the man who cannot paint but who can still appreciate art and feel uplifted or inspired (or bored out of his tree) by visiting art galleries.
I am loading my argument here, of course, and I know some musicians who would tell me that I cannot have a full appreciation of music without some training. Probably they are right. But I would reply that my head-on listener’s knowledge of music is a sort of training. And I have the advantage of a wife who can fill me in on the technical terms when I really need them. Besides which, even if only in an instinctive and experiential sense, I understand the structure of music and that is two thirds of the pleasure of listening.

Footnote: It is necessary to add that I could have written the above opinion piece with reference to jazz rather than to “classical” music. I spend as much time distinguishing my Jelly Roll Mortons from my Art Tatums as I do distinguishing my Scriabins from my Shostakoviches. But jazz, being largely unwritten, always consists of unique and individual performances; and when it come to identifying it “blind”, one is listening to the quality of the recording as much as to the performance. The monaural hiss of even the best Bix Beiderbecke recording is quite different from the multi-directional recording perfection of the best Wynton Marsalis. And if I want to get down off my pedestal, I must also admit that I spend quite a lot of time listening to Broadway show tunes and general “pop” as well as to “classical” or jazz – although it is the last two genres that are most musically nourishing.

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