Category: Commentary

#414 THOUGHTS ON A MAGNIFICENT CONCERT

#414

THOUGHTS ON A MAGNIFICENT CONCERT

Last night, Tiraje and I drove to Cincinnati to hear the CSO perform the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein as soloist. It was a spectacular performance. I would not have any idea how many concerts I have attended in my life, but this particular one will stand out in my memory for the rest of my life. It was overwhelming. I was riveted to my seat, which was not more than ten feet away from Gerstein.

So many thoughts came to mind that I thought I would share them in a post.

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Tiraje and I attend CSO concerts often, something I think I have probably mentioned in previous posts. We prefer to sit as close as possible to the piano soloist, and this has always been money well spent. We’ve been subscribers for over 30 years, so we’ve heard dozens of first-rate performances, observed many fine pianists and other soloists, and in general have had, almost routinely, breathtaking experiences. The CSO is a very fine orchestra.

But last night’s concert was so far above what we had previously experienced that the only word I can use—and it is so inadequate—is that it was overwhelming. Describing it in words will be difficult.

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A captured moment in the history of a civilization, here on earth…

I’ll get to the performance in a moment. But first, and perhaps foremost for me, was a different kind of feeling, an observation. An observation I’ve had frequently, yes, but never was it so solidly underscored as last night. And that is the observation of a time—THIS time—OUR time—in history. We live in a CIVILIZATION—for all intents, we are living at the peak period of a civilization—as evidenced in a concert such as this one.

A visitor from another planet would observe that several thousand humans have come together to hear sounds—sounds the humans regard as beautiful or important, and obviously requiring incredible physical and mental abilities on the part of the performers. It would be difficult to imagine anything these humans could do that would require greater skill and mental agility. The sounds themselves were obviously created by one of the civilization’s preeminent composers of sounds, and—so these aliens might deduce—performable only by the smallest subset of the race.

This somewhat silly analogy was not actually what I was thinking at the moment, though. I was simply AWED by the fact that, within the past century, a civilization—our civilization—felt it IMPORTANT enough to produce such monumental musical art for public consumption. Forget all one knows about music history or piano performance or any of that—I was just observing, in the moment, the fact that the creation of art, performed by tremendously capable individuals, united for the purpose of creating beauty in a given moment, is important to our civilization.

This may seem an odd place to begin an enthusiastic “review.” I suppose when we are in the presence of any human activity that seems magnificent that similar thoughts could occur to any person. Nevertheless, that feeling of “I can’t believe I am actually here, experiencing this”—and simultaneously reflecting on the fact that it is occurring at all—in 2019—on planet earth—is mind-blowing.

I’m doing an inadequate job of describing this.

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Tears…being a passive sponge for beauty

Readers of my Music I Love posts obviously know that I love music, many different kinds of music. Music speaks to my soul, it moves me. BUT—an experience I have always envied in other music lovers is the ability—actually, “ability” is not the right word—maybe “inclination” or “propensity” or “tendency”—but I’ll have to stick with “ability” for right now—the ability to react to beauty with tears. THAT has always been, for me, a measurement of how deeply a person can feel ANYTHING. To have a soul that is an open door to pure beauty. I know that for a lot of musicians, THOUGHTS—our always-active minds—often—very often—intrude and interfere with our simply being a passive sponge for beauty.

I remember my best friend at Juilliard describing many times during his growing up years when the beauty of Chopin totally overwhelmed him to the point of spontaneous tears—that he did not understand what was even happening—he was young—that the mere sounds just drew tears out of him, like a ladle drawing water out of a well.

Every time I encounter a person who can have this reaction to the beauty in music, I wish I was that person. So, obviously this is not an accustomed feeling for me to have. Perhaps I was, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, just in the “right mood” last night. But after maybe the first two minutes of the first movement, I felt tears welling up inside me. By the time the third movement was being played, I actually thought I was going to lose it, that tears were going to start rolling down my face. This feeling was not constant, it came and subsided, but I was helpless, a branch afloat in a sea of beauty. I am pretty certain that those of you—wonderfully emotional people that you no doubt are—for whom such reactions to beauty are routine–may wonder why I wonder at this experience. But at least you’ll know why I savored it, even as it was happening.

There are many who feel that pure beauty, whether in music or some other art, in a landscape or seascape, or in the laugh of a baby—or any of a thousand other reflections of beauty—are just that: reflections. Of God, or a deity, or some indefinable transcendence that we humans can only experience as reflections. Maybe that’s true, or maybe beauty is something else altogether.

For us music lovers, getting small tastes of the infinite are always worth the wait.

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Time stood still…

I suppose we’ve all felt the phenomenon of time standing still, when our concentration on something is so complete that we become unaware of the passage of time. So, maybe talking about it is kind of a cliché. Nevertheless, I have never had such extended periods of time—minutes long, and one after another—where I was completely unaware of time—as I experienced last night. My guess is that when one is drawn into beauty, time seems to disappear, that we are—however briefly—outside of time. Again, maybe a cliché.

But, how sweet the taste of not feeling time. I think that’s about as zen as can be imagined.

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Perfection…

I am guessing that one reason I felt this escape from the clutches of time is because I was hearing perfection. I am not using the word lightly, either. I’ve heard the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto in my life hundreds of times. I’ve heard it in live performance at least a dozen times, probably closer to two dozen. The Rach Third, as it’s called by pianists, is as formidable a concerto as there is in the entire piano repertoire. The combination of physical pyrotechnics and the ability to meaningfully communicate with an audience lift this concerto up into a rarified atmosphere for the performer. Just to make a silly comparison—yet again, and only because of my limited mind—one does not enter the 1600 meter run in the Olympics if one has any doubt about being competitive—or about being the best.

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Kirill Gerstein’s background is unusual. He is Russian, and came to the U.S. to study JAZZ piano at the Berklee School in Boston as a young man. As a young boy, he studied classical piano, but had an intense interest in jazz. When he was just 14, he met, and was heard by, jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton at a jazz festival in St. Petersburg. Burton was the director of Berklee, and offered him a full scholarship on the spot. Gerstein became the youngest student ever admitted to the school.

By the age of twenty, he had returned to classical music, studying at the Manhattan School of Music, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He already had a performing career when, at 21, he won the Artur Rubinstein International Competition. This was followed by his being awarded the Gilmore Young Artist Award.

The Gilmore Award—which includes a cash prize of $300,000—is awarded every four years to the most promising young pianist. For the past fifteen years or so, Gerstein has performed as soloist with orchestra and as solo recitalist all over the world. His recordings win awards. Home base for him is in Stuttgart, Germany, where he is—when not touring—professor of piano at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart.

All this biographical info is just to state the obvious, that Gerstein is an impressive player with impressive credentials.

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But, as I inferred at the outset, I’ve been hearing impressive players with impressive credentials my whole life. I have NEVER heard perfection before—and this includes a most memorable performance by Evgeny Kissin. If I only said that Gerstein was note-perfect in this fiendishly difficult work, that would be an impressive statement. But to also communicate—to the front row where we were—or with the intensity and power required to communicate to the furthest reaches of the hall, regardless of the score’s dynamics—to communicate with such controlled passion every soaring phrase—and not a single melodic note left out or undernourished–such a performance makes one wonder, anew, at just what a giant of pianism and composition Rachmaninoff was.

As an afterthought to such great performances, one knows–always–that the performer knows that only a handful of listeners in a given audience know precisely what he doing, and how admirably he is doing it. The reaching out to be perfect—the guiding light for all musicians—is something that true artists like Gerstein cannot NOT do.

The goal for artists like him, and for all artists, is to reach above. Then, and only then, will real communication with an audience take place.

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It was indeed one of the most memorable concerts—and one of the most memorable experiences, period—of my life.

I should also mention that the conductor for this performance was the young and very talented Karina Canellakis.

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#411 MUSIC QUOTATIONS

#411

MUSIC QUOTATIONS

The other day, while looking at the website of a group I will be posting soon—the Izmir Big Band—I ran into the often-seen quotation about music by Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Thinking about what Nietzsche may have meant got me completely sidetracked from my post. Without even thinking, I got off on a tangent of written contemplation. But, after a couple paragraphs of doing this, I realized that writing about what I think Nietzsche meant is beside the point, that how much more interesting it would be to just offer up a number of thought-provoking quotations in a post for everyone’s contemplative enjoyment. So that will be today’s post.

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The reason quotations become famous is BECAUSE they are thought-provoking. They make the familiar brand new. As in when we see a lifelong love—or anything we know well—through someone else’s eyes. In this case, our longtime “lover” is music.

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Here are just a few quotations that you might enjoy:

• Where words fail, music speaks. – Hans Christian Anderson

• Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought. – E. Y. Harburg, composer of “Over the Rainbow”

• If music be the food of love, play on. – William Shakespeare

Two from Plato, who had a lot to say about music:

• Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

• Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.

• Music is love, love is music, music is life, and I love my life. – Alistair McClean, Scottish novelist

• Music is the silence between the notes. – Claude Debussy

• Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent. – Victor Hugo

• Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory. – Oscar Wilde

• Music is well said to be the speech of angels. – Thomas Carlyle

Two from Beethoven:

• Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.

• Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosphy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.

• People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: We are the same. – John Denver

• Music is what tells us that the human race is greater than we realize. – Napoleon Bonaparte

• Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without. – Confucius

• To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable. – Aaron Copland

• Music is love in search of a word. – Sidonie Collete, French mime and actress)

• Music is God’s gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to earth, the only art of earth we take to Heaven. – Walter Savage Landor, English writer and political activist

• Music is the harmonious voice of creation; an echo of the invisible world. – Giuseppe Mazzini, Italian revolutionary who spearheaded Italian unification

• When you’re happy, you enjoy the music. When you’re sad, you understand the lyrics. – anon.

• Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. – Percy Blythe Shelley

And two from Bach:

• Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.

• The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.

• Music, because of its specific and far-reaching metaphorical powers, can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable. – Leonard Bernstein

• There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats. – Albert Schweitzer

• Without music, life is a journey through a desert. – Pat Conroy, author

• Singing is a way of releasing an emotion that you can’t portray when you’re acting. Music moves the soul, so it is the source of the most intense emotions you can feel. – Amanda Seyfried, actress

• If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears however measured or far away. – Henry David Thoreau

• Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. – Bob Dylan

• There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres. – Pythagoras

• You ARE the music while the music lasts. – T.S. Eliot

• Music can change the world because it can change people. – Bono

• Music is the soundtrack of your life. – Dick Clark

• Find a beautiful piece of art. If you fall in love with Van Gogh or Matisse, or if you fall in love with the music of Coltrane, the music of Aretha Franklin, or the music of Chopin – find some beautiful art and admire it, and realize that it was created by human beings just like you, no more human, no less. – Maya Angelou

• I think the purpose of a piece of music is significant when it actually lives in somebody else. A composer puts down a code, and a performer can activate the code in somebody else. Once it lives in somebody else, it can live in others as well. – Yo-Yo Ma

• Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe. – Albert Einstein

• My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being. – John Coltrane

• It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf. – Walter Lippmann, American political commentator

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Compiling music quotes is, as you can imagine, a thought-provoking experience in itself. I love reading what great thinkers have had to say about music.

I will return with some actual music, next post.

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#364 A FEW REFLECTIONS AFTER HEARING TCHAIKOVSKY

#364

A FEW REFLECTIONS AFTER HEARING TCHAIKOVSKY

Warning and apology: lengthy post…

Unfortunately, FB is behaving very poorly this morning, not allowing any photos to be added and just responding very slowly all around. I’ll try to add a couple pictures of last night’s concert later on.

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Tiraje and I went to the Cincinnati Symphony last night. The CSO is one of the top ten orchestras in the country. It is really a superb orchestra. We love our own hometown Dayton Philharmonic, which is one of the finest regional orchestras in the country. But the CSO is a cut above. We have been subscribers for about 25 years, always choosing the “create your own” subscriptions—which for us has most often meant those concerts that feature piano soloists. Collectively, these concerts have been one of the highlights of Tiraje’s and my lives, and of our marriage.

My philosophy about attending any concert, of any kind of music, is to sit, if it’s possible, as close as possible. So, over the years we have heard—up-close—many concerts, sitting not more than 10 or 15 feet from the pianist and/or conductor—sometimes so close you feel you could share the piano bench with the soloist or that you’ll be inadvertently doused in the sweat of an energetically head-tossing conductor.

Last night’s concert featured the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, which I had just posted about here. I really did not remember that we would be hearing it in person when I wrote my last post. That was just coincidental. The performance was amazing. Yevgeny Sudbin (age 38) is a Russian pianist with an astonishing technique—feather-light yet clear as a bell and thunderously declamatory as the music requires—and possessing the temperament of a true poet. As might be expected from a great pianist playing a great work, the ovation was immediate and long-lasting.

We arrived early enough to take in the pre-concert talk about the music, presented by the CSO associate conductor (whose name I do not know). It was quite informative for the hundred or so people in the audience. After his talk, the hall quickly filled to capacity, about 2300 people, not an empty seat.

As I’ve said, the concert was inspiring, yet another star in the firmament of Tiraje’s and my concert experience. My mind seemed to be working in overdrive at the concert, and what follows are some of the things I was thinking about. These ruminations are in no particular order.

ORCHESTRAL STANDARDS, 2018

• Classical music concert attendance is reportedly declining at the very same time that the level of orchestral playing has never been higher. If the repertoire to be performed at a given concert seems pleasing to a potential audience—if a well-known symphony or concerto is being performed or a renowned soloist is performing—then a concert will likely be a sell-out. But generally speaking, classical concert attendance is declining. It used to be that 1 in every 7 persons had attended a classical concert in any year, now it is 1 in 12.

I’m offering this statistic not with a formula for improving, or even lamenting, the situation, just as a fact. And ironically, this is occurring at time when the playing level of orchestras—especially of young players between 20 and 35—is astonishingly high!

This situation is, like many things, a supply and demand situation. The great music conservatories relentlessly churn out (I don’t mean to use the term derogatorily) great players on all instruments every single year. The playing level of instrumentalists just ENTERING conservatories—say, at age 18—has never been higher. Students (and parents of students, particularly in Asian countries) who take music performance seriously in their childhoods and adolescence are entering their collegiate years with substantial real-world experience under their belts. The end result of this is a large “supply” of really gifted players vying for positions in orchestras all over the United States, and all over the world.

The concert experience, then, for the audience member is seldom less than wonderful. The heightened expectations Tiraje and I always have about attending the CSO has a lot to do with the quality of its personnel—the proverbial “army of generals.”

• Just to give an idea of the high level of orchestral playing, here is some statistics. These orchestras are often ranked as being the best in the world:

Royal Concertgebouw (Amsterdam)
Berlin Philharmonic
Vienna Philahrmonic
London Symphony
Chicago Symphony
Bavarian Radio Symphony
Cleveland Orchestra
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Dresden Staatskapelle
Boston Symphony Orchestra
New York Philharmonic
Marinsky Theatre Orchestra
Russian National Orchestra
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Leipzig Gewandhaus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Czech Philharmonic

Notice that among these superlative world orchestras are several American orchestras.

Among American orchestras, rankings such as this are pretty common:

Chicago
Boston
Philadelphia
Cleveland
New York
Minnesota
Cincinnati
Los Angeles
San Francisco
Pittsburgh
Seattle
Baltimore
Atlanta
St. Louis
National (Washington D.C.)
Houston
Nashville

If you are longtime music lover, you might quibble about the order of orchestras here, or about the inclusion or exclusion of a certain orchestra in either one of these lists. Parochialism and regional favoritism are just as true in music as they are in sports. 🙂 The only point I am making is that, if you notice, Cincinnati is only seventh in the above list of American orchestras and seldom appears in any “top 25” list of world orchestras. And yet, it is an amazingly fine orchestra!

Attending orchestral concerts in 2018 is always likely to be a memorable experience.

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LOSING ALL SENSE OF TIME

• Quite often, when I am at the CSO, I completely lose all sense of time while listening, which is a very pleasant phenomenon. Being swept up in beauty—of any kind, of course—plays with our temporal experience in general. “Time seems to stand still” is a cliché for good reason. And when it does, the experience itself, however long it lasts—I find it lasts only in bursts of maybe 30 seconds at a time—it is so delicious. The experience of losing all of one’s self-consciousness is like a dream you do not want to end.

Does this happen to you too?

WHO DID COMPOSERS IDEALLY WRITE FOR?

• I know that’s not actually a very good (or even understandable) paragraph heading, because what I am really wondering is whether the composer wrote his music as it would sound IN THE CONDUCTOR’S EARS—right smack in front of the orchestra, with the instruments positioned in a certain way—OR did he write for the person in the BACK OF THE HIGHEST BALCONY, hoping to reach and to move and to persuade that person?

As far as solo piano music is concerned, I wonder the same thing. Can we imagine a certain distance—in feet or meters—that composers imagined as being the ideal distance between their pianos and their intended audience? Say—I’m guessing here—50 feet away for Liszt, 40 feet for Rachmaninoff and Brahms, 30 feet for Chopin, 15 feet for Bach, etc? And of course, these guesses—as you see—are not reflective of real-world concerts at all, where audience members can be quite some distance from the stage. Were composers for piano creating music as it sounded TO THEM, AS THEY PLAYED—only feet from the piano strings—or to the person in the middle of an auditorium, far from the instrument itself?

As pianists, we learn to learn our piano music as though we are playing for an audience—that is what it is all about. I tell my students to always imagine an audience into existence, even while practicing, to permanently acclimate your mind into a “performing” mode; your dynamics—the lifeblood of any piece—will then be appropriate, etc.

But, if piano composers were writing only for themselves—creating a sound they wanted to hear just a few feet from the sounding board—well, that’s something to think about.

And as interesting as this is to think about with regard to composers for piano, it is even more interesting (for me) to think about with regard to orchestral composers. My GUESS would be that they composed an ideal work as it would sound to the CONDUCTOR, who is “living”, so to speak, in the midst of the music.

What do you think? Have I even made my question clear?

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COMPOSERS FOR PIANO HAD TO BE ABLE TO PLAY THEIR OWN WORKS

• I suppose this is a no-brainer, a “duh!” But nevertheless, it is something I have to often remind myself of. The Tchaikovsky Concerto is a DIFFICULT work to play. It requires an ASTONISHINGLY good technique, not just a pretty good one, to play. It requires an AMAZING amount of endurance, a SUSTAINED focus on expressivity, a FLUIDIC blending of octaves and rapturous passagework. These works—the hundreds of masterpieces composed over, say, the past 300 years—all required composers who could actually PLAY them.

Maybe this is a “well, water is wet” realization, but it is always something I have to keep coming back to think about.

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REVIEWS/REVIEWERS

• When I am at a concert, I just cannot help thinking like a reviewer. I guess that is because, from my high school days onward, I have been immersed in “reviewerese,” reading reviews of classical recordings or classical concerts until it just became a way of thinking.

Obviously, I would have had glowing things to say about last night’s concert in a written review. But it got me to thinking, once again, about reviewers in general. Does it, for instance, take a pianist to most accurately “review” another pianist? Does it take a singer or a violinist or an oboist to write an appropriate review of those respective instrumentalists? Does simply being a music lover who has heard a lot of music qualify one to be a reviewer?

Are reviews even necessary? What purpose do they serve? I’m not playing devil’s advocate by asking that—more like, just reviewing what purpose they serve for ME. Maybe a more pertinent question is, especially in light of diminishing classical audience sizes, should “reviews” be written in an entirely different way than they currently are? Are those who read reviews of classical performances primarily interested in expositions about the music, or about the composer’s’ life, or about the performer?

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I should have an alarm that goes off after I have written a certain number of words. I’ll end here, for today…. These ramblings, as you’ve come to know, are only the tip of an unwieldy iceberg. Thinking about classical music performance is always enjoyable for me, and I am guessing it is for you also.
I hope this comes out legibly. I had to fight Facebook every step of the way! Maddening….

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#332 REFLECTIONS ON A CAR CRASH

#332

REFLECTIONS ON A CAR CRASH

Sudden, jolting life events can have a way of quickly sensitizing us to what is really important in our lives and what is not so important, to what is really urgent to do in our lives and what is not so urgent. Last night, driving on I-75 from Dayton to Cincinnati to hear the Cincinnati Symphony, Tiraje and I were involved in a 4-car crash. A large SUV from the far left lane lost control and instantly careened diagonally across 4 lanes of heavy, fast-moving traffic. There was no time to react. I hit him broadside going 65 mph, and then hit another car in a kind of domino effect.

Tiraje and I are OK. We had absolutely no injuries thanks to my Subaru Forester, which is built like a tank. My car and the three others involved were severely damaged. After all the waiting for emergency vehicles and state troopers, being checked out by paramedics, doing all the requisite paperwork, and huddling with others by our wrecked cars, Tiraje and I finally made our way home via Uber.

It would sound dramatic to say, in the split second before impact when we could see what was about to happen, that my life flashed in front of me. It certainly seemed we were about to die. But in fact, only the job at hand—retaining control of the car—surviving—had my attention. I did manage to get the car to come to rest on the right shoulder of the road, half in the grass, so we wouldn’t get hit again. Only when I was satisfied that Tiraje—my Hurrem and lifelong love—was OK—and then while standing around for the next interminable 90 minutes—did we both have time to reflect on anything.

Of course, the relief that we were both alive and unharmed—that we would live to see another day—that we would still have life to share with our children and to experience grandparenting—this relief, of course, was what we were feeling more than anything else. No doubt, this is the very same feeling that other accident survivors feel every day. It would have been devastating to either one of us if we lost the other, and it would have been devastating for our sons if we had both been killed. We’re still here, and that is wonderful.

It was an interesting self-realization to me that, in the aftermath of something like this, the importance of music in my life was once again underscored for me. It’s actually inaccurate to call such thoughts about music a “realization” since I’ve known this my entire life. But, just as other momentous events in life have underscored for me the degree to which music is a lifeline—I cannot define to what—I realized, standing around in the twilight and seeing I was alive, how fundamentally important music is to me. It has to do with realizing what you would have lost, and what you now still have.

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One other thought that comes without bidding in the aftermath of jolting events is the importance of friends—the importance of every individual one has a relationship with. As a social medium, Facebook has its advocates and its detractors, but one thing both Tiraje and I have found to be so valuable—meaningful, even—about utilizing Facebook has been the way it allows us to keep friendships vital and alive. I’m posting this for all of our Facebook friends because we know, as our friends, you’d like to know.

I will also post this in MUSIC I LOVE, for followers of my blog. I have to say that an additional warm feeling I had last night was gratitude for still being able to share music I love.

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#260 MORE THOUGHTS PIANISM 2 – SCHUBERT WANDERER FANTASIE

#260

MORE THOUGHTS
PIANISM, PART 2

SCHUBERT
FANTASY IN C MAJOR, D. 760 (WANDERER)

SVIATOSLAV RICHTER, PIANO

Image may contain: 1 person, indoor

PIANISM, part 2

Pianists will know how ludicrous it is to set out a “Pianism 101” outline in just a few paragraphs. But I thought that doing so might be helpful to the many music lovers who are not pianists, but may have an interest in knowing just what the pianists they are listening to are actually doing or attempting to do. There are textbooks, representing a number of points of view, that deal with the art of playing the piano. I will not try to capsulize those here. They are too detailed for the average listener. I just want to lay out a few basics for playing the piano that the non-pianist can understand.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it is the Schubert “Wanderer” Fantasy that is more or less prompting me to do this. This great solo piano work demands great pianism, and the recording that I am featuring played a significant part in my own understanding of pianism. So I thought this would be an apropos time to talk about this. Of course, everything I will say about playing the piano here applies across the board to all piano playing. These things are facets of playing that classical players are more attentive to than players of other kinds of music. I would just say that, in general, the more attentive a pianist is to all of this, the better, regardless of what kind of music one is playing.

So, in a nutshell…

Most music listeners are aware that the criteria for evaluating a piano performance are often lumped into two categories: MUSICALITY—being expressive, and TECHNIQUE—how well or impressively one adapts the body, arms, wrists, fingers, and feet to actually playing the instrument. From a distant perspective, this separation into categories seems to make sense. But, the closer one gets to actually playing the instrument, one realizes the two are inseparable. One cannot be expressive without having technique. Technique is a means to an end. For every musical (“expressive”) challenge, there is a technical (“how to”) solution.

So, I want to just list a few of the most basic things that pianists are concerned with, always remembering that musicality and technique are the right and the left, the yin and the yang, of playing.

Pianists are always aware of three primary things: legato, phrasing, and balance.

LEGATO. Unlike other instruments—the violin, the trumpet, the oboe, the human voice, and so on—once a sound is produced on the piano—the instant the sound is produced—it begins to decay, to die. The pianist cannot get louder or softer on a note that he has just played—he cannot keep it going in the same way that other instrumentalists can. This is perhaps THE basic difference between the piano and other instruments. Even on the best grand pianos, when a key is depressed and held down, the sound will fade away completely—the string will just stop vibrating—in about thirty seconds, always getting continually softer. This makes it difficult for the pianist to create the illusion that the piano is a singing instrument.

There is some real irony in this because so much of the piano repertoire relies on the pianist to create this very illusion. One of the basic things that pianists attempt to do, therefore, is to play in a legato fashion. Legato means, literally, bound or tied together. Pianists create this kind of touch by overlapping the sound of one note to another—by holding one key until the next key is played. Doing this well is one of the key yardsticks in measuring the quality of this pianist’s playing as compared with that pianist.

Playing legato for most pianists is a learned skill. I would guestimate that if you lined up 1,000 pianists—classical pianists who make their living playing piano—that only a very small fraction of them have a natural legato—they played legato from the time they first played the instrument as children. For everyone else, it is an acquired skill. Some are more successful, and therefore convincing in what they play, than others in acquiring this kind of touch. But good legato playing is definitely a hallmark of good playing. If you are really enjoying a pianist’s performance, the chances are high that she or he has a good legato.

PHRASING. Phrasing is the intentional varying of loudness in a succession of notes. Let’s say a composer has written an opening melody of a piece that consists of nine notes. The most basic “tent figure” phrase would have you starting softly on note #1, making each successive note louder than the one that came before it until note #5, peaking in loudness on note #5, and then gradually receding in loudness until note #9.

It is important to remember that a lot of music—most music, really—consists of one phrase after another.

The continuous shaping of these melodic phrases draws your listener into whatever you are playing. Some liken phrases in music to spoken sentences. I think that is a fair comparison. In the same way that if you were to purposefully speak in a monotone, even your best friend would soon tune you out—would essentially stop listening to whatever you were saying—in that same way, there is an inverse relationship that all pianists are aware of: the LESS we shape our phrases, the MORE bored our audience will be.

A phrasing challenge for the pianist that I already alluded to above has to do, again, with how the sounds of piano strings fade away so quickly. The challenge—in order to convincingly phrase and make it appear to the listener that the piano sings—is to continually listen to sounds you have already played. This is easier said than done. Let’s say I have a phrase consisting of five notes in which the first note lasts longer than the rest of the notes. After I play that first note, my brain says “mission accomplished” and I no longer listen to it—my focus is on what is coming next. But, because the sound of that first long note is dying away, I am very likely to play the second note too loud, creating an unpleasant bump in the phrase. What I need to do is to match the volume of the second note with what is left of the first note. This necessitates my always listening to notes I have already played.

I realize this is a lot of words for a simple concept, but it is a facet of playing that pianists neglect to their own peril.

Just one more small thing to be aware of when listening to pianists—or any musician, really. A pianist can shape a phrase beautifully—can be in absolute control of the dynamic level he is establishing with each successive note—but then ruin it all for his listeners by playing the very last note of the phrase too loudly. Players don’t do this intentionally—it has to do with being in control of your own mind. And by that I mean—as we get to the end of a phrase, the mind instinctively thinks ahead to the first notes of the next phrase, and then the next phrase, etc. What often happens is that, when thinking about the first note of that next phrase, we stop listening to the phrase we are currently ending, and we often end up playing that note louder than we’ve intended. Pianists have to listen to the very last drop of sound, so to speak, of every phrase to make the piano mimic the human voice.

BALANCE. Balance has to with the relative loudness of THIS to THAT. “Balance” is not the most appropriate term, actually. “Balance” infers that there is an equality between things: when we balance things on a scale, the two sides are equal. That is NOT what balance in music is about. “IMbalance” would be the more appropriate word. For the pianist, creating pleasing balances (imbalances…) is paramount to a pleasing performance.

Orchestral conductors are habitually hyper-sensitive about balance—in a way, they are creating, in front of an audience, a balancing ACT in which the strings are now louder than the other sections, followed by the winds projecting the most, followed by the brass, etc. Sometimes everyone is playing full out, but most of the time they are not. The conductor is listening intently to what everyone is doing, and making real-time adjustments, in his hand and arm motions, to all of his players—you play louder here, you play softer there, etc.

The pianist’s hands are his orchestral players. I think probably every music lover is aware that, because so much melodic importance is given to the pianist’s right hand—by virtue of the shorter, higher-pitched strings being to the right on the keyboard—that the right hand in the vast majority of instances is supposed to be louder than the left. To play them equally loud is confusing to an audience—they must choose between hands to decide, at any given moment, what is the most important “thing” going on.

So the pianist has a balance challenge: he is continually adjusting the relative loudness of one hand to the other. This goes against nature! The brain demands, and feels most comfortable with, symmetry. The brain would love it if the pianist always played both hands the same strength, whether loud or soft. But alas, this is not enjoyable for listeners, and so the pianist attempts to always establish a pleasing “im”-balance.

Further complicating things for the player, in terms of balance, is that very often there will be TWO important things going on in the right hand at the same time—a melody and a counter-melody, say. The pianist, then, has to create two different dynamics levels at the same time in the right hand—in order for the listener to differentiate them from each other—while at the same time keeping the left hand always softer than everything that is happening in the right hand.

PEDALING. Entire books have been written about the use of the pedal. I will keep this simple. If you looked inside a piano, you would see that there are things called dampers—small wooden blocks with soft felt underneath them—that rest on top of the strings. When the pianist pushes the right (meaning, on the right) pedal down, all of the dampers rise, allowing all the strings to vibrate. This creates a pleasant effect, one of which is to allow strings to vibrate longer than they would have otherwise. Perhaps the main thing to remember, when listening to pianists and in thinking about what they are doing, is that the pianist’s foot pushes the pedal down AFTER the notes that he wishes to lengthen are actually played. Fingers down, then pedal down.

This is far easier to actually do than to talk about. But – it is yet another dimension of playing that calls for intensely focused listening to oneself. This has to do with the avoidance of overlapped harmonies. Here is what we mean: in a certain measure, if I am playing notes that comprise a D Major harmony, but the notes of the next measure are a different harmony—say, G Major—and if I want to pedal both of these measures, then the timing of my pedaling has to be so exact that NONE of the notes of the D Major harmony “bleed into” the G Major harmony.

All pianists learn, early on in life, that pedaling is something that is done with the ear. One must be intently focused on the sounds one creates, as they are being created, so that one’s pedaling does not overlap this harmony with that. Of all aspects of what is required of the pianist, pedaling is the one I would liken the most to high-wire walking—with the danger being that overlapped harmonies—through sub-par pedaling—can immediately destroy an otherwise fine performance.
___________________________

OK, I meant to keep this as brief as possible. Hopefully, with these things in mind, you will be able to appreciate that much more this fine performance of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy.

Schubert, you may recall, had one of the briefest lives of the composers that we call “great.” He died when he was 31, in 1828. He wrote the Fantasy in C Major in 1822, when he was in good health. It is a lengthy four-movement work which gets its name (Wanderer) from a song that Schubert had written some years earlier called “Der Wanderer.” In this Fantasy, he uses this theme in each movement—most obviously and poignantly in the second, slow movement.

The text of the song itself describes a wanderer strolling quietly, yet unhappily, as he observes the mountains, a streaming valley, and the roaring sea, always sighing and asking the question “where?”

The four movements of the Fantasy are played without a break—each movement transitions to the next.

I first heard Sviatoslav Richter’s recording of the Wanderer Fantasy during my second year at Juilliard. I remember holding the LP cover in my hands as I listened to it time after time. I was astonished and perplexed.

I was astonished first of all because of the greatness and beauty of the Fantasy, and also because of the variety of emotions it touches on—or plows into, I should say.

And I was perplexed because I could hear that this playing was SO good, but I could not figure out why. (I was still young, you must remember.) It took me many repeated hearings of this performance to discern that Richter was a MASTER of balance between, and within, hands. And I heard, for the first time, what a TRUE crescendo and a TRUE diminuendo were, when every single note—regardless of the length of a passage—is a different dynamic, a different color, than the one that came before and after it. For me, it was a revelation.

There are so many other things I observed that affected my own future pianistic growth. Listening to Richter in this recording gave me a life lesson—one that should already have been obvious to me at age 20. And that is that the VAST majority of my music education would be up to me—listening to music, listening and observing what the great players do, and hopefully, trying my best to replicate whatever that is. This is just the way it is for musicians, regardless of their music preferences.

OK, enough talking. I hope you’ve stayed with me long enough to give this a listen. It is a monumental piece in the hands of a monumental player.

Enjoy.

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 5:40
3rd movement 12:20
4th movement 16:48

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#259 SOME THOUGHTS: OUR SMALLNESS – PIANISM 1

SOME THOUGHTS

OUR SMALLNESS
PIANISM, PART 1

And eventually…SCHUBERT: THE WANDERER FANTASY

I’ve been listening to the Wanderer Fantasy by Schubert in the car. It is a demanding work for pianists. I think it is the kind of work that even non-musicians know, intuitively, when they listen to it whether the pianist playing it is just not up to the task, or whether he is. It really demands a great player. Listening to it and thinking about great piano playing got me thinking and reminiscing a little about my student days at Juilliard.

So, I may just ramble a bit in this post.

• I recently travelled to New York City, where I stayed for a week. As such trips will do, this included flying and a number of different airports, a fair amount of New Jersey transit train riding, and some Ubering and taxiing. Visiting any large city involves encountering crowds. New York obviously has a lot of people, and so one quickly feels anonymous and invisible. I will soon be travelling to Istanbul, which is even bigger than New York, on our yearly jaunt to Tiraje’s homeland. This will involve longer flights, many airports, and an overwhelming number of people.

Like nothing else in my experience, travel underscores for me the absolute smallness of my own life. It is a numbers thing, of course. One’s ego quickly deflates when always surrounded by tens of thousands of people. And there’s also the visual perspective one has while flying, of looking at this city or that from afar, and realizing there are millions of people down there, or there, or there. Busy highways that are so tiny from 30,000 feet so as to not even resemble a necklace or even a succession of ants. On our own planet, we are very tiny. In the universe, we are less than dust. Our PLANET is less than dust.

I’m kind of an armchair astronomer, and always have been. I subscribe to three astronomy magazines and I am always considering (year after year) spending really big bucks on a first-rate telescope. Why? I think the actual main reason—there are several reasons—but the main reason I want to become proficient with a telescope is so I can get a grasp on our smallness in the universe.

Notice I’m not saying insignificance. Perhaps I could say that, and not be wrong, but I don’t know for sure, and nobody does. What I do know is the obvious. We are tiny, smaller than small.

But strangely—and here is my point—this makes my attachment to music that much stronger. Not weaker—as in, what’s the point of anything if we are so small and possibly so inconsequential?

Why is it that considering our tininess makes music that much more important to me? This is not a rhetorical question, by the way—I don’t actually know. I ask you, my readers. I only know that the combination of two things—our smallness and the certainty of death—make my wanting to share the music I love more consequential, not less. Travel underscores this urgency.

I may have mentioned that the reason I switched from simply posting music I love on my personal Facebook timeline to having my own “Musician” Facebook page is to get a better handle on whether anyone is actually looking at, reading, or listening to what I post. Pages—as opposed to personal timelines—offer that kind of information. Even though posting music I love is quite enjoyable for me—I love music and I love writing and I love sharing knowledge—there would be no actual point in putting it online if no one else cared. But since I started the Robert Ruckman Musician page, I have found out that for each posting, between 100 and 400 people read each post, with about 20% of them actually listening to the music and about half clicking on the pictures. That’s not too bad.

Yes, posting music I love to share with others is most certainly a small thing in a small (and crowded) world, but because it is REAL—whatever that connection is that I have with my readers is real—it somehow neutralizes for me that feeling of existential ennui.

Existential ennui. And I was not even trying for an alliteration!

Alright, who votes I move on to another topic? Everyone? OK then…

I want to post the Wanderer Fantasy by Franz Schubert. But before doing so, I want to talk a bit about pianism. Franz Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy is a really good place to talk about pianism.

• PIANISM, part 1.

Those who know me well, and those who know me only through my posts, know that, for my entire life, I have measured everything on a 1-10 scale. How are you feeling today? No details, please, just a number, just cut to the chase. How much did you like that movie you saw? On a 1-10 scale, please. I really liked that dinner you made, Tiraje, it was an absolute 10. Doing this—no doubt about it—must be a symptom of some kind of psychological sickness, some inner urge that propels one to constantly measure everything.

I am sure I would fit into an Orwellian/Huxley scenario all too well…

Nevertheless…on with my story…and this is why I’m talking about measuring at all. Juilliard, at all times, is filled to overflowing with great students. Not just when I studied there 1970-76, but at all times, past present and future. Great singers, great players of all instruments, great conductors, great great great. Juilliard, of course, does not have a monopoly on great young classical musicians—there are a dozen places in the United States alone where one finds great teachers and where students experience the highest musical standards and have the highest quality musical experiences. Curtis, Eastman, the New England Conservatory, the Cleveland Institute, Indiana University, the Shepherd School at Rice, Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, the University of Southern California, and many others as well. There is no lack of exceptional musical talent or instruction in our country.

But there is such a concentration of international talent and ability at Juilliard that it can be either intimidating or enlightening for you if you are a student there. It was enlightening for me. I was already measuring things on the 1-10 scale by the time I went to Juilliard. Having an estimate of where I stood among the giants (as I reckoned them to be) was important, revelatory, and useful information.

I don’t actually know how many pianists were, or are, typical for a Juilliard class. In looking at my 1974 (bachelor’s) graduation picture, I count 80 graduates—80 musicians, no dancers or drama students—the dancers and actors had their own graduation. Obviously, only a part of these 80 graduates were pianists—maybe 20? So, perhaps there were 100 pianists total—undergrad through doctoral—at Juilliard.

It was as plain as day to me (and everyone else) who, among my colleagues, the “tens” among the pianists were—on the 1-10 scale. These are the (classical) pianists you hear all the time now—the Emmanuel Axes, the Garrick Ohlssons, and so on. There were a number of tens in every class, that is just the way it is. So if, say, I rated Garrick Ohlsson or Emmanuel Ax—or Janina Fialkowska or Steven Mayer or Norman Krieger or Jim Barbagallo or Eddy Battersby or Peter Orth—for instance—as “tens”, then I could say—in my opinion—THIS person is a 9.5 or THAT person is a 9, or whatever.

The level of pianism at Juilliard, unsurprisingly, is such that no one fell below (on my 1-10 scale) a seven. I was an eight, there seemed to be no question in my mind. Nine was unobtainable. My technique would never be as earth-shattering and my legato and natural phrase-shaping were inferior to the nines and, of course, to the tens. Tiraje was a 9. Her sister Meral was a 9.5.

Why in the world would I even subject anyone to reading a post about rating classical pianists? This is actually just a preface to say: Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy is the most technically challenging work he wrote for piano, and it DEMANDS a 10. Can a 9 play it? Of course. So can an 8 or a 7.

But–some works are just best left to those who can actually play them as they were originally imagined. One of these is the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy. To make my point—as a former NBA fanatic—I would ask you, would you rather see Michael Jordan or John Smith play tonight? (John Smith being a fictional, basketball-loving but inferior player.)

I will have to continue talking about pianism in my next post, which will include much less about me and much more about Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. It will feature a legendary recording by Sviatoslav Richter from 1963. Yes, he was a ten….

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#258 THE BACKDROP OF ABSOLUTE SILENCE

#258

THE BACKDROP OF ABSOLUTE SILENCE

I’m not in a position to post a regular music posting–still waiting on grandson #1 to arrive here in NYC. But I would like to just post one of those thoughts that is so obvious to everyone that I wonder if we think about it enough.

And that is the necessity–I think it is a necessity, anyway–to consciously think about absolute silence–or even, if you’re inclined toward metaphysical thought, non-existence–as the backdrop for all of one’s music listening. Absolute silence is the canvas upon which composers–of anything–compose.

In our time, our ears are so inundated with sounds of all kinds that it is easy to subconsciously just connect one sound with another. Nothing underscores this like walking in a large city. Yesterday, Tiraje and I purposefully walked from Penn Station to Central Park along 7th Avenue, which is always an experience that reminds me of the necessity of imagining absolute silence.

In New York, this particular walk is a stretch of 20-some blocks of high-decibel intensity, crowded with tens of thousands of humans from scores of countries, all shouting to each other above the din of roaring traffic noise. Bass-booming music projects out into the street from clothing stores, the ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe, and dozens of eating establishments and bars. Enormous signs comprised of colored lights without number and even larger projection screens–dwarfing the largest IMAX screens–advertise this suntan lotion, that perfume, or the very latest movie–many of them tossing out incredibly loud music to make their respective points.

For me, it is times like this that bring home the necessity for imagining absolute silence as the backdrop for music listening, whatever the music is. Doing so separates, in my mind, what I am listening to from all the other sounds of life. Here in NY–and of course, in any noise-filled environment–the cacophony of everyday life devalues ALL sound, including music.

I imagine everyone reading this–music-lovers, all–knows the importance of imagining silence as the backdrop for listening to music, so this is hardly meant to be a revelation. But, for me anyway, it is always refreshing to return to certain basic truths about music listening. It always makes me appreciate that much more whatever I’m listening to.

I’ll be returning to regular posts soon. I hope I see my grandson before I have to head back home. He’s taking his time!

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#253 COMMENTARY THE VALUE OF LISTS FILLING IN MY POP MUSIC GAP JONATHAN’S LISTS

#253

COMMENTARY

THE VALUE OF LISTS
FILLING IN MY POP MUSIC GAP
JONATHAN’S LISTS

This may end up being a longer post than I originally thought it would be. But there will be continuity, I promise.

I.

I suppose I was still in high school, or maybe even younger than that, when I first starting making lists. Not just to-do lists of things to get done today or tomorrow lists, but lists of “things”—books to read or records to buy, projects (however defined) that I want to get to, and especially my “top 10” or “top 25” this or that—works of music, books I’ve read, experiences I’ve had, places I’ve visited, favorite colors, favorite smells, and so on. I suppose, to some extent, I was just being led around by my rapidly developing obsessive-compulsiveness.

But as time has gone by—I’ve never stopped making lists, and needless to say, they have become longer, more complex, and more numerous—I discovered the real value of my lists was in gaining self-knowledge. The more clearly I defined, and even ranked, things in my lists, the more I understood myself, what it was that had shaped me—and was still shaping me. My lists were like a mirror. A mirror to… my mind? my soul? my heart? I guess it would have to be at least one of those, and maybe all three.

I may have already mentioned in some previous post that I have collected the top popular songs from every year from 1956—my earliest listening recollections—to 1987, month by month. Since a have this particular peculiarity of recalling details of my life at the time I heard each song, listening to these songs one month at a time is like going through a slow-motion memory album.

II.

But, my pop music listening tapered off in the late 1980’s. And by “pop”, I really just mean popular in a broad sense—music that has attracted a lot of attention. Since that time, there have been a number of pop songs that were so ubiquitous that NOT hearing them would have been impossible, of course—“My Heart Will Go On” or “Rolling in the Deep” and a number of other songs.

But in general, my closeness to pop music faded about 30 years ago. In order to amend this, I’ve asked my sons Jason and Jonathan, who are 39 and 33, to give me lists of the songs that they would consider the best and most influential in their lives—the music they love—so I can catch up. Both Jason and Jonathan are musical and intelligent individuals with broad musical interests. Music is an integral part of their lives, and it would be hard for me imagine two people who have a better acquaintance with the popular music scene over the course of their lives.

So, it was purely for selfish reasons that I asked them to do this—they are filling in the gaps for me! I am always on the look-out for new music to love. My absence from the pop music scene—and all the artistry that I’ve missed, all the music I’ve not yet loved—will be addressed by them.

First, though, maybe I should state how it happened that my love affair with popular music tapered off in the first place. There were three reasons:

#1 First, I had a strongly negative, almost visceral, reaction to the direction pop music started to take in the early 1980’s—and is still going strong—solely due to the music video revolution. Video compelled pop artists to compete with each other on entirely non-musical grounds—dance, especially, inundated so many music videos. I don’t want to see performers dance. I want to see dancers dance. Most music videos also had to tell a story of some kind, as opposed to simply displaying performers performing.

I’ll admit music videos CAN be great. Michael Jackson’s music AND dance were superb. He was the sine qua non of the genre. But creating video productions in which to enshrine every hit song—to me—makes no sense. It seems antithetical to the purpose of music, which is, let’s face it, about sound and nothing else.

It is obvious that in the 1970’s and 80’s, music video production was inevitable. It was going to happen sooner or later. It was, for the pop music industry, like having a great tool—one with unlimited and fast-developing technical potential—at your disposal and deciding whether to use it or not.

But, seen from a cultural and objective point of view, downloading or purchasing music–based on one’s recollection of how certain performers danced, or the clothing they wore, or the story line that was synchronized with the music—just seems wrong-headed. What could be more cynical than manipulating the masses to spend their money not on music but on associations? They are purchasing and reinforcing attitudes. Music, in music videos, is only masquerading as the central element in the picture.

Or, so it seems. I am willing to admit that my aversion to music videos may be preventing me from hearing some fine music, music I would in fact love…in spite of the choreography, costumery, and story-telling.

#2 Secondly, concurrent with the video music revolution was the astronomic rise in the popular consumption of hip-hop. I suppose I show my bias against it by not referring to it as hip-hop “music.” When an entire branch of the pop music industry is dependent on eliminating one of the primary parameters of music—melody—it is difficult for me to relate to that as music. I can relate to it as something–social commentary—perhaps even urgently needed social commentary—or, if one is inclined, as poetry. But as music, I cannot yet relate to it.

One wonders—or at least I wonder—what collective decision was made by performers, producers, and especially consumers to eliminate melody from hip-hop. Historically, melody has been the fertile ground of emotional content. Doesn’t eliminating it create a DISTANCE between composer and listener, and isn’t such a distance a negative thing? From the extraordinary success of hip-hop, though, and its permeation into every corner of the world—and in so many languages—it is clear that I am wrong: there IS no distance, there has only been a bringing-together of like minds.

But it is nevertheless mystifying. I listen to the “melodic” hip-hop artists like Lauren Hill, Little Brother, and Kendrick Lamar—who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his album “Damn”—and I don’t hear melody. This is a different aesthetic, one that I’ve not warmed up to yet, and that I found increasingly off-putting when it came to listening to pop music over the past couple of decades.

As anyone who has been reading me knows, I am open-minded when it comes to music of all kinds—if you think that there is aesthetically beautiful or musically intriguing hip-hop that I’ve not given myself the chance to even hear, I would sincerely welcome your suggestions.

#3 Finally, there was a third current to my drifting away from pop, and that would not have been possible without the digital revolution. Music executives can now take whatever song has been selling well—or preferably, for them, selling extremely well—and, by digitizing the entire song, can utilize this rhythm, that beat, this succession of bass notes or that techno effect that they believe are the reasons for a song’s commercial success—and insist that those elements re-appear in other songs by other artists. This is one reason why so much music that is meant for popular consumption sounds so much alike. It is being aimed at a hoped-for repetition of a commercial success. Innovation is thus thwarted—not eliminated, but thwarted. Being musically innovative in 2018 seems to be an uphill climb.

III.

ANYWAY, ALL of this self-indulgence about me—too much information, yes—is just a preface to re-iterate that some time ago I asked both of my sons to tabulate for me lists of their own—lists of the pop/rock music songs that meant the most to them over the course of their lives.

My theory—or contention, really—is that you can get to know a person—any person—the best and most accurately if you know what their music preferences are. No way, you might say? I don’t know, I think I can discern a great deal about a person’s emotional make-up and their general stance on life—extrovert/introvert, sentimental/phlegmatic, conservative/liberal, old/young—simply, and primarily, through their listening choices.

Obviously, getting to know my sons is not necessary, and that is not what I am expecting to happen through listening to their respective lists. They are simply helping me fill in a major gap from the late 80’s until right now.

I’ll start with selections from Jonathan’s list. Or lists, I should say. Jon actually gave me three lists, and it was no easy task for him to winnow things down. His first list is his Top 50 favorite songs from 1991 to 2018. His second list is his Top 40 favorite U2 songs. Jon has been a U2 fanatic since he first heard them at age 7. He’s travelled to hear them at least half a dozen times—to Chicago and New York and Philadelphia. His third list is his Top 36 Radiohead songs.

Lucky me, I have found new music to love in each of his lists. I will be posting, therefore, music that he loved that I now also love. I’ll note the songs that he suggested as they occur.

I’m getting a real start on filling in this 30-year gap!

My first “Jonathan” post will be INNUENDO by QUEEN, sometime in the next week.

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#240 AURAL ARCHIPELAGO

#240

AURAL ARCHIPELAGO

Auralarchipelago.com

THE WORK OF ETHNOMUSICOLOGISTS

I hope no one will mind a brief walk off the “Music I Love” road for this post.

Almost all of my Music I Love posts, with the exception of those dealing with Turkish music, have dealt with the western music tradition—going back in time about a thousand or so years. I have some planned future posts that will go further back in time to ancient Greece—there is actually extant music from that time, surprisingly, and some of it IS music I do love—but the common denominator among all of these posts, including that of Greece—and the common denominator of most of our collective musical experience—is that it is “western” in origin.

Geographically, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of “western” when we talk about the western music tradition. I personally would say everything west of Moscow and nothing further south than Israel qualifies as “western.” I suppose one could quibble about whether middle eastern and north African music has made its way into western music enough to be considered part of it. But I think that would be a stretch.

So, I’ll take the blame for the possible conservative inadequacy of my definition, which is simply to say all of Europe (western and eastern) and all of the Americas constitute, geographically, “western” when it comes to western music. That is a lot of territory, of course, and a lot of music, covering a lot of history.

But as large as it is, it is only a part of the world. The larger continents—Africa and Asia, with continuous histories of thousands of years—and therefore thousands of years of musical traditions of their own—are entirely excluded from our consideration. Actually, what I should say is that they are excluded from our knowledge, not excluded from our consideration. We do not purposefully ignore the music of other cultures. We just don’t know enough about it—yet.

That is where the work of musicologists—and ethnomusicologists—comes in.

A few definitions.

From time to time in my posts, I have mentioned “musicologists” without any commentary on the term. A musicologist is someone who participates in musical research. He/she is interested in the scholarly aspects of the analysis and history of music. There are different branches of musicology.

HISTORICAL musicology is what we would simply call “music history” and is what most of us can easily relate to.

SYSTEMATIC musicology is concerned with what I would call the scientific properties of music—acoustics, psychology, aesthetics, neuro-science and other similarly scholarly endeavors.

ETHNOMUSICOLOGY is the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people that make it. This is what I’d like to address today.

Although professional ethnomusicologists might find fault with my analogy, I always think of the ethnomusicologist as a music archaeologist. That may be romanticizing a bit what the ethnomusicologist does. But nevertheless, in the same sense that, say, Howard Carter and so many other archaeologists of the 19th and early 20th century were led by their thirst for knowledge, for the simple pleasure of finding things out about our past—it is through that same lens that I see the ethnomusicologist, led by in inexplicable desire to know cultures through their music. The knowledge is the ONLY reward, therefore it has to be a passion.

There have been some famous ethnomusicologists. Some names we know would be Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, who both traipsed all over the countryside of their native Hungary, lugging heavy and primitive tape recorders to find the melodic and rhythmic roots of Magyar folksong—as did Leos Janecek for the folk music of Moravia. Bruno Nettl examined the music of Native American indigenous peoples. Hollis Urban Lester Liverpool—better known simply as “Chalkdust”—is a living ethnomusicologist (and performer) who concentrates on the calypso tradition of the West Indies.

These are the famous names. But most ethnomusicologists labor in relative obscurity. They have an enduring love of humanity mixed with a passion for music that pushes them forward in their studies and for which they expect no reward other than the knowledge they acquire. It is a selfless profession. You cannot help but admire ethnomusicologists, they are a rare breed.

Since the inclusion of “World Music” in most music curricula became standard a few decades ago, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several ethnomusicologists. If you know that particular look that astronomer Carl Sagan had—always in wonder and awe—in my observation, that is something that ethnomusicologists share. It’s like they see something the rest of us aren’t equipped to see…

Why this digression from my usual posts, to ethnomusicology??

Well, I happen to have a childhood friend, Debbie Wick, who, when she visited Tiraje and me last year, happened to mention that her son, Palmer Keen, is an ethnomusicologist, living and working in Indonesia, and that he has his own site: auralarchipelago.com. I have been checking auralarhcipelago out lately, and it is so good that I want to share it with everyone who reads my posts.

Spending time at auralarchipelago.com causes many very basic questions to rise to the surface:

• WHY does music exist? WHY have people from time immemorial HAD to have music in their lives? Is music ESSENTIAL to our existence—is that why? And if it is essential, WHY is it essential? Why do we find music not only existing, but thriving, all over the world, if we just look?

• How MANY musical instruments that currently exist—out there in the world—and how many musical instruments that have existed throughout history—do I have no idea about? How did they sound, and why did their creators make them sound the way they did? Can we say that there are basic, and perhaps inevitable, similarities among the instruments we can expect to find in culture at any time in history–that we WILL find stringed and percussive and wind instruments?

• When I hear music on strange instruments, or sung in strange ways that I am not used to—say, very nasally or throaty—is that a sign of a culture that is in an embryonic, less developed, stage–as compared with western societies? Or not? Given enough time, would we expect cultures that we regard as being different than our own to some day develop (musically) in a way similar to our western world? Is even thinking that way a conceit that we mentally thrust upon cultures BECAUSE they are different than ours?

• Why do some cultures rely on the passing down of a musical tradition through apprenticeship and imitation rather than some more systematic means of preserving itself?

• I think we expect to find melody in all cultures. But why do we almost always find harmony and rhythmic complexity, too? And should it surprise us when we hear major harmonies (as in, say, C Major) in cultures so far, historically and geographically, from the western world? Does this tell us something about the inevitability of tonality (as Leonard Bernstein seemed to have believed)?

For me, ethnomusicology is fascinating primarily because it makes me really think about these questions.

I once had a professor who started his first class of the year by asking, in a booming voice, “Is music the universal language?” Every student had to take a stand, yes or no, and defend—on the spot—the truth or absurdity of the statement. His particular stance was NO, it is not. I had answered YES.

His point of view was that only through the acquisition of a common music education can a person in this part of the world and another person in another part of the world share common insights about, say, the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. Only then is there a common “universality” to music. Without that education, the person hearing the Beethoven only hears noise. I wouldn’t go so far as to fully agree with that, but I understood what he meant.

My answer was more broad-based, though. Music, it seems to me, is something that exists everywhere because its existence cannot be denied. It is GOING to happen in every culture. In that regard, music seems to be a universal language. I was likening music to something elemental, like human speech. My professor was thinking in more specific terms, equating music to one language—the western language. If you don’t know French, you’d better not go to France…that seemed to be what he was saying.

How easy it is for me to start rambling…

I would strongly suggest, if you have even a slight interest, that you check out the AURALARCHIPELIGO.COM site. It is one of the most interesting (as well as most beautifully presented) enthnomusicology sites I have seen.

If you do go there, I would suggest clicking on “MAP”, where you will see the entire map of Indonesia. We sometimes forget how enormous Indonesia is–the 14th largest country in the world, comprised of thousands of volcanic islands—the alliterative “aural archipelago” is quite appropriate for Keen’s site. While you’re at “MAP,” you will be able to click on any of about 100 places where Keen has visited and where he has recorded not only the music from these individual places, but a story about that particular music and its Indonesian location and how interwoven these are. This is vintage ethnomusicological work, done for the love of the discovery.

As I’ve mentioned before, when talking about viewing my site, music-i-love.com—I would recommend Chrome or any other browser other than Internet Explorer for really appreciating this wonderful site. I think you will be intrigued, and it may make you think some of those same questions I always have—or questions of your own.

The television program VICE Indonesia has a brief, but informative, interview with Palmer Keen and how he regards his work–“Meet the American Cataloging Indonesia’s Endangered Indigenous Music.” It can be found at:

https://www.vice.com/…/meet-the-american-cataloging-indones…

 

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#201 AN APPRECIATION OF LISTENING

#201

AN APPRECIATION OF LISTENING
INCREASING OUR SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

[CAUTION – LENGTHY POST!]

Hello, everyone. Three weeks away from music posting seemed very long. I am glad to be back.

Compared to my friends, students, and acquaintances, I guess I was lucky to have gone as long as I did—66 years—without having had surgery for one thing or another. I’m writing this on a Monday, and I had surgery this past Friday. So I am three days out from having experienced general anesthesia, and I am a little surprised at the slow rate of getting back to normal. I’m still thinking slowly today, and with great effort (thanks in part, no doubt, to Percocet). But—maybe this is a good time to write, who knows, when each thought seems weighty and significant? 🙂

Actually, I am sure that nothing I say here will be particularly revelatory or original. Rather, it will be pure Music Appreciation 101, a reiteration of certain clichés. But, some clichés seem important enough, to me at least, to have instilled a heightened awareness of them at all times. It is this particular element—self-consciousness—that I would hope to arouse in anyone reading this, an encouragement toward greater self-awareness about our listening.

I probably self-consciously think about the phenomenon of listening to music at least once every day. I find the very act of thinking about it increases my listening pleasure—perhaps in a similar way to someone who does something athletically—serving at tennis or doing a layup in basketball or jumping over a hurdle in track—something that, although we may do it so often that we don’t have to think about it, the very act of thinking about it increases our satisfaction in doing it.
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There are really fine sources, of course, that specifically address listening to classical music. What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland, The Joy of Music and The Infinite Variety of Music, both by Leonard Bernstein, an entire audio/video COURSE devoted to the subject—How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg from The Great Courses—and the first half dozen chapters of any collegiate-level Music Appreciation text (Kamien or Machlis are exemplary)—all of these are highly recommended.

But before I even mention any of the things that these sources address—which deal primarily with art music—I want to talk on a more basic level.

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Everyone who reads these posts, it only seems logical, is a person who listens to music. Part of all our days—sometimes a substantial part—is spent listening to music. A world, or a life, without music would seem dry, maybe even empty, to many of us. There are many people who would say, if they thought about it, that they really cannot LIVE without music, or that it is hard to imagine their world DEVOID of music. For all of us, music is a necessity, not a luxury. Maybe it was always like that for us, or maybe it took a while for music’s roots to penetrate our souls. In either case, listening to music has become vital to our lives.

So, perhaps the first level of appreciating our listening might just be to acknowledge the fact that we ARE continually listening and that it is important to us. But if listening to music is that important in our lives, it might be worthwhile to think a little about just what it is we DO when we listen to music. Is listening to music different than other kinds of listening to anything? Is there a right and wrong way to listen to music? Do we listen to different kinds of music in different ways? And what about our equipment—our ears—what kind of thought do we give to them?

First of all, I think it needs to be stated—although this is probably obvious—that listening to music is NOT like listening to anything else. It is not like listening in a conversation; it is not like listening to the dialogue in a movie, TV show, or stage play; it is not like listening to the sounds of nature, or the sounds of everyday life. It is different from all these primarily because it is ORGANIZED and MULTI-DIMENSIONAL sound—its creators INTENDED it to be listened to in a different way than anything else.

[Btw, in my posts, whenever I would prefer to italicize or underline—for emphasis—I always have to capitalize because of the infantile limitations Facebook imposes on posting. So, whenever I use caps, I am NOT SHOUTING, just emphasizing.] 

And secondly, there is—I would opine—no right or wrong way to listen to music. There may be ways that afford more listening enjoyment than others, but there is no right or wrong, no superior or inferior. To be a bit magniloquent, I would compare appreciating music to loving. There may be both lightweight and profoundly deep ways of loving, but there is no good or bad regarding the fact that one IS loving.

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There is a spectrum along which our listening to music can occur. On one end of the spectrum would be “passive” listening, at the other end “active” listening. Passive listening, as one can guess, is in fact just HEARING the sounds that comprise music. We let the music, whatever it is, wash over us without reference to anything in particular, without thinking about it. I don’t know if any scientific studies have ever been done to determine the percentage of “passive” music listening for the population as a whole, as opposed to “active” (which I am yet to define). But I would guess that it is quite sizeable, and that it is, in any event, much more substantial than “active” listening.

There are many people who only listen to music passively—who perhaps use music in a utilitarian manner, to get into certain moods or as an aural accompaniment to some task they are doing—and are therefore only aware of THIS kind of listening—for them, there may be no other “kind” of listening. I would guess that the more important words—text—are to a piece of music, the easier it is to passively listen to the music. We focus on the words to the exclusion of the music, all the while knowing on some level, that the music is the river upon which the words flow.

But I don’t say this about passive listening judgmentally or with a derogatory slant. I have long thought that the best audience, regardless of the music being performed, is comprised of this very kind of listeners. The best listener being someone who is sensitive—in life, sympathetic and empathetic to others and with an appreciation of the sensual side of life—but also without any musical knowledge, bringing nothing to the table, so to speak, in terms of appreciating music in a more “active” way.

I have to say, I have long envied these listeners. They experience music in a very direct, basic way that becomes increasingly difficult, almost impossible really, for the musician, who cannot turn off his “active” listening apparatus. Sensitivty is key to the passive listener’s enjoyment.

There are, of course, different degrees of passivity. The person who is working in the kitchen or the garage and is listening to music does so passively. The person who is watching a TV show or a movie and is hearing music in the background is, most often, listening passively. The person listening to the marching bands in a parade may or may not be listening passively. The common denominator among passive listeners is that they are not thinking analytically. Their experience of the music is immediate and without thought. It is essentially sensual.

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OK, it is now two days later. Much less pain, but not much more mental clarity, even though I abandoned the Percocet. So, I’m sure my gems of wisdom—as they will no doubt appear to me, of course—will still be more like riverbed rocks. 
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At the other end of the spectrum from “passive” listening, then, is “active” listening. I remarked above about the multi-dimensionality of music. It is here that the various music appreciation textbooks could come in handy. Most mus app texts are primarily concerned with classical music, but there is no reason they need to be. The parameters they address—rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, and form—are present in all kinds of music.

It is the self-conscious observation of the simultaneity of these parameters—all occurring in a linear moving-ahead timeframe—that constitutes “active” listening.

I am guessing, probably correctly, that any reader of these posts is already well-acquainted with what each one of these parameters involves. In an effort to assist the whole process of self-conscious listening, though, I would only offer a few suggestions as to an “order or priorities” in active listening.

TIMBRE
I happen to single out the TIMBRE of whatever I am hearing as being a first priority. The sound quality(s) of the voice or the instrument—what KIND OF SOUND am I hearing? On what gut-level does it appeal (or not) to me? Is the voice male or female, earthy or shrill, vibrato or no vibrato, in what way does it correlate to anything I’ve ever heard before? What kind of instrument is this? Does it immediately appeal to me, and if it does, why does it? Does it have reverberance, how would I describe the sound in words, what would I guestimate the range (low pitch to high pitch) of this instrumenty is. Can I tell if it’s amplified? Am I hearing more than one instrument—if so, how many—how many am I aware of? The questions one can ask, and observations to be made, simply about timbre are pretty wide-ranging.

A personal story. Timbre has always been the first thing I have observed about music, and I think this may stem from an experience I had when I was probably five years old. We were on “family vacation” on my uncle’s farm in northern Ohio. Being on “the farm” and in the country in general were not common experiences in my five-year old suburban life. Everyone had been invited one afternoon over to another farmhouse. These were relatives, and they had a daughter who had mental health issues. These, of course, were not known to me, nor would they have had any meaning to a five-year old anyway. This young woman, probably in her late-twenties at the time, was completely enraptured by music. In the living room of this farmhouse were spread out her musical instruments—a harp, a series of brightly-colored bottles with different amounts of water in them to produce different pitches when struck, and a marimba! The parents of the girl were obviously going to some length to indulge the girl’s love of music. Music seemed to literally be her reason for living. Why else would she be so passionately involved in making music, living a solitary life out in the middle of nowhere and performing for no one except herself? Anyway, she gave a “concert” of probably an hour’s length to maybe a dozen people sitting around that crowded living room. My main memory of this event is not the music she played—I think probably a lot of it was whatever she made up on the spot—but the SOUNDS of these instruments. I got chills up and down my back—chill after chill—listening to the sounds of these instruments. I was just astonished at the SOUNDS. I think that ever since then, my initial reaction to all music I hear is the sound quality of the instruments or voices I hear. It really woke something up in me.

When students tell me of having this experience—chills at hearing sounds—I take that as an indicator, a prerequisite, really—of being a musician.

RHYTHM
But it’s not that way for everyone, I know—timbre may not be the first thing you become aware of when listening to music. Rhythm is the most basic, and evolutionarily speaking the oldest, of all music parameters—and there is a natural tendency to gravitate toward it immediately when listening to anything. Even the most presumably unmeasured music—chant—actually has, if one listens to it closely, rhythm. Since our speech has a rhythm to it, it may simply be impossible for music not to imitate that.

Intentional awareness of the rhythm—its simplicity or complexity, or how it varies from what, in your experience, is the “expected”—can only enhance your listening pleasure. At this particular moment, two rhythmic things just popped into my mind—the Dances of the Young Girls from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Good Day, Sunshine by the Beatles–thousands of other instances—for me and for you—could just as easily have come to mind.

Rhythm captures our attention, and rightly so. Being aware of what is happening rhythmically is enjoyable, particularly when there are, either sequentially or simultaneously, different rhythms occurring. Very few works of music, however long or short, can be successful without capturing our attention rhythmically.

MELODY
How to define melody? A group of successive notes utilizing different pitches, few or many, with a perceptible dynamic shape, soft and loud tones painted on a canvas of silence—I think would be the simplest, and probably adequate, definition. In the piece I am listening to, am I hearing melody? Are they long melodies or short? Can I discern dynamic shape in these melodies? Do they, for instance—in typical phraseology from time immemorial—start softly, build to a climax, and then subside? Would I characterize this particular work or song as being primarily melodic? Does the rhythm of this melody help or hinder its expression? If what I am listening to has lyrics, in what way does the melody contribute (or not) to the conveyance of these lyrics?

How many melodies would you say you know? We all have a large repertoire of remembered melodies, many more than we might first think would be the case. I would imagine that if you thought about—say, you are in a game show—“Name That Melody”—that you would certainly have hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of melodies you could quickly identify.

Melody may be THE main identifier that many of us have with the music we love. It may also be, of the parameters of music, the easiest one to be self-conscious about recognizing.

HARMONY
Longtime readers may remember a series of (as of yet, unanswered) questions I once posed as being things worth thinking about. One of those questions has to do with: is there a musical parameter through which each of us PRIMARILY relates to music, a road which we PREFER to go down when listening to whatever we listen to? I don’t know what others would say. Maybe all my musical friends—all of you—are well-adjusted and democratic with regard to all music parameters, and they are equally important to you. I would like to think that of myself.

But I know it is not true. Harmony—the listening to different voices or instruments or both—has always been the parameter that I relate to the quickest. When one studies a little about acoustics and physics—only a little, I am certainly not well-read in either topic—but when reads enough, you soon become aware of how harmony—sympathetic vibrations—are just part of nature. That is one reason harmony sounds so good to us, so grounding. We are literally experiencing a connection with nature, with natural law, when we experience it. Maybe that is why I—and others—feel such an affinity for harmony.
In this work I am listening to, IS there harmony? Does the melody ride on top of a harmonic foundation, thereby receiving extra “support” from it? Is the harmony I am hearing concordant or discordant? And why do I think, regardless of its concordance or discordance, the composer wrote it this way? Toward what end? Why do I think he relied on harmony at all? How many voices or instruments is this harmony spread across—two, three, five, a dozen? For that matter, how good is my ear at hearing how many different voices or instruments are sounding? Can I get better at this by simply more astute listening? [The answer is yes.  ]

FORM
Music has form. Or, more accurately stated, music that attracts our long-term interest, has form. In general, the same can be said about all art. Form is a tool that the composer uses to attract, and then maintain—and sustain—listener interest. Form relies on repetition, and variety.

A discussion of the various forms of music, and their interesting histories, whether in art music or popular music or jazz, is not my intention here. But rather, it is to simply note that listening FOR form in all the music we hear can increase our listening pleasure. When we purposefully take note that the music I am hearing at the moment, I just heard a few minutes ago, or when we note that it seems like this particular musical thing—this motif—keeps coming back again and again—when we take note of the architecture of the music we are hearing, we are in effect following in the composer’s mental footsteps. Like everything else we are hearing in this work, we know that nothing is accidental, least of all the form a composer has chosen.
Whether it’s the verse-refrain/ verse-refrain of pop songs or hymns, or the time-honored sonata form of much art music—or any of a myriad of other forms—our listening experience can only be amplified by being observant of its presence.

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OK, folks, once again I apologize for my verbosity—and this, while my head feels its under water. Imagine what a verbal burden I would be if I was feeling normal. I guess I have really missed my daily writing!

My intent in this post is just to inject some self-awareness into all of our listening experiences. Listening to music, we all agree, is one of the great things about the experience of life. Anything we can do to enhance it—especially if these are simple and free things to do—can only make our lives better.

The more I write, the more questions I think of to ask. And with that realization, the more inadequate my writing appears, and in particular, the more obvious my short-changing of each of the above topics. But I take solace in the knowledge that we all love music enough to be thinking these thoughts in the first place.

A couple of final things:

• Listening to the quality of a performance—and especially, comparing it to other performances—is a topic for another time.

• It is perfectly possible to multi-task, by the way, and mix passive with active listening. My wife Tiraje and I represent the two extremes of this ability. She can be busy creating a dinner feast with all that entails, carrying on multiple conversations while doing it—and if there is music playing on the radio or TV, she could—if asked—go right to the piano and play whatever she was hearing, observing its form, harmonies, relating it to this or that other music that she knows. Her sister Meral can do the very same thing. I think really gifted musicians can do this. Lesser humans, such as myself, really prefer to concentrate ONLY on what one is listening to without doing ANYTHING else—that is my “active” listening nirvana.

Thank you to anyone who actually has read this whole post!

I’ll resume my music posts in a couple days. In my first dozen or so posts: Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, Bach Cantata #20, Hindemith Viola Sonata, James Bond movie themes, Mozart Piano Concerto #12, Donovan’s Catch the Wind, Michel Camilo’s Caribe, and the Sibelius Second Symphony. I have also not forgotten about the Beatles. MEET THE BEATLES, their first American album, is upcoming soon.