05 April 2012

Notes for a Short Lecture

Here begin my notes for a short lecture about -- “music” -- as if I could even begin to talk about all the things music means to me... but here's a start:

“To some it is Napoleon, to some it is a philosophical struggle, to me it is allegro con brio.”  Arturo Toscanini

Five of us attended Tuesday night a talk on the mathematics behind sound. We learned that people progressively lose their hearing, that school kids can keep ring tones secret from their teachers if pitched high enough, that sound is a transmission of energy, not a movement of molecules, although they seem to move a bit, too, and we saw this demonstrated by a Slinky.

All this, and I still don’t know (or know enough about)...

Why I prefer Mozart and Dvorak over most other composers. Well, I sort of know.

Why I like hearing music in the first place.

Why I listen to anything, but play only classical.

Why the best musicians turn professional and many then lose their love of performing.

What music does that makes it so pleasing – or unpleasant.

How the thought that we now need a series of chromatic eighth notes in a particular order at a particular tempo at specific pitches for a specific length of time with a slight emphasis on the second of each group of four, at an increasing volume that gradually separates itself from the surrounding sounds in order to bring the listener’s attention to itself – I don’t know how something inside the player can direct limbs and fingers to create the conditions – virtually instantly – to produce these particular notes in that particular way – and then to be able to repeat the sequence when needed.

Why one performer astounds and another bores.

How playing music is similar to learning a language. It is exactly like learning a language.

What one piece of music for cello is my favorite.

Can one separate the composer’s biography from the music? Should one?

Composer’s “signatures” – repeating tropes – and why no one objects to this kind of shorthand.

The alienated feeling in an orchestra vs in a small group; the dysfunction of groups.

Whatever happened to music / art / culture in the schools?

Why I like one cello more than another; why I like mine.

The effect of a bow on a particular instrument.

Why we think of “baroque” music (approx. 1600 - 1750) as so exotic it requires different instruments and bows and styles to play well; and we think that those things are just ‘normal’ and usual when playing “classical” music. In other words, why is one era exotic and another just the usual thing?

The answer may lie in the sheer volume of music written in the classical era – 1750 - 1900. That’s the sweet spot for great stuff and it’s when most modern instruments reached their final/highest development.

I’m talking here of classical music, because in truth, although I love many genres and hear lots of different kinds of music, I most prefer the classic classical kind of music – the music that was created from Bach to Brahms – 1700 to 1900. That is my particular sweet spot, and in that two hundred year period can be found more than enough meat to feed me the rest of my life.

The music I usually play spans maybe 200 years. The music I listen to (other than classical) spans only my lifetime – from the 1950s to the present. Life would not be worth living without the blues, early Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, John Prine, Ry Cooder. If I was deaf I’d feel it through the thumping and vibrations.

I started out on drums because the idea of banging on things appealed to me. A lot. Based on a written test I apparently aced, which was administered to graduating sixth graders in San Francisco, on the first day of Band, Mr Jenkins from the string orchestra entered the room, called my name, and asked me to drop the drumsticks and follow him next door, where another room full of junior high adolescents awaited. The tall girls and boys were put behind basses. The smallest people on violins. In the middle, violas; and I guess the regular-sized people on cellos. The rest is history.

We played on beat up instruments that had been banged upon and carried home for probably decades, predating the Civil War, or at least WW II. We used gut strings, which made our sound warm and appealing, but those strings were devilishly difficult to keep in tune and when one snapped it could slap you in the face. To this day I’m chary of staring down at the high quality steel strings on my current cello.

Think about it: A middle sized middle school in a middle sized city had a band teacher, a band room and all the instruments; and a string orchestra, a strings teacher, and all the instruments. I was there for two years. In the second year the people who had started with me were performing Beethoven’s Fifth symphony (well, parts of it) for the school assembly. Our school colors were red and gray. I’ve always liked red and gray together.

When I got to my private boy’s college prep high school, entrance by examination only, no tuition, music existed there because the charismatic English teacher (also a published writer) sponsored some boys who wanted to try playing in a string quartet. We performed for the school assembly, too. But the difference, even then – public schools could sustain large music programs – private schools maybe not so much. This is an important point: The boys who played instruments in high school and later, often got their start as I did, in a public school band or orchestra. These graduates still staff the bulk of amateur orchestras and fill the ranks of amateur chamber music workshops, and the audience for classical pieces. And we’re very very gray these days. Joselyn started on the violin in school.

My mother much preferred cello over drums, so she bought me lessons. Three memories stand out from that period: 1. At my teacher Bonnie Hampton’s house in Berkeley I glanced into what I remember as a dark, dimly lit room, and saw the famous Griller String Quartet talking with each other in rehearsal, with Colin Hampton on cello. They appeared to me as tired, strange, old men who smelled musty. I never heard them play. 2. One day at the SF Conservatory where Bonnie also taught, while waiting for my lesson I heard another cellist, my age, playing for the teacher. After a few seconds I had the startling realization that I would never be able to play nearly as beautifully, and I’d better think of a different career than music. 3. Lest you think I was always graceful about all this: I hated practicing so much that my mother ended up placing a kitchen timer in my room and starting it when I picked up my cello. At one point I reached into my closet and punched a fist sized hole through the side of the cello, right through the canvas case. The violin shop in Oakland fixed it as if it had never happened. I told my parents I had dropped it. They never disputed that tale, the same way they believed I hadn’t been leering at the bra ads in Sears catalogs.


Speaking of the best violins in the world... they are difficult to identify, even by experts, blindfolded.

About the difference between mechanically produced music (aka drum machines) and human made -- try this. If you have a metronome (you can download a metronome app on your smartypants phone, too), run it along with some slower piece of classical music -- the slow movement of a violin concerto or sonata, say... and you'll soon discover that the better the performance the more "wrong" the metronome. In other words, part of the music is to push and pull the beat as needed to create the most powerful effects... often subtle enough not be noticed, but the metronome will pick it up as it goes out of phase with how the piece started. Same true no doubt with jazz and many other genres.

An excellent book and the one I mentioned this morning -- esp. the chapter where the author Arnold Steinhardt (first violin, Guaneri String Quartet) tries to recreate the experience of playing well with others is titled Indivisible By Four, A String Quartet in Search of Harmony, available in paperback. I can't find this book on my shelves, or I'd loan it to you. I mistakenly today gave Richard the title The Four and the One by David Rounds, which is also an interesting book on string quartets, but not the one I had in mind. Steinhardt's two books (the other is a first rate memoir, Violin Dreams) are very much worth your reading time. Lots of fun.

Another book -- in answer to the question "what is your one favorite piece of cello music?" is The Cello Suites, JS Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin.

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