Tweet seats and the misunderstanding of the concert hall

Greetings, musical thinkers.

This melosophian excursion will be somewhat polemic and might even resemble an Op-Ed article. That cannot be helped; in every country there are things one does not like or is very critical to.

That applies to Melosophia as well.

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Let’s start at home.

Very probably most people can answer the question “What is a bedroom, a hall, a kitchen?”. Most of us know what a church or a football stadium is. A gym is a clearly defined space, so is a restaurant.

But what is a concert hall? The answer is seemingly simple: A place for playing and listening to music, often classical music.

Yes, but what is its deeper function? That´s a very good question for a long winter or summer night.

Seen from the perspective of the experimental science domainology I would say that it is a kind of meditation hall. Actual meditation halls, and also churches, are in a similar way rooms and spaces for changing our brain- and heart-waves.

Brain-waves

For now, let´s limit ourselves to the concert hall as a place for housing classical music. The reason for this is twofold: 1) the volume level, often very low, and 2) the emotional-aesthetic content, often very intimate, introspective, and even fragile.

As to volume level we know that a small unruly child can quite easily disturb a symphony orchestra. Compare this with a hefty rock concert where even the most loud-voiced audience member couldn’t disturb anyone, or even make himself heard.

This is the acoustical reality of the the musician-listener relationship in different musical arenas. Classical can be more brittle than a crystal vase.

The psychological-aesthetic-emotional element is even more important. Here it is necessary to ponder different genres of music from a bird´s eye view. This is quite a task, and something that very few of us have done.

As a musical omnivore and private researcher into the mechanics of listening I suggest the following very broad generalizations.

Hard rock and similarly rough music with a lot of horsepower and testosterone: Very Yang, active, outer oriented music with a lot of Mars energy (sometimes Uranus and Pluto).

Pop (an enormous field by itself), easy going and easy flowing music, often keeping within the safe borders of the three minute tune formula.

Jazz often contains a lot of nervous, caffeine-like energy. All the solos and improvisation point to a strong element of show, display and virtuoso exhibitionism.

Classical is the oldest member of the genres, containing the most diverse music and exhibiting variety almost bordering on multiple personality disorder. To get an idea of its age, let me note that the nowadays well known Hildegard von Bingen walked on Earth about 1000 years ago. Compare this with pop and rock that isn’t even 100.

Now, older is not = better. I am just pointing out this age thing to show that classical music has a long pedigree. It is a old tree with many branches and confusingly many offshoot.

If we just look at similarity it´s rather easy to recognize and define something as jazz or rock, while classical music from different periods and composers might nor resemble each other at all, perhaps excepting the use of similar instrumentation. (There are definitely fewer saxophones and electric guitars in classical music.)

Now lets get back to our concert hall and imagine that we are going to a classical concert. You buy the tickets days or weeks in advance. The day arrives, you dress up perhaps, arrive at the concert hall. hang in your clothes and find your seat. You look around to see if any of your pals are here, browse the program and prepare yourself for what is to come.

The orchestra enters, applause. Tuning, then silence. The conductor and soloists enter, more applause. And now — the big silence before the storm. The concert can begin!

All these steps are a stairway, downward sloping, to slower vibrations.

One can of course argue that going to a jazz or rock concert includes a similar preparation and “tuning” of oneself. Expectations, dressing up, adrenaline, etc.

And important keyword is adrenaline. I know that there is a pre-concert “tuning” of ourselves also in jazz and rock. However in classical music this tuning is generally a down-tuning, like going from 440 Hz to 432. We are moving towards slower brainwaves. Slower, calmer, more relaxed, meditative.

the concertThe phrase “altered state” is actually very relevant for classical concerts. I am not saying that classical concert are always seventh heaven. On the contrary I can personally be very bored at times, especially when hearing classical “standars” for the nth time. But the room and the situation DOES inspire and invite slower brainwaves. (Of course this also depends on the program. Offenbach operetta would generate less Alpha than a Chopin nocturne.)

Without being religious about it (more than indirectly) I see the concert hall as a close relative to the church.We do not necessarily talk of God and Jesus, often we don´t talk at all, but the message that comes across is very spiritual.

Some people, including classical musicians, judge me as hopelessly conservative for saying this. In that case I suggest that they study their own sphere of work more closely. Mentally, in one´s head, one can be very much a contemporary person, immersed in social media, mobile phones and apps. But classical music, as a mature and even old genre builds on a heritage with very deep roots. It is in many ways not in harmony with, not “contemporary” with our society, especially not its technological development.

This is no error, there is nothing wrong with this. On the contrary, the aspect of not being with the times, is — when you contemplate the times, mass media spewing violence, trivia, entertainment and distracting link baits on us all — a good thing.

Not being with the times might even be the most important aspect of classical music!

I would add that in a world that is hypnotized by action, that cannot sit still for three minutes without hailing out an iPhone or similar gadget, classical music very much represents Yin, the still, feminine, inward looking and inward moving tendency. It is very centripetal, drawing us towards, not away from, the Center.

inwardPeople say that classical music is in a crisis. I would say several crises. Many modern composers are lost in private navel-gazing and can sometimes not even read music (!), while concert institutions are worried about the audience being too small, or too old. Hm, is somebody surprised when the genre itself is thousand years old?

If I ran a concert hall I would of course also think of how to get a full house. But my methods would differ from many current methods.

What happens today is very much a kind of popularization that I call walking all the way over the bridge. We can make a paraphrase of the subtitle of Nietzsche´s last book Ecce Homo and call it “how one becomes what one is not” (Nietsche didn´t have the last “not”.)

We have all heard of penis envy. Classical music suffers from pop-envy. I am sure that pop and rock musicians don´t feel that “Gosh, we have to learn from the symphony orchestras and dress in tailcoat from now on.” No, those genres are doing their own thing, trusting that it’s okay to present pop and rock AS pop and rock.

The classical field does not have the same self-trust and seems to reason in terms of “REMAKE”. I haven´t heard anybody say the word, but I can almost hear the thought: pimp my symphony…

Clearly the classical field is not content with things as they are. That is understandable and not strange. That people don´t appreciate it enough is admittedly a sorry state of affairs.

But what is even sorrier is that the classical field does not understand ITSELF!

When it starts to behave as if it was pop, then I would diagnose schizophonia. We are familiar with Nigel Kennedy´s coiffure and the low decolletages of many a female musician and singer. I have so far seen few midriffs à la Britney Spears, but things are bad enough as it is.

The relation with Internet, World wide web and social media is especially deplorable. Musicians who protest against their concert being filmed with iPhones are being reviled for it! The bad habits of an entire generation of ononists  — people who want to be constantly online, always On-On, never On-Off — are being accepted as normality.

That bad habits are turning into norm is no reason for accepting them. Not if we know what we are doing. But as I say, classical music has lost sight of what it is, and only looks at what it lacks, a large/ larger audience.

So it also becomes, in sorry Facebook fashion, a like-whore.

One manifestation of this desperate hunt for “likes” is tweet seats. A certain number of seats in a concert or opera hall are reserved for tweeters, ononists who cannot be without their favorite communication toy for two hours.

Nobody seems to want to use the word licentiousness (too long, too hard to spell) about this inability and disinclination to leave the mobile phone if not at home then at least in the cloakroom. No, we don´t want to make demands on the poor audience. We will go all the way over the bridge, so that they don’t need to use their tired muscles.

As I, a traveler in Melosophia, see it, this is the Royal Road to non-self-realization, to becoming what one is not. Classical music, after a truly wonderful past, is now about to lose itself to fashion, and not to musical fashion — which can be bad enough but is always expected — but to techno pop fashion, the craze for being online, not with the music and the slower brainwaves it engenders, but with the pals sitting at the pub asking where one is and why the hell one is so late.

ornament5bYes, this was something of a rant. Not everything is rosy in the world of music, if you thought so .-)

Thank you for joining me on this little excursion to Melosophia, a country whose citizens withstand, oppose and sometimes fall prey to the stormy winds of fashion.

The facdotal stuff, or, Musical toppings

On my journeys to Melosophia I am lead to many reflections about how we listen to music, and how we talk about it.

The first factor in no small degree influences the second; words get in our minds and into our ears. Words often “cover” our ears, so that we almost hear what we think. (Compare, the Emperor’s new clothes.)

Imagine a sandwich. Sure, the bread is important but most people will agree that it is what we put on it — cheese, salami, mozzarella, avocado, etc. — that makes it tasty and appetizing.

The toppings!
The toppings!

In his extremely funny book “The Bachelor Home Companion” P. J. O’Rourke describes another kind of sandwich: the sandwich sandwich.

“Two pieces of bread with a piece of bread in between.”

No, we cant have THAT. We must have toppings!

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Music also has toppings. But the relation between bread and toppings is the opposite here, at least in my view.

The “bread” is the first, most important and essential ingredient while the toppings are secondary, if not downright distracting and disturbing.

What are musical “toppings” then? Clearly not avocado or cheese. Musical toppings are sometimes visual but in classical music most often mental elements. (I would say the opposite situation in popular music. Lots of images, and “image”, less learned musical analysis.)

MUSICAL TOPPINGS:

  • Facts
  • musical analysis
  • history
  • anecdotes

We need a word for this, to distinguish bread from topping. I have coined the word “facdotal” for it, not perfect but not bad. The facdotal elements of music are not something we hear as musical sound waves. Still they get into our heads, as thought waves, concepts, ideas, theories.

And since our heads are used to and sometimes enjoy facdotal stuff (anecdotes can be great fun) we don’t mind our bread being covered with this fare.

Unless we do. And I do.

We know that hi-fi aficionados dislike noise and care very much about removing distortion. They are on a quest for clean, authentic sound. I can understand that, because I also want to remove distortion, but at another level. Not from the stereo or loudspeaker but from my head. This distortion is to a large degree toppings.

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The facdotal toppings of music can be seen as clothes. Let me be somewhat erotic and say that I often prefer my music naked. No cheese, no opus numbers, no anecdotes, no guru, no method. Just the plain essential bread of music. Music in itself, musik an sich.

Let me give two examples of oh so common facdotal toppings. They come from Wikipedia and concern Chopin’s Ballads. Let’s see what kind of mental invitations these comments are sending out, what they want us to think about.

Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, composed in 1831 during the composer’s early years in Vienna, was a reflection of his loneliness in the city far away from his home in Poland, where the November Uprising, a war against the Russian Empire’s
oppression of his people, was happening.

  • “early years in Vienna”
  • “reflection of loneliness”
  • “far from home”
  • “November uprising”
  • “oppression of people”

Quite a lot of heavy topping I would say, in just one sentence.

Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47, dating from 1841, is dedicated to Pauline de Noailles. The inspiration for this Ballade is usually claimed to be Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Undine, also known as Świtezianka.There are structural similarities with the “Raindrop Prelude” which was inspired by the weather in Majorca during Chopin’s disastrous vacation with George Sand. These include a repetitive A-flat which modulates into a G-sharp during the C-sharp minor section.

  • Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Undine [should I Google it?]
  • Świtezianka [?]
  • structural similarities with the “Raindrop Prelude” [okay…]
  • the weather in Majorca [ah, the weather!]
  • disastrous vacation with George Sand [George? I didn’t know Chopin was gay…]

And to top THAT let’s add the final touch of some technical jargon:

  • repetitive A-flat which modulates
  • the C-sharp minor section

That was a mouthful…

SandwichPlease understand that I am no enemy of knowledge or culture. Knowing things seldom hurt. However, thinking about what we know (or think we know; many anecdotes are just good stories) while at the same time absorbing music can obscure the essence and the “bread” of it.

That’s it for now, I am out of mental gas…. No final summing up, you have to do that yourself. Maybe over a big juicy pastrami sandwich.

Collection of silences: 1

As I wrote in my last post, classical music has a very close  — and happy, I would say — relation with silence. That can not be said about all genres of music, for example techno or dixieland.

But let’s not have a competition, trying to prove who is best and most superior. Let’s leave the question of genre and focus on silence.

Silence is not much to focus on, you might say.

But it IS. It really can be. In this series I am going to present a number of pieces where we can discover or rediscover silence.

Just as there are different kinds of music (happy, dark, violent, tender or listless) there are different kinds of silence. I will not be a boring professor and name them or make a catalog.

Let’s just sink our auditory teeth into these slices of “nothing”…

ornament5bI will start off with a classic, Claude Debussy’s “L’après-midi d’un faune”, a piece you might or might not know. If it is new to you, I envy you. Imagine, hearing this for the very first time!

Let me just point out, without talking about minutes and seconds, that silence is to be found at the very beginning of the piece.

Enjoy.

PS: Just one more thing. Even though I find the images to this video very poetic and congenial I recommend listening with closed eyes. At least the first time. Allow you ears the rare luxury to be exclusively pampered, leaving all other senses aside.

Closing our eyes…. isn’t this how life is? When we have a breathtaking experience — of food, nature, perfume, love — we close our eyes and savor it with our inner vision. This applies to music as well; by shutting off vision we strengthen listening. Especially in a world as visually overcrowded (littered?) as ours this should be mentioned.

Enough talk. Now music!

How is classical music unique?

So what’s so special about YOUR kind of music? some people ask classical musicians. As if we all were von oben snobs. Which some (a few) of us ARE, but that shouldn’t reflect negatively on the music.

Let me try to partially answer that question. And bear in mind that even though I am a classical pianist and composer I am no “homeboy”; as a listener I have traveled wide in the country of Melosophia.

So, a quick answer.

— If we compare different genres (classical, jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop, etc.) we can see that classical is an old beast. How old depends on how we are counting, but let’s say around thousand years? That’s old, an extra zero compared with other genres.

Old and I would say mature. Classical is out of kindergarten (even if we like to be scherzando childish at times).

hoffnung tuba-beer— It understands the values of softness, silence, meditation and inward turned centripetality. Classical music is not materialistic, praising money, fast cars and gold necklaces. Much of is it “religious”, turned towards a spiritual world.

There is no such thing as a gangsta sonata (but due to the unfortunate, modern tendency of desperately trying to be “with it” there might be one next year).

— Classical music has the highest level of Yin of the different genres, at least in our Western world. (Eastern music is a world to itself.) In a world caught up in Yang, often of a negative kind (action orientation, speed, stress, the fast buck, etc.) classical music can act as a balancing force.

— Classical musicians understand the meaning of long-term. Nobody ask how long it took a pianist to learn the pieces for his recital. And if it took a really LONG time, nobody says: The concert was an artistic success but a financial failure! We are (relatively) free from the germs of Taylorism and cost-effective hinking.

For example, Vladimir Horowitz was approached by a young fan after a recital.

Fan: Maestro, how do you play that phrase in bar 26 so beautifully?
Horowitz: Simple, my dear. It only took all of my life.

— The classical domain is far from a totally harmonious and ethical paradise, however, we do have a special place reserved for the Muse. It’s not just about our own careers and number of Twitter followers. The words inspiration, dedication and service (of things invisible) represent real values for us.

ornament5bThat is enough for now. However, check my first post about the silent aspect of classical: Collection of silences – 1.

The contents of Melosophia

Greetings

This first text is not going to be long, but high flying.

I mean that I will try to be like a bird and look “down” on music from above. What I see-hear is almost impossible to describe: all the sounds, rhythms, noises, instruments and voices.

To be able to talk about Melosophia we need some kind of language or mental models. (It is the same with wine, without a vocabulary we can only say “Ah… ohhh. I really like that A LOT!” or “This one tastes better than the first one”. Primitive, almost like being back in the Stone age.)

However, the usual technical descriptions and analytical tools are not used here. They refer too much to a micro perspective.

Be open to another perspective. At the same time, do not expect perfect analytic models. This is an exploration in progress.

ornament5bWhen I try to fly really high this is what I see in the wonderful country of music:

Tendencies (Yin, Yang, centripetal, centrifugal)
Talents (musicality, sight reading talent, etc.)
People (musicians, singers, conductors, etc)
Things (instruments, CD-s, etc)

Is something missing from this, surely incomplete, list? Music, of course.

THINGS are not very interesting. The PEOPLE of Melosophia are in many ways interesting. The TALENTS are extremely interesting, especially when seen as not only belonging in Melosophia but also in the world at large. (For example, the ability to listen and to hear well are essential for musicians, but also important in our everyday lives.) The TENDENCIES help us finding and seeing a larger perspective, as from a satellite in the stratosphere.

This was our short overture. Let the adventure begin.