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Enjoying Our Music
Aunt Euphonia just downloaded a few tracks and she thought she would invite her friends over for Pernod Lobster with Coffee Grounds, followed by Maraschino Olives and Chocolate Sauce, washed down with some Pinot Vernis. She lined up some nice Reusner on the ol' CD player for background music. She already wore out The Edinburgh Tatoo's "Bagpipes at Dawn" and the Toronto Acidophilus Choir.
After a hard day at Whisperson's Quarry and Rockworld, Uncle Feducius though he'd come home and listen to some J. C. Bach on the fortepiano while making dinner. He turns it up (the stereo is in the living room) while he's in the kitchen, seeding the kumquats and putting them in the blender, after quelling the rebellion of his hungry dogs, Leatherette and Fuschia.
Sister Ethylene was just on the phone and and she claimed to have narrowly avoided a collision with a truckful of frozen Fauxturkeys, but she was grateful when you recommended putting on some music. You said, "Try some Gaultier, it's so soothing...I listen to it while I'm shaving the cat."
Musicians have heard many versions of these stories before, from well-meaning people who seem to think music is like mint sauce poured over life. It's in the elevator, it's in the car, your phone plays Bartok's Allegro Barbaro as a ring tone; it's the pandemic of Unattended Inspiration.
Let me suggest a point of view with which you might listen to our music. Imagine instead that I'm sitting at your elbow, intently playing you a 10 minute suite on the lute. It's as if the player and listener are the subjects of an Old Master painting, a rich interior scene with fireplace, furniture and doorways. A moment frozen. The painter is seeing and painting the strings, the carved rose, part of the back of the lute in shadow, the long bony fingers, my collar, the way the light glints on the varnish, on the glass in front of me. You see that he has skilfully suggested, by depicting my hand and eye movements, my inner dialogue with the composer.
A painting of a scene is mute. But a sound picture is a scene perceived through the mind's ear and eye - a synesthesia, as one sense stimulates the other. Whereas your eye and the painter's eye see only the details that matter to you, a microphone hears all the details the way a camera sees the entire picture, indiscriminately. So you hear not just music, but noises as well; a gut string squeaking, the sound of my finger touching the string for each pluck, a note in which the two strings of the course buzz slightly together.
In the music you hear details, but at other times you miss them, to catch them when half of the Sarabande is repeated with ornaments. In some bass lines, the thumb is very active. There are a thousand ways to pluck a string. There is a change of sound colour, as there is when I pluck the string at different points, or when lines of melody cross from one string to another.
The lute makes it obvious when an unfretted string is followed by an open one.
There is a subtle choreography to the playing, suggesting the dance's movements and suspensions, its cross rhythms and accents. From the differing arrival time of direct and reflected sound, your brain is subconsciously interpreting and inferring the size of the room. Perhaps you sense the effort and the player's involvment as breathing is heard more heavily in some passages, indicating greater physical and intellectual effort.
Our music is intended by the sound engineer, by the composer and player, for active listening. We intend to represent this interior scene in sound. Place your speakers at ear level, at the optimal distance and volume. Close your eyes and listen with all your senses. If you listen at too high a volume level (and this applies to the keyboard as well as the lute) the noises of string being plucked or struck, jacks clicking and thunking on the jackrail or fingers slapping, will put the sound picture out of focus. The impression of the interior scene is less strong with headphones, noises are more apparent, and the temptation to turn up the signal strength is great. What at first seemed like noise, soon becomes part of the image. The ear-filling, noiseless machine-like perfection of contemporary commercial music will seem sterile and uninteresting by comparison, lacking in texture, colour, and flavour.
Perceive the interactions of the form of the piece with its harmonies and melody. Eventually, after repeated hearings, you will hear a relationship between the overall scheme of the entire suite or sonata and the various movements, each with their characteristic rhythms. The composer has sought to exploit your feeling of fatigue and your expectation of the predictable, creating a narrative. The cadences of the work will mark the passage of time, like punctuation. They allow you to assimilate the successive phrases. The sense of time's passage is surrendured to the composer's manipulation. The ornaments and chord-spreading will fill out time where it needs to be felt, while the initiatives of melody will move the logic of the piece forward, or hold it back. According to your life experience of hearing music, you will interpret some pieces as melancholy, joyful or nostalgic. This is also a reflex of the brain's activity and its memory. There will be recall of motives, rhythms or shapes foreshadowed earlier. The relaxation of the piece at the final cadence will be felt, as the performer shapes the ending dynamically. I brush the strings with the quietest of movements - the dying fall.
None of this will be apparent to you if you accept the music only as a mist or fog, as if it were a ubiquitous odor, dividing your attentions and dulling the senses. This music is anything but soothing. It awakens the spirit and the entire body, beckoning with the force of the dance, the fascination with imagined reality. The muses (for whom music is named) visit and make you feel that you could play this piece. Instead of being the passive listener, you become the artist. You hear the composer's logic and sense their personality, and physical presence, even though they are long gone. It took hundreds, even thousands of years for this composition to be shaped by time and by the geologic movement of human civilization. It took my entire life to master the skill of playing this instrument, hundreds of hours to build the lutes, to select these and practise the pieces. Though it may look and as if I had just thought of this chord, that ornament, every inflection is intended. Don't let the experience be wasted by the lassitude of inattention. We are fortunate to be a part of such great imagination, able to sense the infinite, and a part of it.
Enjoy all of it, especially the silences at the beginning, ending and between movements. Tell others about the spirit-cleansing sensation that attentive music listening gives. Good music requires your full attention. The readiness is all.
Clive Titmuss ©, Kelowna, BC, Canada
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