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Comprehending Music

I am a visual art person. I have a Masters in Art History. I have always drawn and more recently started to paint. However, although I enjoy music, particularly, classical or what my grandsons refer to as “dinda music”, as my special name from them is “dinda”, I truly do not know how to listen.

My father’s avocation, vocation and passion was the perfection of sound and therefore, music. I rejected this aspect of my early life: unable to understand this link he shared with my musical sister. In any case, my lateral, visual- consuming brain would not have cottoned to the search for the purity of electronic calculations that snaked through circuitry, wires and tubes and out into the world to produce a more perfect realization of sound in installations that found their homes in university listening rooms. He was gifted. I see him in my mind’s eye at his workbench, a watchmaker perfecting each jewel until it became a masterpiece.

Both my sister and I were given music lessons at the piano. I did not practice, possessed no talent and as she demonstrated an ability that landed her in competitions and concert halls, even Massey Hall, I demurred and scowled. One day, I discovered a note from a piano teacher that exhorted my mother to stop wasting her money, that I was a lovely girl, but… When I confronted her, she said that people can be wrong. Well, this teacher was not wrong.

Eventually childish behavior loses its grip and we understand that our bratty actions only hurt ourselves and deprive us of something we may actually enjoy. So it was for me, allowing myself to go beyond silly jealousies and feelings of resentment. Eventually the dial on the radio came to rest on classical stations that attracted and calmed me.And lately I’ve been attending free concerts at the operahouse and exposing myself to a wide assortment of music from Indian ragas to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.

Sometimes I attend with friends, sometimes by myself. November 19, 2013 . Artists of the Glenn Gould School performed a Brahms Quartet in G Minor, Op.25. I pinched my eyes shut because it helps me concentrate on the music. Any visual stimulus distracts me and the setting for these one hour concerts is glorious: all floor to ceiling windows on University Avenue, the old colour-turning trees in front of Ogoode Hall, people in a rush crossing the street- loiterers, even repairs on the Avenue draw my attention. I am suddenly delighted to pick out a bright red hat or intense yellow jacket in the gray throng that flows on the street. Pop, away from the sound and towards the visual I veer.

In critiquing art, I know the language. I can consider social context; I can examine the physical properties of shape, texture, line, colour, relate parts to whole; I can place the painting or sculpture within historical parameters, comparing or contrasting it with artists or art movements in the day, before or after. I can parse the elements as Albert Barnes did or reject that form of analysis: I can call up the critical interpretations by the Griselda Pollocks, the Clement Greenbergs, the Christopher Humes. Sadly I possess no such compass for music.

So as I listened, I saw things: I translated the beginning disruptive invasive sounds into Kandinsky’s bursts of colour on the canvas; the rising crescendos propelled me upwards towards multicolored stained glass windows in 14th Century Gothic churches,experiencing an almost ecstatic soar; the folkloric repetitions plummeted me back to earth , towards tables of beer mugs and camaraderie that recalled Brueghel’s swaying peasants, dancing and thumping one another on their shoulders. My friend heard motifs. I cannot say that I discerned them throughout the performance. I could entertain a movement from dark to light reminiscent of say,Michelangelo’s Adam parting the heavens in the Sistine Chapel, suggestive perhaps of from chaotic to collaborative from the commencement of the Allegro to the final Rondo all zingarese: Presto.

I wondered how others perceive music. Did they know the language, the arrangement of crescendos and diminuendos; were they were guided by their knowledge of the Baroque? I knew about Baroque in art: all those twisting tornadoes, staircases, oddly shaped pearls, overdecorated room, dramatic contrasts…. Were others like me content to just float on their emotional response? I seemed to be the only one swaying, moving my body to capture and respond viscerally to the instruments. Or maybe they swayed inwardly.

My friend said she enjoyed watching Jamie Parker, on the piano, stretching his stubby fingers to unbelievable octaves. I noted but did not pause on that technical triumph. It did not interest me. I thought, Renoir later in life also strapped paint brushes on his fingers when arthritis overtook his flexibility.

Just as a few weeks previously when Julie Hereish and Michel-Alexandre Broekaert from Montreal recently returned from studying in Vienna to perform here, I ventured they might be lovers, so entwined were they with one another and the music. Interesting threesome! I was transfixed by their faces and Julie’s graceful arms that never stopped lovingly caressing her cello. More emotionally engulfing than practical manoevers- at least for me. That day as at the Glenn Gould Artists’ performance, I reflected, the piano is the spine that supports and holds the music together. It is a champion in its own right, but essential to bringing out and together the music. It is a tender giant with power that dazzles for itself, but also kept gentle and tame as it plays nicely with the other instruments.

And I thought as I did seeing Kudelka’s new interpretation of Swan Lake: that these creators of dance and music are genius. Could my brain even stretch to imagine the difficulties of developing, and executing every single segment( for instrument or ballerina) that makes sense individually and ensemble?

On Saturday night, wise daughter #1 reminded me that there is a language, patterns and traditions that these composers began with en route to departing or reaffirming the precedent paths others had taken. Truly the artistry takes one’s breathe away- even if I do not know a way to officially understand it.

But I know it envelops my soul. It simply makes me feel differently! That’s the message in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch : art changes you: “ that a really great painting [piece of music] is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and particular… it’s a secret whisper from an alleyway- Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you” (Little, Brown and Company, 2013, p.758)

And because this is my blog, I cannot leave the topic without addressing the impact and importance that art has on our/everyone’s children: for itself and for learning. So here is my naked diatribe:

It is no secret that I love the arts and when I think that schools will not focus on them, or even worse remove them, I fret. My doctoral thesis work demonstrated their importance, particularly for at-risk students: motivating and providing a reason for staying in school. At the very least- administrators might look at the connection between math and piano, rationalizing that music raises those stupid scores that are supposed to indicate how well children have learned.

In 1980, Elliot Eisner , educational guru, wrote an (actually many) article listing what a child learns when she draws: problem-solving, contextual knowledge, relating segments, verisimilitude, physical control of tools, differentiation between real and imagined, competencies in multiple areas— and on and on. One crumby scribble opens up a huge range of learning opportunities. And I am quite sure the same applies to music, dance, and film.

Life without the arts? Unthinkable.

Lucky me to have sat for a blissful hour in a room reverberating and ringing with the resonances of magical sound. Maybe everyone comprehends in their own special way,ferreting out pleasure that makes sense to them alone. Like me.

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2 thoughts on “Comprehending Music

  1. Apologies to daughter #2 who sang with CCOC and Mendelsohn.

  2. How you described your emotional response to music is poetry itself! Unfortunately, classical music just isn’t a love of mine–not even technically. But I really appreciated your description of how you enjoy it–just lovely. 🙂

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