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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.


TV and Podcasts as Pleasures, Guilty or not.

I used to feel that somehow television was an embarrassment, that only the uneducated or dull watched tv. However, I am admitting that besides my guilty pleasure of The Young and Restless, I do spend time in front of the tube.

Part of its legitimization arrived again- through my daughter. She is a writer, a most down to earth, erudite and knowledgeable, an every new- trend- kind of person. She was aware of NPR, Mark Maron and his WTFers, This American Life, The Moth and many other shows even before my husband. (These, by the way, are podcasts or what used to be called radio shows).

Because of her, last year I went to Massey Hall to hear Ira Glass from This American Life Show.  As stated on their web site: ”  There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. For example: 477:

Getting Away With It

OCT 19, 2012Stories of people breaking the rules fully, completely and with no bad consequences. Some justify this by saying they’re doing it for others, or for a greater good. Some really don’t care. And, unlike the mealy weaklings you usually hear on this program: None of these wrongdoers seem regretful about what they’ve done in the slightest.”

Glass or another interviewer begins with the context, the overview, highlighting the theme that will pervade the three stories that will unfold. In each, a person retells  their narrative that develops in some way the underlying motif for the episode. Sometimes the interviewer poses questions; sometimes not.

The results are often funny, witty, insightful, surprising and it makes you remember that life is, in deed, stranger than fiction.

So, back to Ira Glass at Massey Hall.

Glass regaled his listeners with amazing stories of the people he has culled for the show, almost like a Ripleys Believe It or Not. Wonderfully and unexpectedly, he begun this show  at Massey Hall in total darkness, reminiscent, I suppose, of the old days of radio where the family gathered around the talking box  in murky light.

But I can also imagine the power of FDR’s fireside chats between 1933- 1944 as people awaited some news or expression of hope to keep them going  during black days.

Or maybe this is a television or movie- induced image I have incorporated into my fantasies.  Likely not though, as even my parents remembered the impact of these communications between the cheery-voiced president and the fearful public.

At Massy Hall, I was amazed that there were so many young people in attendance and it was full to the rafters. Yet it should have come as no surprise: considering this younger generation lives with earbuds firmly attached like electrodes to their heads.

Nowadays of course, with technology stopping up their ears, they/we are multifocused, on hearing, seeing, walking or involving themselves/ourselves in athletic and aesthetic endeavours: we can exercise or via iphone, receive a description of a painting . It’s as if all of our senses are lit up at once, not only one sense focused and receiving full attention.

In any case, daughter #1 was listening to an Ipod discussion that featured well respected and well- known critics who were being asked who, in their opinion, was the most evil person ever. One said Hitler, the usual, but one actually contributed “Victor Newman”. For those who scorn Y&R, Victor is the archetype of evil, not of the Joseph Campbell variety exactly, But Victor does mangle, manipulate and manoeuver his kinfolk, especially his rival in Genoa City, Jack Abbott.

The others on Ipod radio show laughed, but all were quite aware of the name Victor Newman. I considered that if this high class group admits their awareness of the lowly soap opera, then who am I to demure, “Who?” and play innocent.

And just like being unable to eat one piece of chocolate cake, I opened the refrigerator door to other delicious and forbidden treats.

But I am not alone. Downton Abbey has been accepted as something people do and converse about, scurrying home from a family supper on Sunday nights, to ensure they discover what bon mot Maggie Smith will emit.

And that’s another validating point, MAGGIE SMITH, as in Dame Maggie Smith, British actress- and as we always take our theatrical leads from London who has legitimized base popular culture ( you baby boomers may remember her from “ all of them are Brodie girls”, especially hapless Mary MacGregor)– even in the privacy of our own homes.

So we pretend that fancy costumes, elegant abodes and the gift of the British actor elevates the lowly conflicts ( think of Lady Mary’s  bed indisgression with Mathew’s friend from the middle east in one of the early shows) of a higher class of television show. Truthfully, popular culture has been infused with some great acting and excellent stories.

Last year Treme exposed corruption in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. The performances were heartfelt and the jazz, especially the music by Elvis Costello, Kermit Ruffins the Marysalas and many other greats provided superior and entrancing viewing. The politics, the impact of the storm seen in various locales, the smell of the cooking, the buoyancy of the city and lesser environs to cope were all educational and riveting.

Of course, it is a show, not real life, but all the same, enough pieces are true enough to patch together a verisimilitude, a cross quilt of better understanding and exposure of issues and people.

And although Dexter was gory and double-edged as a serial murderer of only those who deserved death, there was a fascination with him as a character. Unlike the bang-bang way too much killing and violence on say, Boardwalk Empire where so much blood , bullets and babes become so de rigueur that the viewer becomes ( hideously) inured to the killing ( well, ho hum) as perhaps Bonnie and Clyde did along with  Reservoir Dogs, the complexity of character, the Jekyll and Hydeness of Dexter’s torment as a feeling  psychopath was, for me, intriguing.

My friend who gives the book talks hated Dexter and would not participate in watching the show.  Like the holocaust books that I sought out as a child, the pull of the shivers, the capacity of people to commit evil drew me in. Will we ever forget John Lithgow’s mesmerizing Trinity Killer and not tremble at his coldness? I was transfixed by the ghastly as I awaited his nemesis and the denouement to remake the world in smiley faces and inflated pink hearts.

Perhaps that is why I am always disappointed as I anticipate that evil / the bad in the world will be avenged by the good as the merciful angel slays all the wrongdoers and justice will be done.

And Charlotte Rampling, that once gorgeous film actress as Dexter’s haggard psychiatrist Dr. Vogel who had developed  Harry’s Code for good and evil? Even the once- so- sexy Charlootte Rampling reminded me again that time passes, and all things and people change and wither as they must. That baby boomers like  Rampling will be ravaged by time, and that even ironically the most beautiful icons we revered in our youth will succumb, but also-

that personal and professional are distinct;

that hate and love are interwoven;

and that too often bad things happen to people who want to bring or are good.

Silly me. I find comfort in the Y&R. With my cup of herbal tea, I visit ,am often bored with, but still  indulge my guilty pleasures.

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