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Saturday morning quote #29: Hearing music

December 10, 2011

Today, music is everywhere.  In fact, it is much more difficult to avoid a constant and sometimes most unwelcome assault on the senses and irritating inundation via movie soundtracks, commercial jingles, indescribable tinny white noise that might once have been rock music now squeezed out of tiny overhead speakers at the grocery store, odd scraping noises coming from some otherwise normal-looking person’s ear buds at the library, loudly throbbing automobiles with drivers pretending to be inconspicuous while stopped at the traffic light that takes ten minutes before finally turning green but not before you’ve developed a migraine from the noise, fumes, stress and general sense of gloom and dismay.

Of course, at this time of the year there is the ubiquitous commercial Christmas music seeping out of every orifice at every retail establishment like a noxious vapor; music that tells us to lighten up, ignore the messy weather, forget about the doomed economy, never mind the impossibly stupid traffic – just get with the program and buy stuff (more on this topic later).  Suffice it to say that, while we hear music everywhere, do we really hear music?

Our quotes today are from Scottish poet James Beattie (1735 – 1803) from his Essay on Poetry and Music, as They Affect the Mind (1778).  I was easily drawn into the essay by Beattie’s charming introductory remarks:

I am well aware of the delicacy of the argument, and of my inability to do it justice; and therefore I promise no complete investigation, nor indeed anything more than a few cursory remarks.  As I have no theory to support, and as this topic, though it may amuse, is not of great utility, I shall be neither positive in my assertions, nor abstruse in my reasoning.

Beattie proceeds to describe the difference between merely possessing the sense of hearing and having the gift of a true musical ear.

Everybody knows that to hear, and to have a relish for melody, are two different things; and that many persons have the first in perfection, who are destituted of the last.  The last is indeed, like the first, a gift of nature; and may, like other natural gifts, languish, if neglected, and improve exceedingly if exercised.

In essence, there is hope, since a musical ear can be developed.  Taking some pains to describe how melody and harmony are used by skillful composers to “withdraw the attention from the more tumultuous concerns of life,” Beattie uses an appropriate analogy to make his main point:

…Natural sensibility is not taste, though it be necessary to it.  A painter discovers both blemish and beauties in a picture, in which an ordinary eye can perceive neither.  In poetical language, and in the arrangement and choice of words, there are many niceties, whereof they only are conscious who have practised versification, as well as the works of poets, and rules of the art.

In like manner, harmony must be studied a little in its principles by every person who would acquire a true relish for it, and nothing but practice will ever give that quickness to his ear which is necessary to enable him to enter with adequate satisfaction, or rational dislike, into the merits or demerits of a musical performance.

I would go a little further in adapting Beattie’s remarks to fit our environment of excess today.  Because we are surrounded by a constant barrage of music, developing true taste and understanding is an even greater challenge.  Those who would pass judgement on musical quality based on whether it fits the cookie cutter ideal, force-fed to us by the music industry, would do well to learn the difference between musical value (composition, content, performance) and production value (volume, compression, multi-tracking and other attributes of electronic enhancement).  Live music is always best, and live music played without the involvement of electricity is real music.

Yes, we have a Christmas CD, Duo Seraphim, which the instinct of survival forces us to mention, drowning out a more typical dignified reluctance.  But to give you a hint as to our approach, we quote a few reviews:

Ms. Stewart’s mezzo soprano imparts an authenticity to the medieval and renaissance pieces, while Ron Andrico’s minimal, yet intricate lute arrangements construct a uniquely poignant blend of flavors. As a jaded and sated holiday listener, I am drawn to anything lacking in kitsch, and there is nothing I’ve heard this season further from the manufactured art of American Christmas than Duo Seraphim. Surely, this is listening to holiday music without listening to “holiday music”.

-Richard Banks

There is no problem of accessibility on “Duo Seraphim: Lute Songs & Solos for Advent & Christmas Tide” from the lutesong duo of lutenist Ron Andrico and vocalist Donna Stewart. Although most of the program reaches far back into the centuries, Donna’s pure voice and Ron’s accomplished playing make for a familiar sound, stripped of all excess and completely free of modern “production.”

-Gerry Grzyb

The CD would make the ideal Christmas gift for lutenists and anyone who prefers to celebrate the season of peace and goodwill far from the madding crowd of commercialism.

-Monica Hall

I just bought this at one of their concerts and I can’t stop listening to it. This is nothing like most Christmas albums. If you celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday this will have special meaning for you, but even if you don’t, the music is so peaceful it will become a favorite. I can feel my blood pressure going down from the first note. Donna Stewart has the most beautiful voice I ever heard, and they are just as great live. Don’t miss a chance to see them if you can.

-Customer review by Bill (Syracuse, NY)

  1. Hiya,

    I love to read this blog!!!

    I detest crappy distorted music being blared at us outside of stores everywhere. I consider it an aural assault. And as a Jew at Christmas time, OY!

    You wrote that “live music played without the involvement of electricity is real music.” I have heard plenty of “real music” that did in fact involve electricity. Every bit as real as unamplified music. Perhaps there is a better word than real to describe the difference? I think what makes “real music” has more to do with the intention of the performer than the tools/medium of expression. Richard Thompson playing a Fender strat through a Deluxe is absolutely “real music” That said, there is something about unamplified acoustic music that stands in a class of it’s own.

  2. Hello Will:

    Thanks for reading and for your insightful comments. Yes, I deliberately and provocatively opined that real music is made without electricity, a statement I stand behind. You know I am one who likes to get to the heart of the matter and, in this case, I have to say that I thought a bit about that statement before tapping it out.

    I am dismayed that people are not learning real skills and just choosing turning on the machine. We, as a collective technology-dependent culture, have learned that we can shortcut the process of gaining real knowledge – and converting it to authentic wisdom – simply by turning on the computer and grazing at that vast buffet table of information that is the internet. While there may be some nutritious fare on the table, it’s mostly sugarcoated fluff, much of which is pure poison. Surfing for information is not the same thing as gaining practical knowledge from actually doing something real.

    As a music teacher, I see far too many people stopping short of learning to play their instruments when they realize that technology will easily fill in the gaps of skill and practical knowledge one gains through the tried and true methods of practice and conditioning. I don’t discount the value of technology as a tool for the skilled to enhance a product that is already well-crafted but I am unimpressed by people who attempt to mask an absence of skill with clever packaging alone.

    In music, I would like to see people concentrating on compositions and/or interpretations that sell on the merits of quality and substance, then give them the treatment. Richard Thompson would probably agree, since he started out playing real music before plugging in. I know I am a dying breed but there it is.


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