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A note to the classically insecure
I WAS talking about music recently with a friend who makes his living cloning genes, manipulating molecules and investigating the pathways of the human immune system. This is a person whose intellectual molecules are clearly very well arranged. But he proceeded to tell me that although he loved classical music, when he listened to it he wasn't able to perceive anything other than his own emotional reactions.
Could it be true? Well, he thought it was. But he was wrong.
What my friend was expressing was merely a symptom of a common affliction, one that crosses all intellectual, social and economic classes: the Classical Music Insecurity (CMI) Complex. Immediate therapy was indicated.
There's no question, I pointed out, that he perceives more than just his own reactions. Lots more. In every piece he listens to he perceives changes, both great and small, in tempo, volume, pitch and instrumentation. He perceives melodies, harmonies and rhythms, and their patterns. He perceives, in short, virtually all the musical ingredients that composers manipulate to stimulate emotional effects, which is precisely why he's emotionally affected. His "problem" isn't perception - it's description. And what he doesn't know is the jargon, the technical terms for the ingredients and manipulations.
And why should he? He's a scientist, not a musician. And frankly, it's not even essential that he be aware of the specific musical and technical means by which his reactions are being stimulated.
Years ago I was rehearsing a piece for flute, viola and piano by the composer Seymour Barab. Mr Barab was attending the rehearsal, and the pianist asked him at one point if it was important to "bring out", or highlight, a certain clever rhythmic pattern. Mr Barab's instant reaction was to shout: "No! It's none of your business!"
Mr Barab's position, expressed in his inimitable fashion, was that it was not the performer's job to try to teach the audience, nor was it the audience's responsibility to try to pass some sort of test in rhythm recognition. If he, the composer, had done his job well, and had organised and manipulated his musical materials in a compelling fashion, the music would "work", and the audience would enjoy it.
It's sad but true that many people denigrate and distrust their own reactions to classical music out of fear that they don't "know enough", and that other, more sophisticated folks know more.
When people leave the movie theatre they rarely hesitate to give their opinion of the movie, and it never occurs to them that they don't have a right to that opinion.
And yet after most classical music concerts you can swing your programme around from any spot in the lobby and hit a dozen perfectly capable and intelligent people issuing apologetic disclaimers: "Boy, I really loved that - but I'm no expert" or "It sounded pretty awful to me, but I don't really know anything, so I guess I just didn't get it." At least those people showed up. Many others are too intimidated to attend classical concerts at all.
It's human nature to want to know more, and to try to understand and explain our experiences and reactions. And there's no denying that the more we know about music, as with cooking or gardening or football, the more levels of enjoyment are available to us, and the better we're able to recognise great achievement. Do we have to know the Latin names of flowers - or the English names, for that matter - to be moved by the beauty of a garden? No. Do we have to know about blocking schemes and "defensive packages" to be excited when our team scores a touchdown? No. But we find these things ... interesting. They add to our appreciation.
Barrier of discomfort
I'm all for knowledge - I've spent most of my career as a musician and commentator trying to help people learn more about music, and to remove any obstacles to the enjoyment of it. The CMI Complex is a barrier of discomfort. Experience, exposure and familiarity play critical roles in helping to lower that barrier, and a little learning, along with basic explanations of technical (and foreign) terms and concepts, can be of great value.
What is not of value, and is in fact completely off-putting and counterproductive, is the kind of introductory concert talk, review or programme note that uses technical terms rather than plain English to explain other technical terms and to "describe" musical works. Programme notes that use phrases like "the work features a truncated development with chromatic modulations to distant keys and modally inflected motivic cells", for example, do not exactly help to break down barriers and put people at ease.
Perhaps it's overly optimistic of me, but I still cling to the hope that, with the right approaches and experiences, long-time sufferers will feel sufficiently encouraged to go ahead and jettison the CMI Complex outright. I'd like the legions of actual and potential classical music lovers to believe that, like my friend the scientist, they hear more than they can name, and that the very point of listening to great music is to be moved, not to put names on what moves you. NYTIMES