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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Sound and Word

My inability to understand classical music, and to appreciate it on an intellectual level rather than just an emotional one, depresses me sometimes. I'm not adventurous in my choices of what to listen to; I go for the easy stuff, Beethoven's piano sonatas and symphonies, the well-known Mozart, Chopin, and -- the only Russian classical music I enjoy -- Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (the recording in which Patrick Stewart is the narrator).

Sound is a mystery to me. Scales, pitch, phrasing, timbre, the subtle nuances in the interpretation of a piece of music, are beyond me. I don't have a mathematical mind; perhaps that's the problem. I have never been able to read sheet music and hear the melody on the page in my head. I can't fathom how a composer transcribes the music he hears in his imagination into notes. I understand how words make up poems and prose, how color makes up a painting, how stone makes up a sculpture. But not how sound transforms into music.

A year ago I stumbled on a book called The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg. His approach is biographical -- an unfashionable one, he writes in the introduction. He discusses both the composers and their music, and he does it with verve and wit and insight. He's opinionated and has a biting sense of humor. His writing is vigorous and lucid; I get carried away by it. And I become impatient to listen to music I felt intimidated by, because now I have a guide to the sound, an idea of what to expect, what to look for.

I've become a better listener, but still one riddled with a lot of self-doubt. I take refuge often in Schonberg's book; reading about music anchors and calms me. Perhaps the pleasures of the ear aren't meant for me. But I still have the word.


Blogger Maven said...

You know, we classical musicians, we need listeners who appreciate instinctively and emotionally rather than intellectually. You don't have to be able to read music or to know about form and theory to know what you like or even to explain why you like it. I've been working at this life for 13 years, and I can pick apart song and opera performances, but the niceties of orchestral interpretation still elude me sometimes. And whenever I hear a Brahms symphony and think "well, I don't like the way they did this part," it's most likely because they didn't do it the way I know it from the first recording I listened to ad vomitum. Listen and don't apologize. I think it's fantastic that you want to read more about the composers and their music.

January 07, 2006  
Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

Different aspects of classical music appeal to you at different ages. When I first started listening to classical music, stumbling on my parents' unused classical record collection, I only wanted to listen to Baroque instrumental music. Nothing else made too much sense to me. Opera seemed like a lot of yelling in unnatural voices. Beethoven sounded "barky." Brahms sounded "fat." Almost thirty years later, my tastes have changed. I now love opera and lieder. I can understand Brahms, after performing a lot of him. Beethoven is still in the future for me, but what seemed like empty bombast and rhetoric is now starting to come clear.

All this is by way of saying, keep an open mind, and keep listening. You'll understand more and more as you do.

January 08, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

I'm glad that there's hope for me still! I didn't think of listening to music as similar to reading, in that different music, like different books, appeals to you at different stages in your life. As you mature you're able to digest more and more "grown-up," difficult stuff.

Maven -- I was trained (at school and in my family) to think that emotions are superficial and fleeting, and that only reason is reliable as a source of artistic judgment. You suggest that pleasure is useful -- what a revelation. Thanks for your encouragement.

January 08, 2006  

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