All posts by Chris1937

A graduate of Lafayette College (BS in Physics) and University of Rochester (English), he studied piano in the preparatory division of the Eastman School while working at Eastman Kodak Company. After years as a Mad Man, he moved to Maine and was the classical music critic of the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram for 20 years. Other interests include horses, gardening, painting and silver smithing.

A Musical Enormity: PSO Tackles the Berlioz Te Deum

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 11, 2015

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: “A work crowded with incident, I see, but somewhat too loud for Merrill Auditorium.” The Berlioz Te Deum, performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra before a large audience on Sunday, Oct. 11, is the 19th Century equivalent of a boombox. A few minutes more and the result would have been mass hearing loss.

During the final Judex crederis (the last judgement), tenor René Barbera, who has a rich, powerful voice that could fill La Scala, was totally drowned out by the massed forces of a full orchestra (with plenty of harps), the Kotzschmar Organ, played by Ray Cornils, and three large choruses-—the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and members of Shannon Chase’s Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

The Te Deum begins with orchestra and organ exchanging fortissimo chords like the blows of heavyweight boxers at the beginning of a bout, and continues that way until all parties, including the audience, are exhausted.

There are a few respites, most notably the great tenor solo in Te ergo quaesumus, but for the most part Berlioz simply tries unsuccessfully to outdo, in volume and cataclysmic dramatics, his opening passage.

The composer gives the organ every opportunity to demonstrate its magnificence—the first performance, in 1855, commemorated the installation of a new organ at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, during that year’s World’s Fair—but is much less successful in the few pensive moments of the score, when the chosen organ stops sound like background music at a funeral parlor. An organ always sounds like an organ, no matter what its maker is trying to imitate.

There is not much attempt to differentiate the choruses, although the children’s voices and Vox Nova stood out at times, and there were some characteristic Berlioz effects, such as an unusual interaction between the brass choir and the basses. There was also a fine, distinctive Latinate chant in the Christie, rex gloriae.

The entire Te Deum was beautifully performed, by all parties, but as Ravel said of his Bolero, ”unfortunately, it is not music.” Still, like a performance of the Bolero, the audience, this writer included, enjoyed it immensely, as evidenced by a prolonged standing ovation.

I urge anyone who can do so, to get a ticket for Tuesday night’s (Oct. 13) performance. This is music that can only be experienced live, and it will probably not be heard again in Maine for a very long time.

Music director Robert Moody paired the Te Deum with a charming performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, emphasizing its similarities with the work of his predecessors. The minuet movement, which is supposed to mark Beethoven’s break with tradition, sounded like something straight from the pages of Haydn.

I mention this about the symphony only because it was so odd: a pizzicato note from the violin section before Moody indicated the downbeat. The first time was merely a regrettable error, but it happened again before the minuet. Not enough to spoil anything, but a little intrusive nevertheless, and perhaps rattling to other musicians.

Cumming Honors Glazer at Bates College

Pianist Duncan Cumming
Olin Hall, Bates College
Oct. 9, 2015

Pianist Duncan Cumming’s tribute to his teacher, the late Frank Glazer, Friday night at Bates College, was a compelling musical evening. (You can judge for yourself tonight—Saturday— at USM’s Corthell Hall). It also raised some fundamental questions about concertizing in the electronic age: the role of memory and standard vs. innovative performance of the classics.

The program consisted of popular works in the repertoire that Cumming, now on the music faculty of the University of Albany, studied with Glazer, artist in residence at Bates College from 1980 until his death in January at age 99.

Cumming. like Maine-based pianist Martin Perry, is one of the pioneers at playing from the score, rather than relying on the memorization now expected of every concert pianist. I couldn’t notice any difference in tempo or technique, compared to Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafel Blechacz, who was brought to Merrill Auditorium by Portland Ovations on Oct. 4.

Comparison was easy, since Blechacz and Cumming both played the Brahms Intermezzo, Opus 118, No. 2, and the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53.

I found Cumming’s Brahms a bit more “authentic” -—Glazer was a Brahms specialist who once played all of the master’s piano works at one concert– and Blechacz is an iconoclast who has his own thought-provoking take on everything he plays.

Cumming’s rendition of the lesser-known “Edward” Ballade in D minor, Op.10, No.1, emphasized the young Brahms’ dramatic tendencies.

In the famous Polonaise, which became a pop song with the title “‘Till the End of Time,” Cumming’s technique was actually superior, but Blechacz’s version more interesting, with a distinct Polish flavor.

The influence of Glazer was most notable in the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2. The presto agitato was taken at breakneck speed, as advocated by Artur Schnabel, Glazer’s most notable teacher, but without Schnabel’s characteristic wrong notes.

The Beethoven was the greatest test of reading from the score. It would seem virtually impossible to play it at tempo without storing most passages in the memory bank. Perhaps having a reference handy reduces anxiety about becoming lost, which has happened to many world-renowned pianists at awkward moments (most of them know how to fake it.)

Cumming used an electronic tablet similar to a Kindle, on which pages can be turned by pushing a button. It was so unobtrusive that one could not tell it was there, lying flat on the folded-down music stand. I foresee a day when pianists wear glasses with the score right in from of their eyes, advancing at a predetermined tempo.

Schubert was represented by the great Impromptu in C minor, Op. 90, No. 1, which is always a delight to hear. I just wish all pianists, not just Cumming, would pay more attention to the delicious modulation to C Major near the end of the work, as Paul Badura-Skoda used to do.

The most moving performance of the evening was the encore, an arrangement of “Annie Laurie” played at the funeral of Ruth Glazer in 2006.

Rafal Blechacz at Merrill

Portland Ovations Concert
Pianist Rafał Blechacz
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 4, 2015

The playing of Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafał Blechacz, brought to Merrill Auditorium Sunday by Portland Ovations, was characterized by clarity, precision and elegance. His program was characterized by daring.

What other pianist in this day and age would program a recital to include works that everyone in the audience had heard hundreds of times and perhaps played themselves? It is to invite comparison with Rubinstein, Horowitz and Dinu Lipatti (for the Chopin waltzes). But Blechacz showed that he could hold his own in such company, while introducing some new ideas.

A critic once said that abstract expressionists should submit a test painting to show that they could execute works in traditional style, reassuring viewers that their more characteristic work was not mere scribbling. Blechacz opened with a first movement of the Bach ”Italian” Concerto in F Major (BWV 971) that was a model of decorum in its precise rhythm, sharp delineation of melodic lines and restrained dynamics (besides being breathtakingly beautiful.)

The slow movement departed from the usual Bach renditions in its coloration and dreamy style, while the third took off in a long accelerando that, although not in the score, added significantly to the excitement of the work. Bach, not having the piano’s dynamic range on the harpsichord or clavichord, might have done exactly the same thing, as if carried away on a torrent of notes.

Innovations were even more pronounced in the following Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”). I have a score on which my teacher has written “Sforzando very important in Beethoven!” Blechacz has that explosion of sound down pat. He also lets the notes of the chord ring out, so that what comes after seems like the coalescence of the overtones; raindrops into a flowing stream. If that requires a fermata (pause) that seems to last forever, so be it.

The famous slow movement included the central theme over a heavily accented waltz that sounds like elephants dancing, if it’s played right, and a glorious finale that, as in the Bach, had more than a hint of accelerando.

Following intermission, the program, as befits a Polish pianist, was all Chopin, beginning with the Opus 64 Waltzes, the most famous of which is the “Minute Waltz.” I didn’t have my stopwatch out, but I’m sure that Blechacz met the requirement without losing any of his grace under pressure.

The coloration and shading of that miniature, as well as the two others in the set, were exquisite. Rubinstein used to say that some, at least, were not for dancing, but Blechacz conjured up a ballroom as active and varied as any for an evening of Strauss. The late Dinu Lipatti was the acknowledged master of these effusions, but in these three at least, Blechacz is his equal.

I very much regret that I am not able to appreciate the Chopin Mazurkas as I should. If anything could overcome that deficiency, it would have been Sunday’s performance of the three in Opus 56, with their fine coloring, subtle exchange of voices and authentic rhythmical structure.

The Polonaise is another matter, especially the A-flat Major, Opus 53 (’Til the end of time…”) which, after all these years, is still enough to wake the dead, and cause instant, foot stomping standing ovations. Blechacz has the power and precision of Horowitz, with a little more finesse.

As a final act of daring, Blechacz played the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2, as an encore. There is nothing showy about it. It is simply one of the most inspired works for piano ever written, and one of the most difficult to interpret. I would trade all of Wagner for it. Last summer, at a Bates College memorial service, Duncan Cumming played it as an appropriate tribute to his teacher, Frank Glazer.

Darkness Visible. Olsen Trio’s “Sounds Unseen”

Olsen Trio
“Sounds Unseen”
Space Gallery, Portland
Sept. 29, 2015

Portland’s Space Gallery needs an airlock. Just when one is accustomed to listening to music in (almost) total darkness, somebody has to leave the theater, and the blast of light through the open door dashes a bucket of cold water on a mystical experience.

Otherwise, the Olsen Trio’s “Sounds Unseen” concert, performed Tuesday night under the auspices of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, was an unqualified success. A capacity audience was so enraptured by the experience that it remained silent for several minutes after the musicians stopped playing and somehow illuminated themselves in a ghastly green light.

The trio consists of Magnus Boye Hansen, violin, Steven Walter, cellist, and Mathias Susaas Halvorsen, piano, and yes, they also play in the dark. Most musicians can feel their way around a keyboard or frets without looking at their fingers, thus eliminating the bobblehead “marionette effect” when playing from a score. It’s when huge leaps are required at rapid tempo that things become tricky in the dark.

This was never a concern, in spite of some extremely demanding music by contemporary composers Peteris Vasks, Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt. The only non-contemporary work on the program was a part of J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata in G Major, played by Hansen after distancing himself from the other members of the trio.

The heightened ability to determine the location of a sound was just one of the uncanny effects of listening in darkness. Another was increased alertness. Normally, closing one’s eyes to eliminate distractions can lead to drowsiness. When you can see nothing with eyes wide open, the sense of hearing is highlighted without signaling to the body that it’s time to go to sleep.

The blackness, which one soon gets used to, becomes a canvas on which to project images—in the case of Baltic and Scandinavian composers, lots of moving water, masses of ice, shimmering shards of broken glass and sometimes birdsong, as in the final “episodi e canto perpetuo” of Vasks, which has echoes of Olivier Messiaen’s “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” (As pointed out by a member of the astute and enthusiastic audience).

The stars of the show, however, were the instruments themselves, every sound of which became clarified, singly or in combination. I could have listened to the bass string of a cello playing a single note for the rest of the evening.

The Portland Chamber Music Festival’s Space Gallery casual concerts are rapidly becoming a Portland institution. This one, presented in partnership with The Iris Network, was even more special than usual.

A Spectacular Opening for the Portland Symphony Season

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Oct.11 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, promises to be a study in contrasts. The two major works on the program will be the Beethoven Symphony No. 1, another in the complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies now being performed by the PSO, and the Berlioz Te Deum, a study in gigantism that makes Louis Moreau Gottshalk’s concert piece for 64 pianos seem like child’s play.

The Beethoven, while it appeared to contemporaries a wild departure from the norms of Haydn and Mozart, has more similarities with than differences from the classic style. Like the first Beethoven piano sonata, it is a delightful piece, clearly in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, with just enough innovation to presage what would come later. Both works are characterized by delicacy and refinement, two adjectives not generally applied to Beethoven.

One wonders why Maestro Robert Moody decided on what seems to be an arbitrary sequence of the symphonies, instead of presenting them in chronological order to trace Beethoven’s evolution as a composer. He did not spring full-blown from the brow of Minerva.

The motivation behind the selection of the Berlioz Te Deum is clearer—the success of last year’s performance of his “Symphonie Fantastique.” There is also the completion of the multimillion-dollar restoration of the Kotzschmar organ.

Berlioz dreamed for two decades or more of a gigantic military symphony to celebrate a coronation, or a wedding, or a victory over the Prussians, but eventually had to settle for the opening of a Paris World’s Fair in 1855, complete with the christening of a new organ. (Hence the prominence of that instrument in the score, which might have influenced Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3.)

The sequence of movements more or less follows the form of the Latin mass sung on special occasions, with the composer’s own alterations. The orchestra and chorus at the premiere numbered either 900 or 950 (accounts vary).

Berlioz had the odd notion that a melody which might be rendered ordinary by a single voice would become sublime when sung by 50. He had been intrigued, during a visit to London, by a work sung by 6,500 “children of the poor,” and the Te Deum includes three distinct choruses—one a large children’s chorus— plus a tenor soloist.

For the PSO performance, the orchestra will be joined by tenor René Barbera, the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Choral Art Society and members of the Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

It should be quite a spectacle, enough to hold one’s interest for 45 minutes (even without the two sections reserved for military performances).

Was Mozart Executed?

With his permission, I am posting DaPonte String Quartet cellist Myles Jordan’s essay on the controversy surrounding Mozart’s death. Myles wants me to point out that this is a work in progress, that he is still doing research, and that the final version will include references. Even in this preliminary form, it makes sense to me.

Peter Gay writes in his popular Mozart biography that “There is no evidence Mozart was aware of the French revolution.” This statement reflects a historical record examined in detail many times. There is, of course, limited evidence belonging to sources independent of “the official historical record” that Leopold Ranke, inventor of modern historiography, designed to allow victors to write history. Records of Masonic activities placing Mozart to the left of Rousseau, musical topoi reflected in several works — Die Zauberflöte, the string quartets, especially KV 464, collaborations with Beaumarchais, three works written for Benjamin Franklin’s harmonium, a piano concerto beginning like La Marseillaise — even without the documented insubordinate behavior toward both ecclesiastical and State authorities the list is extensive. It is quite certain Mozart would today be called a radical of the left. He was a feminist — extremely rare for that time — a revolutionary sympathizer and, as an itinerant musician, permitted to travel much more freely in Europe than most people of his class. He was certainly a very politically aware and active man; why, then, should the historical record be completely silent about his attitude toward the events of 1789?

Mozart was likely of use to the Masonic movement as a courier. Legend places him more than once at the Café Procope in Paris (still standing), the informant-infested favorite watering-hole of Jefferson, Franklin, and Beaumarchais (whose own activities as a Crown secret agent operating on behalf of American revolutionary efforts were undertaken under the alias Roderique Hortalez). By 1790 Mozart may have become a dangerous courtier in the eyes of the Emperor, who was Marie Antoinette’s brother, and brought under scrutiny. The task of ascertaining if and how his politics, contacts, and activities posed any threat to the State would have been assigned to Mozart’s immediate superior at Court, the implicitly-trusted Antonio Salieri. There is evidence the courts of France and Austria occasionally shared intelligence.

How did Mozart die? Trichinosis, rheumatic fever and alcoholism are all suspected today; their symptoms match those described by eyewitnesses. The effects of arsenic trioxide poisoning that are also consistent with Mozart’s symptoms are rare; the old Salieri-poisoned-Mozart story is usually ruled out as a conspiracy theory because, as the senior, better-paid court composer, Salieri had no motive to kill him. (Nor was Salieri — teacher of Liszt, Beethoven, Czerny, Moscheles, and Schubert — anything like the mediocrity he is believed to be today.) Yet this story is worth another look, on other grounds.

On one hand, blame for Mozart’s murder would, bluntly, have been an endlessly-protracted public relations nightmare for the House of Habsburg. Immediately after Mozart’s death a celebration of his life and work for which “more than half the city of Prague turned out” gives some sense how beloved he had become. On the other hand, Mozart’s acceptance of salary from a royal employer whose downfall he plotted was equally unacceptable, and this was neither the age nor place a disloyal employee might be given a pink slip and three weeks’ notice. Were the Emperor to have approved his execution there was ample reason for Court to thoroughly purge the historical record and to disseminate a cover-story. The official story is at odds with several established facts, and its timing coincides with a major offensive taken by the Emperor against foreign and domestic revolutionary elements, chiefly Masonic.

Franz Niemetschek testified in 1798 that Constanze Mozart had related the couple were driving in the Prater in June, 1791 when a perfectly healthy Mozart began to talk of his death, half a year before its occurrence. “I cannot rid myself of the thought that someone has poisoned me with acqua toffana [an odorless, colorless arsenic compound]. It is for myself that I am writing the Requiem. Surely my end is not far off. I have the metallic taste in my mouth.” This conversation followed closely on the arrest of Marie Antoinette at Varennes, an event that understandably put the Emperor on high alert. After Mozart’s death, both the bloating and absence of rigor mortis, consistent with poisoning, fanned the widespread belief, reported in a Berlin musical journal, that he had been executed. The same observations, corroborated years later by son Carl Thomas Mozart, were vigorously refuted by his mother (this particular poison

was a means by which younger wives of older husbands sometimes brought on a welcome widowhood). However, both she and Carl are on record at other moments holding Salieri responsible for Mozart’s death; its timing was also very close to the Emperor’s Declaration of Pillnitz, which alludes in its text to serious warnings about the dangers of Freemasonry in a brief from his chief of secret police.

There was no autopsy, “owing to the body’s stench.” The attending doctor, one of the most respected in Vienna, gave him very poor care according to Constanza, and predicted almost to the hour the time of Mozart’s passing from a “miliary fever” that was certainly not contagious. Constanze, in one of those “alas, spectacular” operatic displays of grief similar to televised demonstrations of spousal mourning at Communist state funerals, threw herself on her husband’s body in order to follow him speedily to the grave. Although she was in no danger there was indeed an “epidemic” of deaths in Vienna from Mozart’s ailment, plausibly indicating a coordinated, wholesale purge of Vienna’s political undesirables.

She did not accompany his body to the graveyard where it was unceremoniously dumped because, it was said, of inclement weather. This does not comport with Vienna’s detailed official meteorological records for that day. She did collect his pension, provided by the Emperor. The official story, which holds that Mozart’s unmarked grave was nothing unusual for the time, begs the question what other artist of similar attainments ever received a similar funeral in Vienna. Haydn, Beethoven, even the impoverished, much less-established Schubert: all were given “honor graves.”

One of Beethoven’s 1823 conversation books shows an exchange where Beethoven is given the recent news that his former teacher, Salieri (d.1825, and by 1823 in early-stage dementia), has just attempted suicide by cutting his own throat and, further, that he has claimed responsibility for poisoning Mozart. This claim is immediately refuted by Salieri’s doctors, who go to extraordinary lengths — writing letters in Italian, etc. — to discredit the old man’s outburst. When Ignaz Moscheles visits him some time later in the asylum, Salieri himself tells Moscheles the rumor is ridiculous.

Salieri’s politics were apparently, like Mozart’s, very liberal at the time of the latter’s death. Late in life he revealed himself as a staunch conservative. His radical opera Le couronnement de Tarare, written in 1790 (the year before Mozart’s death), created the widespread impression that his politics lay much further to the left of their actual position. Considering for the moment the possibility Salieri wrote the work as a State mole in order to gain confidences, it would conceivably have given him access to a circle around the notoriously indiscreet Mozart sufficient to put several people on a purge list.

Salieri, a confidante of the Emperor’s (losing his position at Court immediately at the latter’s death), was not, however, the only Court composer at this time to write an opera at odds with his personal political convictions. Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, written in only eighteen days during the few months between the Prater conversation and his death, celebrates the Roman emperor Titus showing mercy toward subjects who had plotted against him (Tito was written for the coronation of his employer as Holy Roman Emperor). The message could hardly have been more explicit: this is Mozart’s eleventh-hour appeal for mercy.

It did not succeed. The Empress made a disparaging remark about Tito at its Prague premiere, calling it “Una porcheria tedescha” (German swinishness), a barb directed at Mozart — Caterino Mazzolá and Pietro Metastasio, the opera’s librettists, were both Italian — and at German reluctance to cooperate with the Emperor’s counterrevolutionary efforts. Five months after the Prater conversation Mozart’s health plummeted — from apparent full health to death — over fourteen days. Were he in fact poisoned, this sudden deterioration would indicate a second dose or series of doses, perhaps administered by his physician, his wife, or both.

DaPonte Solves Mozart Mystery

DaPonte String Quartet
Walpole Meeting House
Sept. 13, 2015

In each of its 19-year series of benefit concerts for the Walpole Meeting House, the DaPonte String Quartet includes a work written around the time that the meeting house was built—1772. Sunday night’s concert was no exception, beginning with the Mozart String Quartet in A Major K. 464.

The quartet, one of those dedicated to Haydn, has other connections to the New World. It is the first to incorporate Masonic musical symbolism in solidarity with Mozart’s brethren, who included revolutionaries such as Benjamin Franklin—for whom he composed music for the glass harmonica.

The program notes by DaPonte cellist Myles Jordan make a good case that Mozart may indeed have been poisoned, if not by his musical rival Salieri, then by other agents of the Austrian emperor, terrified of the popular young radical’s influence. (The Emperor’s sister, Marie Antoinette, had just lost her head to similar revolutionaries.) Not coincidentally, the DaPonte’s first winter series of concerts will be entitled “Enemies of the State.”

The quartet itself is long and “durch componiert” (thoroughly composed, perhaps too carefully.) It shows a more self-conscious effort at academic perfection than Mozart usually demonstrates. That said, it was a delight to hear in the fine acoustics of the old meeting house, lit only by flickering candles. Jordan excelled in the cello part, whose pizzicati gave the quartet its nickname of “The Drum.”

The Mozart was followed by the String Quartet No. 1 of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Written in 1924, the quartet nevertheless shows premonitions of the horror to come.

Its dance-like rhythms and folkish modes remind one of Smetana, but they are accompanied by strange wisps of sound, at the highest register, barely audible and often sul ponte (on the bridge) that make them seem like floating spirits, menacing or not. The final movement, with its ticking clock that eventually winds down, should be a cliche, but instead remains highly effective.

This is a wonderful work, that the DaPonte has made its own and recorded on a CD that captures the soundscape of the old meeting house.

The program concluded with a rousing performance of the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major Opus 44, No. 1. Its mood swings are those of a young composer who has just married and also lost his beloved sister. It reminded me of the old quote: “I wanted to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness kept breaking out.”

The quartet eventually transforms itself into a violin concerto, which Ferdinand Liva, Jr. managed with aplomb.

The Decline of Soundscapes

The recent NPR series on the world of sound, and natural soundscapes, prompted me to look up the subject in the Classical Beat archives., where I ran across this column from 2010, which seems even more relevant today:
Some friends of ours from Pennsylvania stopped by for a visit the other day. The husband is an electrical engineer, now retired, who devotes his time to helping municipalities alleviate light pollution, which prevents us from seeing the night skies as our ancestors did.
By coincidence, I had just finished reading “One Square Inch of Silence” by Gordon Hempton and John Grossman (Free Press, Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2009) about one man’s quest for the preservation of natural soundscapes (no man-made noise) in the national parks.
The author points out that light and noise pollution go hand in hand. If one is looking for a quiet spot, an almost impossible task, one place to start is a map of relatively dark areas of the continent.
Some of these “dark” areas coincide with small holes in the network of air traffic lanes. The operative word is “small,” since there is virtually nowhere free of the noise of high altitude flights every few minutes. The most one can hope for right now is a window of silence, when the natural voice of the world can be heard for a few moments.
In Maine, as elsewhere in the nation, the focus, if any, has been on loud, annoying, ear-damaging noise, such as that emitted by motorcycles with altered, or non-existant, mufflers. Other noise sources that can rapidly damage one’s hearing are gun shots (a single loud explosion can do the trick), rock concerts, leaf blowers, car boom boxes, jet take-offs and landings, and i-pods. A device that would track sound volume and warn the owner of possible hearing loss–there’s an app for that– has been developed, but the i-pod manufacturers don’t seem interested.
Hearing damage can lead to tinnitus,”ringing in the ears,” as the brain tries to compensate for the missing stimulus. Persistent tinnitus, which affected the composer Smetana, has been known to cause suicide.
Maine police chiefs take note: altering motorcycle mufflers is a federal crime, even though the law is never enforced. One problem may be that motorcycle cops often ride illegal machines themselves. As Schopenhauer pointed out, the ignorant equate noise with power.
For a while in the 1970s, before budgets were slashed under the Reagan administration, the EPA took noise abatement seriously. This mandate is now virtually non-funded. During this brief period, however, many in-depth studies were published and educational programs about the harmful effects of noise were begun across the country.
They make interesting reading, because hearing damage, although serious and widespread, is not the only deleterious effect of noise at any level above the volume of human speech. (I am not using decibel levels in this column deliberately because one of the problems with anti-noise campaigns is that the logarithmic decibel scale is widely misunderstood and often used to obscure obvious harm.)
Noise levels not high enough to cause hearing loss have been shown to substantially reduce worker productivity, set learning back a grade, and increase the frequency and severity of stress-related illnesses. They isolate us from the natural world… and they may be helping to destroy it.
I have often written about bird song and the “dawn chorus” in this column. The sharp decline in songbird populations in recent decades has begun to mute its effect.
There are many environmental reasons for the decline, but one of them may be noise. As ambient noise levels get louder, birds can no longer rely on their calls to guard a territory, attract a mate or warn of danger.
In human beings, noise creates a vicious cycle, in which the victim ramps up the sound level to compensate for hearing loss, which causes further hearing loss. How many of us have heard the sound of a butterfly’s wing, a brook several miles away, a pine needle falling to earth, or the different songs each tree sings in the wind?
It’s probably too late for most of the adults on this planet, but children could be re-educated to think of silence as sexy. I remember the old Rolls Royce ads where “the only sound you hear at 60 miles per hour is the ticking of the clock.” The violent, perfectly quiet acceleration of an electric Tesla, for example, could create a new paradigm. I hope so.
In the meantime, I wish Gordon Hempton the best of luck with the FAA in preventing fly-overs of national parks. He’ll need it.

Oliver Sacks’ “Musicophilia”

Upon learning of the death last week of neurologist and best-selling author, Oliver Sacks, I returned to his book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”

When it first came out, I found it slow going for a volume that had been on the New York Times best-seller list for many weeks.

As usual with Sacks, who is best known for “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” and “Awakenings,” the book is well written, full of fascinating anecdotes and understandable accounts of the latest research on how the brain processes and generates music. But it is not the kind of story you can’t put down. I tired after a chapter or so in spite of the subject, which is obviously one of my primary interests.

I was left wondering why? Part of it is superstition– the idea that if you talk about or analyze something too much, it will go away. His chapter on amusica –the inability to experience music emotionally– was distressing, in spite of the author’s obvious empathy with his patients. (Sacks was Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University.)

Another drawback, to me anyway, was the heavy use of footnotes. One feels obliged to read them, (in small print) and they contain some interesting material, but they also interrupt the flow of the narrative. They should be in the back of the book, with the bibliography, for those who want chapter and verse authentication. I’m willing to give Sacks the benefit of the doubt when it comes to veracity.

What really kept me at arm’s length from “Musicophilia,” however, was the specter of reductionism. Sacks takes great pains to eliminate the “nothing but” syndrome and never comes down on either side of the mind-brain question. Nevertheless, music somehow seems diminished when investigated clinically, even though it remains a mystery.

The chapter, “Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement,” was especially interesting, soon after hearing Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” at Bates College. Without a time signature on the score (4/4, 2/4, 3/16 to a measure, and so on), the musicians were still able to play rapid, precise and sometimes ferocious rhythms together.

This ability seems to stem from the mind’s desire to impose order upon chaos, like finding a complex rhythm in refrigerator noise or the sound of iron wheels on a railroad rack. It also has to do with the ability of music to inspire collective action. Think rock concerts or marching troops.

Unlike Messiaen, Sacks believed that “keeping time physically and mentally, depends…on interactions between the auditory and the dorsal premotor cortex–and it is only in the human brain that a functional connection between these two cortical areas exists. Crucially, these sensory and motor activations are precisely integrated with each other.”

Messiaen would respond that time itself is an abyss, but I take issue with the phrase “only in the human brain.” Sacks must at least must have read about dancing whales, birds, mice, horses, bears and foxes, to name a few. Having done some riding to music, I can attest that a horse, at least, will respond physically to a musical beat, even without subliminal cues from its rider.

The stories of the healing power of music are the most inspiring in the book, sometimes approaching the miraculous. As a musician, however, I like best the passages about the deleterious effects of too much practice. Glen Gould used to proclaim that it was unnecessary, and Sacks’ book, to some extent, supports his theory. Listening, or merely a mental run-thorugh, can sometimes work as well as hours at the keyboard, without the danger of the physical and mental cramps called “musician’s dystonia,” which have ended many careers. “If at first you don’t succeed, give up,” is often good advice about some difficult note patterns.

Most intriguing of all is Sacks’ answer to Tolstoy’s question about music: “What good is it?” Well, it seems likely that civilization could not have occurred without it, since, like poetry, it facilitated the retention and transmission of huge bodies of knowledge, thousands of years before the advent of writing.