Category Archives: Commentary

Clarity at Christmas in the Cathedral

Christmas in the Cathedral
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 5, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

“For now we see as through a glass darkly; for we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.”

I thought of these verses from the King James Bible at the beginning of the Choral Art Society’s’ Christmas in the Cathedral Saturday night, under the direction of Robert Russell.

The women’s voices in 13th and 14th Century Latin carols, “Angelus ad Virginem,” and “Verbum caro factum est,” had an angelic clarity, rather like that of a boy soprano, which is too rare in choral music. They retained it even in the latter work, which has more complex counterpoint.

They were joined by the tenors and bases in the processional, which has become a tradition at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: “Personent hodie voices puerulae” of 1582. It gets better every year.

The Christmas concert rose to that level again after intermission, when soprano Sarah Bailey and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen sang an “Ave Verum” by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), which was absolutely ravishing. It was accompanied by a piano obligato, played by Dan Moore, which was unable to reduce the perfect intervals of the voices to the “tempered” compromises of the keyboard.

The Portland Brass Quintet was in good form, with the trumpets ringing from the high vaulted ceiling, especially in the rapid ornamentation of “Rejoice and be Merry,” and the joyful pagan dance of the “Gloucestshire Wassail.”

Following their three solos, they took part in an experiment on Handel’s “Messiah,” a work that has become a little too much of a Christmas tradition, having been intended for Easter. The experiment was to replace the orchestral parts of four sections, including the “Hallelujah Chorus,” with a brass quintet.

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment: ”Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The transcription was amazing, and generally well played, but it was an impossible task to begin with.

After intermission came two choir director specials, “Intrada” by Alfred Reed (1921-2005) and “Welcome all wonders,” by Richard Dirksen (1921-2003). The former was distinguished by an organ fanfare by Dan Moore, and the latter by a gradual segue into what sounded a little like a variation on “A Mighty Fortress…”

It was good to hear Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day,” the ultimate holiday carol arrangement. It is actually composed, building upon familiar themes, instead of being thrown together in the usual pastiche.

Of course no Christmas concert would be complete without the thoroughly awful, a heavily amplified version of a gospel song, “He Never Failed Me Yet,” arranged by Robert Ray, in which the soloist drowned out the chorus. I ordinarily abide by my grandmother’s admonition–“If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all,” but the audience loved it, so it should be mentioned.

You can make up your own mind today (Sunday, Dec. 6). The matinee is sold out, but there are still tickets left for the evening performance at 7:30.

Prodigies at the Oratorio Chorale

The Oratorio Chorale’s concert, on Nov. 21 at Woodfords Congregational Church, will be devoted to youthful music by three child prodigies: Mozart, Mendelssohn and England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

The Purcell anthem selected by music director Emily Isaacson, “O Sing Unto the Lord,” is thought to have been composed when he was 14, although it is difficult to date many of Purcell’s compositions. (Even the name of his father is in dispute.)

Purcell died at the age of 46, Mozart at 35 and Mendelssohn at 38. There is a Romantic tendency to associate early death with musical genius; think of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, as well as the above, but I’m not sure the facts bear that out.

In Purcell’s time, when people married at 12 and became admirals in the British Navy at 14, (those of Family, with good connections at Court) 46 was a ripe old age. Life expectancy was about 35. Mozart may well have been poisoned, and Mendelssohn worked himself to death, perhaps overcompensating for the death of his beloved sister, Fanny.

Schubert, like Beethoven and Schumann, died of syphilis, and Chopin of tuberculosis. Perhaps, as some have suggested, we owe a large number of masterworks to disease.

Neither is early genius a predictor of early demise. St.Saêns, who could play all of the Beethoven sonatas from memory before he was a teenager, is one example. A Renaissance man, he started composing at age 6 and died at 86.

It is customary to lament what might have been, had composers not departed this earth so soon, but I’m not sure that we have lost that much. Perhaps they had already said whatever was on their minds. Music channeled from the beyond by various mediums generally leaves something to be desired.

On a more serious note, it is quite possible that the quality of their compositions might have declined with age. I’m thinking of the Romantic poet Wordsworth, who, unlike Keats and Shelley, lived to be 80, writing more and more pedestrian boilerplate after a brilliant youth.

The Oratorio Chorale concert will include Henry Purcell’s, “O Sing unto the Lord,” the Felix Mendelssohn Chorale: “Jesu meine Freude,” written when the composer was 16, a Mozart Te Deum, written when he was 13, and Christopher Staknys’ “The Window,” a premiere of his newly written choral work. Staknys, who recently entered Juilliard, is already known as a piano virtuoso. He will play Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E-minor with the Maine Chamber Ensemble.

The concert will be repeated on Sun., Nov. 22, at 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Brunswick.

Scary Music and Henry Cowell

Every year at this time I think about appropriate Halloween music. There are all the usual suspects–“Night on Bald Mountain,” “Symphony Fantastique”,” Verdi and Mozart for hellfire and damnation, Beethoven for the dark night of the soul, Grieg for trolls, Chopin for autumn leaves and funerals. Mahler for schadenfreude, all kinds of horror movie scores…

But the all-time winner for music that provides that special scary thrill is Henry Cowell’s “Banshee” for piano. It’s a short piece, for prepared piano –which John Cage learned from Cowell– but makes up for it in intensity and, well, realism. There really is a demon inside that piano.

I’ve been reading about and listening to Cowell (1897-1965) since hearing his Quartet No. 4 (“United”) played by the Portland String Quartet. I’ve even bought some of his piano music, featuring his invention of “tone clusters,” groups of minor second chords played with the fist or the forearm, thinking my grandson would like to play them. (Bartok, whom kids also love, requested Cowell’s permission to use the technique in his own works.)

Cowell, born in California of philosophical anarchist parents, is one of a long line of quirky American composers of genius, beginning with New England’s own writer of hymns and fugueing tunes, William Billings,(1746-1800) who thought that there should always be twice as many basses as any other voice in the choir. (He was dead on.)

Home-schooled until the age of 17, Cowell was largely self-taught in music until he began to study at the University of California, Berkeley, under Charles Seeger, father of Pete Seeger, who recognized and nurtured his genius.

The list of Cowell’s achievements goes on and on. He wrote over 1,000 compositions, including 180 songs. He was a writer, whose prose, as well as his music, strongly influenced generations of composers, including both John Cage and George Gershwin. He was an ethnomusicologist who learned many of the world’s musical traditions and incorporated them into his own work, not quoting, but grafting his ideas on to their roots.

Schoenberg asked him to play for his composition class in Vienna.

Cowell worked with Leôn Theremin on machines that would realize his ideas about the relationship of harmony and rhythm. He invented rhythms so complex that they could not be played by a human being, but only by a specially designed instrument called a Rhythmicon..

He championed Native American music, which is nothing like what Dvorak imagined, or what any of us can imagine, more strange and “foreign” than anything recorded in far-off lands.

He wrote some of his best work from a cell in San Quentin.

It is hard to believe in today’s society, but in 1936 Cowell was sentenced to 15 years in prison for having a homosexual relationship. Although he served “only” four years and eventually received a full pardon from the Governor of California, the experience profoundly affected him. Opinions differ about whether he was a broken man. He never spoke about radical politics again, and may have made his works more accessible to a wide audience, but that could also have been a natural development with age.

The imprisonment, however, because of lingering prejudice, prevented his works from receiving the recognition they deserved, and still deserve.

A good dose of Cowell is just what is needed to improve audience reaction to “modern” music. It is accessible, interesting, inventive, melodic, and non-academic. He wrote a lovely piano concerto and 15 symphonies, any one of which would grace a Portland Symphony Orchestra concert. The full cycle has never been recorded. There’s an opportunity for someone.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net

Behind the “Alice” Symphony

When the Portland Symphony Orchestra released its plans for the 2015-2016 concert season, one item stood out: a symphony that commemorates one of the strangest love affairs in the history of music, between American composer David Del Tredici (b. 1937) and “Alice in Wonderland.”

Since 1968, a great deal of Del Tredici’s work has been devoted to the ‘Wonderland” books and their author, Lewis Carroll, beginning with settings of “Turtle Soup” and “Jabberwocky,” juxtaposed with a Litany and a Bach Chorale.

“Jabberwocky” might well appeal to a contemporary composer, with its musical use of nonsense and “portmanteau” words., but there seems to be a much deeper connection between Del Tredici and Carroll.

The key lies in Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice.”

Gardner provides detailed historical background, sketches of the people involved and the originals of the Victorian poems that Carroll parodied. The combination of the original verses with their distorted reflections triggered something in the composer’s rebellious nature.

Del Tredici, born in 1937, has always been known as a maverick. In a musical world dominated by 12-tone serialism, especially at Princeton, where Del Tredici studied, he eventually returned to the music of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles, prompting horrified reactions from the critics, followed by acceptance and eventually enthusiasm.

There was also a personal aspect to his fascination with the “Alice” books. When the composer was growing up, homosexuality could be punished by a prison term. The great American composer, Henry Cowell, was sentenced to 10 years for such an offense. Carroll’s affection for little girls, such as Alice Liddell, may have seemed equally transgressive.

The first large-scale work to emerge from this inspiration was “An Alice Symphony,” (1969) which the Portland Symphony Orchestra will play on November 10. One of its most famous sections is “The Lobster Quadrille.” The composer’s original program notes about its construction provide an idea of his methods of work on the “Alice” material:

“What particularly caught my fancy in this scene was the possibility of musically blending together both its humor and it grotesquerie.” For this effect he added a mandolin, a banjo, an accordion and two saxophones. “These are very common instruments indeed; however, in the more rarified symphonic realm their presence is somewhat bizarre, and creates a juxtaposition suggesting to me a kind of musical equivalent to the special atmosphere of the dramatic scene.”

Finding what the composer calls the “folk instrument group” of the quadrille may have the PSO scrambling, but they already have a good ukulele player in hornist Nina Allen Miller, who founded the ukulele group FLUKE.

The quadrille also employs the human voice, accelerando, to portray the lines: “‘Will you walk a little faster?’” said a whiting to a snail. “‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.’”

Del Tredici set himself a contrapuntal problem in its composition: “that of writing two different sections (Dance I and Dance II) which would make musical sense not only separately but also when superimposed one upon the other.” In ordinary contrapuntal writing, two or more musical lines are superimposed harmoniously. To superimpose two separate compositions is orders of magnitude more difficult.

The result, according to Harry Neville of the Los Angeles Times, requires no knowledge of counterpoint to appreciate: ”The music is suffused with infectious good spirits — a rare quality these days — and altogether struck this listener as one of the most successful attempts yet to combine ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ musical elements.”

”An Alice Symphony,” written when Del Tredici was initially exploring the possibilities of combining tonality with dissonance, is the most modern sounding of the four symphonic works.

The “Acrostic Poem” for soprano in “The Final Alice” (the last of the four full-length “Alice” works), is written in triads (three-note chords), like a Beatles song. The aria does descend into chaos at the end, but is pulled back by the soprano counting slowly, in Spanish. “An Alice Symphony” is of particular importance since it marks Del Tredici’s initial break with academic tradition in music.

A special aspect of its performance in November will be a staged accompaniment by dancers from the Portland Ballet Company, with choreography by Roberto Forleo. Part of the Portland Symphony’s program of collaboration with local arts groups, it promises to be spectacular.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Quality in Music

Since I no longer subscribe to the Press Herald, I have taken to getting my morning news from National Public Radio. One of the more annoying features of NPR news is its regular interviews with pop singer-songwriters and “artists” of whom no one has ever heard. There was one the other day, with an aging female rock star whose rudeness was off the charts. The interviewer continued with his polite obsequiousness, when anyone with a brain in his head would have terminated the conversation immediately.

The other instant turn-off feature of NPR’s Morning Edition is the Writer’s Almanac, whose compiler once decided, on air, to make Kipling’s “If,” which I learned as a child of six, politically correct.

What has all this to do with classical music? I know only two popular songs that have withstood the test of centuries. One is ”Greensleeves.” and the other isn’t. The truth is that, like money, bad music drives out good, and the perceived decline in the audience for the latter has much to do with the “seriousness” accorded the former

I thought, many years ago, that musicology applied to bad pop music was a vampire that had been exposed to the light of day. In the days of 45’s, when I was in college, there were parodies of this kind of exercise all over campus. Alas, no one had driven a holly stake through its heart.

It is hard to believe, but not too long ago most people thought that music, because of its very nature, could not portray evil. Said the Greek philosopher: “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless, dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.” Plato (c. 428—c. 347 B.C. )

We have learned, to our dismay, that not only can music portray evil; it can be evil. See certain forms of Rap, which some people believe is music, and automobile boom boxes, which can permanently damage the sense of hearing in half an hour.

I am not intending to dismiss music that appeals to a mass audience, merely to point out that the notion that “all musics are created equal,” which now seems a media truism. is fatuous nonsense, and does real harm. In another recent NPR interview, the music directors of two of Maine’s symphony orchestras also succumbed to the leveling virus, one going so far as to entertain the idea of programming concert versions of background music for video games.

Sir Percy Scholes, author and editor of the Oxford Companion to Music, an indispensable reference, lists the characteristics one should look for in evaluating a piece of music: vitality, originality, workmanship, proportion and fitness, feeling, personal taste, and the test of time. Except for the last item, music for mass audiences may show some or even all of these characteristics. But it is just this final one that makes the best of popular composers aspire to the classical.

Scholes tells of overhearing a conversation in Blackpool, in which one girl complained to another that music in a shop window was out-dated, being at least a year old. He pointed out that at that moment, Schubert had been dead for a century, but still endured.

“Probably bad popular music now lives a shorter time than ever before, since its incessant repetition by radio, television, juke-box, cinema and taped music tends to speed the judgement of Time” he writes. I-Tunes, Pandora, and the like have further speeded the process, while reducing the value of even good music, by making it a commodity available upon demand.

The opportunity to hear good music, played live, still exists in Maine. Some of the performances are free, and everyone, young or old, should take advantage of them while they last.

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.

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.