Category Archives: Commentary

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.

Saving the Best for Last: DaPonte at Walpole

We have a lot of new concert venues in Maine, from the converted cathedral of the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston through Hannaford Hall at USM’s Abromson Community Education Center to the amazing converted swimming pool of Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, where one can still sense the ancient echoes off wet tile walls.

The older places are still the best, though: Deertrees in Harrison, which is like being inside a cello, the Theater at Monmouth, and the Yarmouth Meeting House, where I first noticed the vast difference in sound created by audience size.

The finest acoustics of all, however. are at the Old Walpole Meeting House, where the DaPonte String Quartet made its first recording
. The building was then, as it is now, without heat or electricity, with pews and boxes designed to mortify the flesh of church goers, but the sound was worth the inconveniences.

If only they could have prevailed upon the state police to stop traffic on the highway a quarter-mile distant… there still would have been airplane noise, I suppose.

On Sunday, September 13, at 7:00 p.m. the quartet will play its annual benefit concert to help defray the considerable costs of maintaining the structure, which was built in 1772 and retains nearly all of its original features, including hardware, 24-pane windows– each said to have cost the price of a cow– panelling and the original hand-hewn shingles.

It also has a huge high pulpit with a sounding board, built by local shipwrights and reminiscent of the one in the opening chapter of “Moby Dick.” The pulpit is too small to hold an entire quartet, but perhaps a violin soloist?

The building was not intended for concerts, and the DaPonte teeters on a raised plywood platform opposite the front door, barely large enough to hold four folding chairs, instruments and music stands. The scores are illuminated by battery-powered lights, which have improved over the years, but still cause problems occasionally. Candle-light, which graces the rest of the room, has never seemed strong enough to read music by.

The musical experience, however, is as close as one can come in this era to what listeners must have heard in the chambers for which intimate 18th-Century music was written. It doesn’t matter where one sits. Even in the servants’ gallery the sound is live and vibrant, while closer to the instruments there is still a fine balance.

The quartet generally chooses at least one work written around the time the meeting house was built, in the case of Sunday’s concert, the Mozart Quartet in A Major, K. 464. The program will also include the String Quartet No. 1 by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), and the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1

The Walpole concert is always a fitting close to the Maine summer music season and is usually sold out. Tickets, at $25.00, are available by pre-purchase at Maine Coast Bookstore in Damariscotta, the Walpole Barn in Walpole (Rt. 129), or the Framer’s Gallery in Boothbay (Meadow Mall). To make other arrangements for tickets, please call 563-5471 or e-mail info@oldwalpolemeetinghouse.org. The concert is at 7:00 and the doors open at 6:30.

Staying in Tune

Memo to all those young people who can’t find a job: piano tuning. People who love to play will always find a way to pay for what Matt Guggenheim, who tunes the pianos for the Portland Symphony Orchestra, calls a “necessary luxury.” “They’re like Beethoven. The bombs can be dropping 40 miles away, but what they care about is their music.”

The aspiring piano tuner, however, has to have such a burning desire to pursue his art that he is willing to apprentice long hours for little pay. He must have an attitude, like the aspiring musicians I try to discourage from a professional career, that “nothing is going to stop me.”

“I’m astounded by the fact that I don’t have kids knocking at my door, especially in today’s economy,” said Guggenheim.

“You can learn how to tune a piano (without that drive) but you’ll never make a career out of it.” He himself would not stop doing it even if he became a millionaire overnight.

Guggenheim began his own career many years ago, when his father bought a Wurlitzer piano because it had a beautiful case. “The pin block was dead and it was impossible to tune it.” Young Matt, who was blessed, or cursed, with a good ear and a love of music, couldn’t stand it and went to the garage for a Craftsman socket wrench to try his hand at a well-tempered clavier.

Recognizing his son’s continued interest, the father bought him a tuning wrench, and the rest is history.

Guggenheim’s school of hard knocks involved formal courses in such piano specialties as regulation, plus extensive apprenticeships in New York and Boston. “I was fortunate enough to find professionals who pulled me through it.”

For the first 20 years, he relied entirely on his ear. Now he also uses a Cybertuner.

“You need both an ear and technology,” he said. “You can’t just rely on a meter. The octaves and the unisons need experience to tune. You have to really hear the overtones. Our hearts and our ears will say yes when the meter says no. The warmth of the sound is very rewarding.”

He tries to tune a piano to suit its owner’s, or player’s, personal style. Jazz musicians, for example, often like a “stretched” treble. “What I love is to read a piano, know what it can be, and try to achieve that at a reasonable price. It’s exciting to watch one come alive.”

From 1900 to the advent of TV, millions of pianos were built, to the point that an estimated one in three homes had one. Now there are well-made pianos virtually everywhere. Guggenheim is continually surprised at the instruments some extremely good musicians put up with when there are alternatives out there. When you find one you like –for tone, action, sound quality and so on– the most important technical question is its tuning stability, he said.

One of the most rewarding things about his work is “I get to see the families that care. There are a lot of people who still love to play, and want their kids to enjoy it too. People’s lives are too busy, and it’s easy to get lost in technology.”

In his shop, where he repairs and rebuilds pianos, Guggenheim has a sign that reads: “Pianos Are Complicated.” Whole books have been written on subjects such as equal temperament, and a piano action is a miracle of mechanical engineering. “It’s fascinating, you think you’ve got it and you don’t. Then you wake up at 2:00 in the morning thinking I have to try this and go out in the shop before the idea goes away.”

“I don’t think tuning will ever die, as long as there are pianos in the world. There’s always work in the toughest of times. I truly believe this.”

A Little Water Music

Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface,” was the featured work at the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert on Oct. 7, 2008, the first conducted by its then new music director, Robert Moody.
Bates’ work, basically a symphony in four movements, depicts increasingly warm states of water, from calving glaciers through hurricane surges to the warm lapping waves of Berlin’s Wannsee. It was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, which premiered it on Feb. 7, 2008. It also references New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, in Dixieland intimations from the movement “Crescent City.” This month marks the 10th anniversary of Katrina, one of the worst natural (and man-made) disasters in U.S. history.
In remarks about the new work, the composer mentions that “water has influenced countless musical endeavors. ‘La Mer’ and ‘Seigfried’s Rhine Journey’ come quickly to mind.”
That was a challenge. How many other well-known compositions have to do with water? I would never have thought of “Seigfried” immediately, but the Rhine Maidens did come to mind, and “Die Lorelei.” There’s Handel’s “Water Music,” Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela,” and Edward MacDowell’s “Ocean” Sonata, the storm at sea that ends Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude and “Ocean Waves” Etude, a song from Berlioz’ “Nuites d’ete,” Satie’s musical description of sea-sickness, Noel Coward’s “Matalo,” and the list goes on. A new parlor game?
Someday, I hope a composer (if it hasn’t been done already) will devise a musical setting for Rimbaud’s lovely liquid, languorous line: l’Eternité, C’est la mer mêlée au Soleil.”
What is just as intriguing is how water itself can make music, like raindrops falling on a metal pipe. Bates’ huge orchestra for “Liquid Interface” includes a glass harmonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that standardizes the tones made by rubbing the rims of crystal glasses containing various amounts of water.
One of the oldest musical instruments is the Hydraulus, a water-powered organ that was played by the Egyptians as early as 200 BC, if not before. The weight of water pressing on a bellows compressed the air that sounded the pipes. The sound was said to be so loud that musicians had to wear earplugs (sound familiar?) and it was later played at Roman gladiatorial contests and by the Emperor Nero. Some scholars believe that was one of the reasons for the prejudice of the early church against musical instruments of all kinds.
My favorite among water powered instruments is the sea organ on the shore of the Adriatic at Zadar, Croatia. We definitely need one in Maine. It consists of a series of wide and shallow stone steps leading down to the water. Organ pipes under the steps are sounded by air pressure that depends upon wave height. The tones would be random, except that the pipes are tuned to a diatonic scale consistent with Croatian ethnic music. The sound is always pleasing, like that of a xylophone tuned to a pentatonic scale.
“Liquid Interface” combines a modern landscape of taped sounds with relatively tonal orchestral writing.
An analogy is Rautovaara’s “Cantus Arcticus,” with its taped birdsongs. Rautovaara’s is the best music, and the most accessible, but both are worth hearing