Hearing With New Ears?

Cross-posted at the Detroit Symphony Blog.

Sometimes before I go to an orchestra concert, I think to myself, “I should listen to a recording of the pieces on the program before I go, so that I can better appreciate the music when I’m hearing it live.” But actually I tend to reject the idea, though, because I enjoy the thrill of being surprised, hearing something for the first time (or for the first time in a long time.)

So I didn’t listen to the Mozart or the Holst before Friday night, and I don’t regret that decision at all. The Holst was absolutely thrilling live, as familiar as several passages are. I was glad to listen to Mozart’s music through the prism of festival host Tom Allen’s on-stage comments. He spoke of the desperate straits Mozart found himself in while writing this transcendent music. Mozart’s financial troubles and health problems are well-known, but contemplating the contrast between his life and his work added a poignant dimension to the listening experience.

Something kept nagging at me, though.

I love hearing orchestral music live, whether it’s music I know well or a piece I’m hearing for the first time. I love watching the musicians on-stage, and I also play a little game with myself trying to sense how the audience around me is responding to the music (as I pray that no one will decide to unwrap a cough drop during a quiet passage, ahem!).

But I wonder, when a piece is as seminal as Mozart 41, is it really possible to hear it differently? Can we come to it with new ears? And if so, how do we do it?

I’ve been thinking lately how odd it is that we go to the symphony to hear music we’ve already heard before. Why bother? Why get all dressed up, pay for tickets and parking, and fight traffic just to hear music you already know? Do we do the same for other art forms? We go to the movie theater to see the latest release, not something we own on DVD and have watched any number of times, right?

Well, not exactly, evidently. Some classic movies get audiences out of the house, whether they’re available on video or not. Then there are rock concerts. The audience goes wild when the band plays their biggest hits, but this can be frustrating for the band members, who might be more excited about playing cuts from their latest album. But audiences can get mighty testy if their expectations aren’t met. I’ve read that the singer Ani DiFranco got so tired of her audiences drowning her out singing along with her songs that she changed them around and made it impossible for the audience to sing along. The people were not pleased!

Being a composer myself, I confess that I get impatient sometimes with what sometimes seems like a form of musical ancestor worship. How’s a living composer supposed to compete? I think what it comes down to is, there are (at least) two kinds of listening experiences that a classical concert provides, and they’re pretty distinct from each other.

The Trust Walk

The less common experience is the thrill of hearing something for the first time. I know that many people get frustrated with unfamiliar works; It can be so hard to know what to expect. When you’re hearing a brand new piece by a composer you may never have heard of, it can really feel like a roll of the dice (or worse, a game of musical Russian roulette!). Will the music be spiky and dissonant or smooth and consonant? Will it use the repetitive techniques of minimalism, or will it be formally idiosyncratic? You can’t know for sure until the music starts, even if you have program notes or the composer’s comments to prepare you.

The biggest favor you can do for the composer is to be willing to be taken on a journey along a road you’ve never traveled before. It might feel a bit like a “trust walk,” where you’re blindfolded and have to have faith that the person guiding you won’t walk you into a wall. Fortunately, you can’t hurt yourself too badly listening to music, even if you don’t end up liking a particular piece.

The Familiar Path

Even though I’m a composer, and therefore a new music enthusiast, I still understand the appeal of hearing a piece you love and know well. It’s a powerful experience. I think it’s worth exploring why it’s so powerful, though — it has to be more than just the comfort factor. If you come to a concert simply to be made comfortable, expecting the music to function like an aural security blanket — well, I don’t mean to scold, but you need to do a little homework. You need to eat your veggies before you can have your dessert. 😉 I’ve written before about my professor John Swackhamer, who responded to students’ complaints about modern music that they “couldn’t understand” with the damning rhetorical question, “Do you think you understand Beethoven?” No matter how familiar and beloved a piece of music is, it should never be treated like audio wall paper — unless that’s what the composer intended, of course! 😉


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    A Lucky Day for Detroit!

    Cross-posted at the Detroit Symphony Blog, because I am so famous and in demand! 😀

    If you’re superstitious, you probably already have your lucky rabbit’s foot or some such charm or talisman at the ready, tomorrow being Friday the 13th and all. I would say that tomorrow is a very lucky day for Detroit, though. At a time of year when they could be taking a well-deserved post-season break, the DSO is kicking it into high gear for 8 Days longer. It’s like a fabulous, flambéed-Cherries-Jubilee bonus at the end of an already decadent and delectable multi-course meal!

    I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Olivier Messiaen‘s Turangalîla-Symphonie on June 18. A killer piano part, massive percussion section, and ondes Martenot, all in service of the theme of forbidden love? Who could ask for anything more? 😉

    Also, you don’t want to miss anything that New Music Detroit is involved in, and you get two chances to hear them during the festival: after the Mozart/Holst festival opener on Friday night, walk across the street to the MOCAD and stay up late with John Zorn, then come back on June 17th for Patterns and Structure.

    Don’t just take my word for it, though — attend the whole festival and decide for yourself what the highlights are!

    Why is this festival so important? Well, a few weeks ago, Dominic posed the following question to readers:

    How do you think music helps change Detroit for the better?”

    Here’s my answer: while thrilling performances of outstanding music are the obvious draw, this year’s festival has special significance for me personally. I moved from Southern California to Detroit exactly one year ago with my new husband, who was beginning his emergency medicine residency at Detroit Receiving Hospital. I confess that my expectations for the classical music scene here were not very high. Fortunately, while still camping out on the floor of our apartment waiting for our furniture to arrive, I heard about 8 Days in June on WDET radio, and a whole new world opened up for me. The Fisher Music Center is now one of my favorite places.

    Then there’s the bigger picture. Both longtime residents and newcomers to Detroit are painfully aware of the city’s less-than-sparkling public image, both at home and nationwide. Try telling your friends and family in California that you’re moving to Detroit, on purpose — the mixed expressions of revulsion and pity on their faces are priceless. “But Detroit’s still on fire from the riots in the sixties!” someone actually said to me. Then try telling them that Detroit is being revitalized and there are actually some cool things going on, and they just assume you drank too much champagne on your wedding day and never quite recovered.

    In short, the old dictum, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” doesn’t apply in this case! 😛

    So, Detroit needs as many marks in its “good” column as it can get. I think having things we can be truly proud of will help Detroiters better face the city’s challenges. The DSO is one of the jewels in Detroit’s crown.

    One more little story: I’ve spent some time on Facebook lately, reconnecting with friends from high school and college. Upon learning that I’m in Detroit now, one friend had this to say:

    The tune for “Detroit Rock City” is inextricably linked to any mention of your town. I don’t think of the place as even having a symphony. :-)”

    I’ll tell him June would be a great month to visit! 😀


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    Your Questions Answered, vol. 2!

    Ian from Australia wrote in asking about a popular song based on a melody from an organ concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns. He had heard the pop song before he heard the classical work it was based on, and was trying to find out who recorded the song.

    I’m happy to report that Miss Music Nerd’s Musical Detective Agency has the answer! 😀

    First, the source: turns out Saint-Saëns didn’t officially write an organ concerto, but his Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, has been nicknamed the “Organ Symphony,” as the organ features prominently in two sections of the work. (If you wrote a concerto where the solo instrument sat out the first half or so of each movement, your soloist might take offense! 😉 ) The piece uses piano as well, which is striking — piano as an orchestral instrument (as opposed to concerto solo instrument) didn’t become common until the 20th century, as far as I know. He even writes for piano duet (two players on one piano, a.k.a. “piano four hands”) in one of the sections, which means some lucky pianist gets to sit and read the paper at union scale till 3/4 of the way through the piece! 😉 (Just kidding — I’d happily volunteer for that gig — playing in an orchestra is big fun for us pianists, who are accustomed to being lonely most of the time!)

    Anyhoo, the melody in question comes from a section from the second movement marked Maestoso (majestic):

    And here’s the pop arrangement, “If I Had Words,” by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley, released in 1978 (check the grooovy video effects! 😛 ):

    As you can hear, the songwriters put a reggae beat under Saint-Saëns’ melody. Works pretty well — in a goofy 70’s kinda way, I mean! 😛

    By the way, if this melody sounds familiar to you, but you’re sure you haven’t heard either of the above versions, perhaps you’ve seen this movie?

    You have to wonder what our friend Camille would have thought of this particular adaptation of his work. What a resumé — piano and organ virtuoso, composer, conductor, mathematician, philosopher, poet, and… tunesmith for singing mice! 😛 On the other hand, he did write the Carnival of the Animals, so perhaps it’s fitting! 😉

    Have a musical question of your own? Send it in!


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    Two LoveNerds Celebrate One Year!

    I’m back after a few days off from blogging! I needed a little breather after completing the NaBloPoMo challenge, and of course McDoc and I had our 1st wedding anniversary to celebrate!!!

    We had a lovely, if too brief, getaway in Windsor — where, by the way, everyone else was visiting to watch the Red Bull Air Race. We may have looked a tad bit snooty to the other folks at the breakfast table when they asked if we were going down to the riverfront to watch and we answered, “No, we have symphony tickets this afternoon.” What can I say — it’s hard out there for a nerd! 😛

    More about the symphony concert later, but for now, to mark the occasion, here’s the song that we had as the first dance at our wedding reception (with apologies for the news crawler and the, um, gentleman in the enormous cowboy hat 😛 ).

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