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FINDING ONE'S SONIC PLACE IN THE MUSIC WORLD

Updated: Sep 24, 2023


DAVID GEORGE HASKELL has written a lovely book about music -- or better said, about the aspect of music that involves the ears, the spirit, and the mind, and that is sound. The book is called: "Sounds Wild and Broken: sonic marvels, evolution's creativity and the crisis of sensory extinction."


A biologist and professor about whom I have written before, Haskell is clearly also a kindred poetic soul; he writes in beautifully sensitive prose. And although he focuses on natural sounds, on almost every few pages I found some reference to human music and listening. His book thus resonates with my deepening love of music and the piano even as I explore the sounds that The Duchess is able to elicit in partnership with me when I play her.


As many musicologists before him have noted, Haskell talks about one important feature of music, and that is, as a relationship connecting people. He also focuses specifically on the physicality of the spaces that we occupy when making or appreciating music because those spaces shape how we experience and hear music.

Larger, "impressive" venues such as cathedrals and concert halls create uniformity and distance between performer, the music, and the audience. There is the remote stage and then there is the audience and never the twain shall meet. The musicians all look the same (some might say like a bunch of penguins dressed in black and white), are indistinct in the distance, sit upright and at attention unless just arrived to tune their instruments when there is a cacophony of sound and bit of visual chaos, then a unified march to the order of the conductor (unless of course, it is a soloist's recital). Haskell says it is this blending into one unit in this spatial, highly engineered and enhanced sound dynamic (and expensively so) that gives a feeling of ethereal uplift to the listener. Technology mediates this musical world and provides an escape from daily life, which is a carefully crafted "illusion" as Haskell calls it.


Perhaps it is exactly that illusory and mediated aspect of music that is sometimes fun, but usually ill-fitting like a coat that is too big, and ultimately nice but off-putting to me. The five Symphony performances of the 22-23 season ended up missing a lack of chills, thrills, and feelings of passionate involvement in the music performed at five concerts or recitals I attended. Even during a great performance of my favorite piece ever (Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini) by Beatrice Rana, I stepped outside of myself only once or twice for a few seconds, such as at the start of Variation 18.


By stark contrast, small, intimate musical venues involve more "raw openness, vulnerability, and animality" according to Haskell. The listener, and at least me as listerner, feels more connected to the experience including to others in the audience, and in that regard, more human. I note that I feel "more myself" when listening to music presented in such small locations.


At the recent Groupmuse event I attended with 11 others seated in the tiny balcony of a small, dimly-lit and romantic piano shop, I loved the relaxed, non "elite" feeling of that space. I sat five feet behind the pianist, Ian Scarfe, and chatted a few minutes with him and a few other attendees at the casual reception afterwards. Somehow for me that experience avoided consciousness of myself and the role I might be playing as at the Symphony; nothing like that in sight. At the Symphony it's as if I'm playing dressup and "Ms. Fancy," and there is a distinct "class" feeling to it. The astronomical Symphony prices alone draw dividing class lines in society. As Haskell says, it's a "place of high human culture." I can't say I was absolutely "transported" into the music, but I think that is because this was new experience for me, and I remained basically inside "curiosity" about what it was and how it would proceed. In the future I expect to be much more relaxed and suspect that the chills will follow.


Since I fell deeply in love with music three years ago in such a startling and abrupt way, and have developed my hearing and exposure to music since then, I want to feel even more about the music, more connected to the music and to the performer, and more in my "own skin" as a listener. I want as little as possible to distract and separate me from the music. I want as much removed from my self-consciousness as I can achieve so that I can really listen to the performer and to the music which I have chosen from among my favorite genres. When I attend a Groupmuse event in a private home or small church venue I don't feel distanced from the performer, hesitant to meet him or her or ask a question, or share my take on an aspect of the music or performance.


Luckily I'll be able to go backstage and meet Jonathan Biss, a pianist performing in January in Herbst Hall, which is about half the size or less of the Symphony (about 1000 seats more or less). I'll see if this is a small enough venue for me to become more engaged in music than at the Symphony. Because I recently reached out in email to Biss via his agent and asked, they put me on the backstage list and for the first time I will enter the ranks of "musical groupie" when I meet Biss in person. I am terribly excited to meet this talented musician who has so openly and admirably shared his battle and success in dealing with performance anxiety. At least I have created for myself "a leg up" ("a note up"?) in terms of creating a personal connection to the performer and his performance! Of course I'll take him a rose and copy of my poetry book, likely the new Vol II which is about to be distributed.


And then there is the Home Holiday Groupmuse Soiree my partner and I will host in San Francisco on Dec. 16 at 7:30 pm, featuring Ian Scarfe performing on The Duchess (and finding out if he likes her tuned to A432 Hz!). You may reserve a seat here if there are seats left. For his program he's playing:

Chopin - Selected Preludes Albeniz - Mallorca: Barcarola Chopin - Barcarolle Granados - Spanish Dances Chopin - Bolero De Falla - Ritual Dance of Fire


Ian explains that "this program takes our audience on a midwinter's journey to warmer climes. We will visit the southern coast of Spain, with Spanish Dances from Andalusia and Seville, the Mediterranean isle of Mallorca, with Chopin's Preludes and Albeniz's Barcarola. And we will explore one of the greatest works by Frederic Chopin - his impressionistic and operatic visit to Venice, the "Barcarolle, Op. 60".


Since I'm both a RomaticEraphile and Espano-Latinophile, I could not be more pleased. I hope some readers can join us. The cost of $20 per person is paid directly to the performer at the event with no part going to the group administrators or to us hosts; I appreciate how the musician is supported as best a small group can. Light refreshments will be served (BYOB) providing a wonderful chance to meet Ian, ask questions, and socialize with others afterwards. I hope to see old friends and make new ones as well!

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