Foot tapping and head bobbing

Foot tapping and head bobbing doesn’t always seem as appealing anymore although in the right company Bohemian Rhapsody will still work its insane magic just like it always has. But like Sean O’Hagan it is now time for me to move on From Iggy to Gigli or rather from Bruce and Billy to Bach and Beethoven.

The car radio is tuned to Symphony Hall and there is a growing collection of violin sonatas, partitas and concertos on CDs. It is easy to appreciate classical music in the same passive way that I have always listened to and appreciated all music, by learning the melodies. But this time appreciation isn’t all I am after. I want to listen to every note, every voice, register every nuance and take a stab at understanding reamrks like the following one in Daniel J. Levitin’s book – This Is Your Brain on Music – “Baroque purists insist on listening to Baroque music on period instruments, it is something that means a lot to purists.” I understand the various parts of that sentence, even get the author’s mild stab at the so-called purists here, Baroque music defines a period, the instruments for which it was originally written could have followed different tuning conventions and purists, by nature of the term ‘purist’, prefer listening to that music the way it was written, they are ‘original formatters’ of sorts.

That is clear to me, but what isn’t clear is how the sensibilities of purists get offended so, if they don’t get to hear this music on period instruments. Why would they be dissatisfied if it was played on a modern day piano? Essentially, how is it that their ears got fine tuned enough to perceive and register the difference and mine isn’t similarly tuned? That is what I feel I need to understand and understand it beyond the point where someone might smugly say to me, “It’s years of practice and training”. I don’t believe the realm of musical understanding is hidden behind moated walls and even if it is, and if practice and training are the ways to scale these walls, then it should be possible to get closer to it within however many “years” one has left, if there is a will to do so. And if there’s one thing we don’t lack it’s will.

There is so much worth exploring about sound that I feel overwhelmed as I try to lay my hands on everything I can to gain just that extra bit of understanding. Daniel J. Levitin’s book mentioned above is a good one for this purpose. He is a scientist and a musician and explains every concept in the most natural way as he goes through notes, tones, melodies, harmonies, rhythm, tempo, overtones and finally timbre, the great catch all…as he said…anything left unexplained by all the other terms is timbre! (Actually he goes into more detail than that so that timbre is amazingly clear to me, but I found that comment amusing) I find it hard to put this book down.

Somehow while rearranging the contents of my bag this morning I left the book at home and felt severe withdrawal during the ride in. I had to make do with listening to music…except this time I tried a different approach to listening…I tuned out everything…the lyrics, the melody and tried to focus on the rhythm and the tempo. If the one thing that sets rock and roll apart is the back beat, then I want to be able to hear it clearly. I seem to have been lost in a fog of passivity, focusing on the lyrics and on learning how to sing a particular song, when there is so much else that is going on when a piece of music is being played. One needs to find the things that the composers had in mind when the created their work, the effects they tried to achieve, how they tried to set themselves apart from something unique that they did with overtones, timbre, rhythm, syncopation. It is really unfortunate that for most of my life I was oblivious to these details. The same old attitude of accepting approximate as good enough. If I need to grow as an individual then that attitude needs to be the first thing to go.

I watched a concert the other day. My teacher was performing with Pt Samir Chatterjee accompanying her on the tabla and and a kid who had preceded her performance with a harmonium solo (who could have thought that such wizardry was possible on a harmonium). The concert went on for about four hours and well past midnight. The concert was in the city and I had parked my car at a garage that I wasn’t sure was open so late, but even the possible fears of not being able to retrieve my car after the concert ended could tear me away from the performance. I was thrilled about being there, the music enveloped and absorbed me like nothing before. It’s hard to explain in words the feeling that came upon me, I had never had such a sense of being exactly at the place that I needed to be, a sense of oneness with everything around me.

The next day in class I told my teacher how impressed and overwhelmed I was, after a night of thinking about it I had to mention that some of that feeling was from watching the musicians interact on stage. The way they smiled at each other and picked up on various subtle cues, completely in sync and enjoying themselves, almost approximating the sound of a finely tuned instrument, the three of them together were like an instrument and the sounds of the universe were channeling through them and reaching the audience.

That night I knew I could never turn my back again on learning music, or even other things, in the past, mentally excusing and justifying all lapses due to a busy state, a state of being overwhelmed with life and other things while life itself passed me by. How can one be overwhelmed with ‘life’ when one isn’t even living it in the ways in which life is meant to be lived?

But this new found purpose has its bleak moments, moments of despondence, force of habit, I suppose: a million insecurities and moments of self-doubt.

I shudder as I think of the abandoned home construction project on the sloping land behind my home where the developers were constructing more homes. The project had started at a rather frenzied pace. Bulldozers, land levelers were all keeping us awake all night with their cacophonous cantatas. And now the entire project has screeched to a halt. The work has stopped completely. The area looks like a wasteland with partially laid foundation, dug up ground, roads that lead nowhere and abandoned construction equipment. It is ugly, to say the least. There’s nothing sadder than an abandoned project.

I believe a stylized drawing of my mental landscape might show several such abandoned projects. I visualize walls going up in my brain these days, the laying down of musical tracks and foundations and the beginnings of an understanding of a subject that is as infinite as the universe itself. It is still difficult to imagine what the finished project would look like. Will it boast a magnificent architecture with seamless elements of style and efficiency or will it flounder like a wasteland of failure?Time will tell, time that isn’t necessarily on my side.

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