Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Redemptive Power of Music

Yesterday an important new talk was posted on the TED TALKS website.  It is a talk given in Long Beach in February 2010 by Robert Gupta, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, about his experiences with his musician friend, Nathaniel Ayers.  He describes how he personally witnessed "the redemptive power of music" work its healing magic on Mr. Ayers.  Please watch this short video right now, before I continue. 

Were you moved by his story and his conviction to always make music with his friend?  I certainly was!  Gupta was very eloquent when he summed up his experiences with this man and how it relates to music.

"And I understood that this was the very essence of art.  This was the very reason why we made music.  That we take something that exists within all of us at our very fundamental core, our emotions, and through our artistic lens, through our creativity, we're able to shape those emotions into reality.  And the reality of that expression reaches all of us and moves us, inspires and unites us."
And in the line that TED used for the title of the Gupta talk, he said the following.

"Music is medicine.  Music changes us and for Nathaniel, music is sanity."
Correctly, the title of the talk generalizes the last three words, by removing the specific reference to Nathaniel.  This applies to all of us.  I don't suffer from a mental illness, but as I was going through the mourning process after the loss of Marcia, I realized the medicine I needed to add to my life.  Which I stated in the following way.

"I need to experience live classical music more often. It makes me stronger, more sane. I will be better, with more of it in my life."
 And clearly I was totally right to draw this conclusion, as shown by the fact that I experienced healing moments during both the performance of Mahler's 2nd Symphony and the performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.  

In the TED Talk by Evelyn Glennie, she said, "Music really is our daily medicine."  And you may recall that Dr. Karl Paulnack says that "Music is a basic need of human survival."  So there is a lot of agreement on the importance of music and I started this blog to report on my life in music.   

Now as it turns out, I had already heard something about the life story of Nathaniel Ayers, as I had seen the piece 60 Minutes did on him.  When you watch that video below, you'll get to see him playing his cello and trumpet and you'll get to meet the journalist, Steve Lopez, who discovered him on the streets of Los Angeles and wrote many columns, and then a book which became the film The Soloist, about those experiences.  You will also see Ayers interacting with Gupta and other members of the LA Philharmonic.
You will also see his sister, Jennifer Ayers-Moore, describe the devastating after effects of the shock treatment that Ayers was subjected to, in an attempt to restore his sanity, after he first became ill at Julliard.

"I remember when he came out, he had this look on his face, it was . . . almost like a zombie.  She [their mother] expected him to go in and come out a different person.  And that . . . it just didn't work out that way."

You may recall that Gupta mentioned that Ayers now refuses treatment, having been treated so long ago with "shock therapy and Thorazine and handcuffs."  In the 60 Minutes piece, the journalist and his sister are left hoping at the end that he will eventually accept treatment from one of the so-called "new, more effective drugs."  It seems to me that Ayers learned his lesson then and it's time the world recognizes he now benefits from a humane treatment, in his work with music and his musician friends.

So the journalist voiced his wish that, "This man is well on the way to recovery" only to discover that, "The next day, he's the devil."  But the musicians clearly get that his redemption has come and will continue to come through his work with the music and the musicians.  How much easier would his path had been, if he had not been so seriously harmed by the shock treatment?  Well the musicians and Ayers himself are the heroes of this piece, saving the planet, one soul at a time!!

And notice that Ayers does not view himself as a victim, in spite of the harmful treatment he received.  On the contrary, in one lucid moment in the video, he states, "Music is saying, you know, life isn't that bad . . ." and in another, "It's very good to be alive right now."  And think about this.  How many people on the rough streets of Los Angeles has Ayers himself helped by performing his own live music?  My guess is that it is more than a few.    

And so we end with a performance on the cello by Nathaniel Ayers, accompanied by Joanne Pearce Martin, Principal Keyboardist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Remembering Bill Bacon

Monday night, March 22, 2010, I met the Dancing Cellist at Davies Symphony Hall for the third in my current series of concerts.  Our seats were in the first row of the 1st Tier on the left side of the stage, so we had a bird's eye view of the orchestra, with a clear view of the hands of the pianist, Denis Matsuev, for the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.  I had brought along my binoculars, so I could get good close-ups on any of the performers.

"The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (colloquially known as "Rach 3") is famous for its technical and musical demands on the performer. It has the reputation of being one of the most difficult concertos in the standard piano repertoire."
The Rach 3 was the reason I bought tickets to this concert.  When I was a student at Oberlin College, one of my best friends, Bill Bacon, was a piano student at the great Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  Bill was consumed by one purpose at that time.  He wanted to learn to play this difficult piece.  I'm sure that was the first time I had heard of Rach 3 and maybe even the first time I had heard about Rachmaninoff.  That was back in 1965, long before the movie Shine had introduced the piece to millions all over the world.  Bill was excited because the great piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, had recently returned to the stage at Carnegie Hall.  And I'm pretty sure that it was the Horowitz performance of  Rach 3 on RCA that Bill had in his collection.  So that's how I first heard the great concerto.

I always meant to go see the film, Shine, but somehow it never happened.  I understand it is a true story about a talented Australian pianist, David Helfgott, who learned Rach 3 for a concerto competition, but suffered a mental breakdown in the process.  Sadly, that seemed to be the process Bill was going through at Oberlin as well.  He became depressed and dropped out of the school sometime during my sophomore year.  But he continued to hang out in our section of the dorm until the end of the school year, as he had a girl friend, Cheryl, who was still a student.  In the end, they moved to Chicago together and the last time I saw them it was when I visited them in their apartment there.  I remember the apartment had been furnished with an ancient and very black and crusty gas stove, which Bill had proceeded to take apart and refurbish to a grand and nearly new looking condition.  I think all that manual labor had been good for Bill and he was justifiably proud of the restored stove.  He and Cheryl seemed happy together.  And then we parted and went about our separate lives.

I never knew what became of Bill, or whether he ever learned to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.

So when Denis Matsuev, a large handsome Russian, came out to perform the piece, I had Bill in the back of my mind.  Bill had told me what a difficult piece the concerto was to perform, so I felt a sense of danger as the music began.  Would this young man be up to the task?  Well he certainly was!  I have played the concerto on my stereo many times (dozens, hundreds of times?) over the years and know the sound like an old friend.  There below me on the stage, Matsuev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, were performing the music just like I had heard it so many times in my home. Only this was far better, as it was a live performance in a wonderful concert hall.  The feeling of danger quickly subsided as Matsuev tore through the piece with no sign of distress or difficulty.  He made it look easy.

And so I relaxed and just reveled in the glorious sound, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes while watching his fingers fly across the keyboard.  It came to a most amazing conclusion, with a flourish of virtuosity from the pianist and a crescendo from the orchestra in support, all ending with a glorious crash, that sent a chill down my back.  Wow!  I had not expected such a dramatic conclusion and it felt great to feel a chill down my back again from live music.

And just like that, Matsuev was up and taking his bows from an excited audience. Cheers and cries of "Bravo" rolled across the concert hall as we clapped and clapped.  The conductor and orchestra took their bows, then left the stage and returned two or three times and finally Matsuev came back out without the conductor.  I had been taking it all in and enjoying the celebration that accompanies the end of a fine musical performance.  Life was good.
And so Matsuev sat back down at his Steinway for an encore.  He announced what he was going to play, which from the 1st Tier sounded like "Music Box," (but was actually "Musical Snuffbox"  Op.32 by Anatol Liadov) and proceeded to perform this new number, a delightful, mostly quiet piece that contrasted nicely with the virtuosity of Rach 3.  As soon as his fingers touched the keys and the music began, I was nearly overcome by a sudden intense feeling of grief mixed with joy.  If I had been home alone, I would have just burst out in tears, with loud sobbing.  But with Matsuev playing quietly down below me, I had to restrain myself, so as not to disturb the attentive audience.  I slammed my eyelids shut, as my eyes filled with tears, and I reminded myself to breathe, and keep on breathing, deeply.

As the Music Box played quietly down below me, the sudden surge of feelings began to subside, like a wave pulling back from the shore.  I opened my eyes and watched the end of the encore and the applause that followed.  An excited peaceful feeling returned.

What was that?!  I think my body had been experiencing the loss of my friend, Bill, and when the concerto was concluded so successfully it allowed all the tension about the difficulty of the piece to be released, which led to the feeling of joy, but it was accompanied by the long ago submerged grief over the loss of my Oberlin friends from my life.  The suddenness with which it appeared was rather disconcerting, but the experience was healing, as the feelings made their way out.

Once again I had experienced a transcendent moment at a live performance of music in San Francisco!   

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Experience the Sound

Did you ever attend a concert performed by a solo virtuoso percussionist?  Could there even be such a thing?  Well yes, there really could be.  But let's stretch credulity a bit more.  How about a solo performance by a virtuoso percussionist who is so profoundly deaf that she must read people's lips to be able to converse with them?  There is such a woman!  She is Evelyn Glennie from Scotland, "the first full-time solo percussionist in 20th-century western society."  Please take a brief detour and follow the above link to the Wikipedia entry, to get to know a little bit about this remarkable woman.  I'll wait for you to get back.  You might even want to follow the link there to her "Hearing Essay."
Okay, I'm glad you're back.  I discovered a Ted Talk this woman gave in Monterey, CA in February 2003.  I just started watching it, with no idea of what she had in store for me.  I've now watched the entire 32 minutes three times through.  She begins with this startling statement, especially so, coming from a so-called "deaf" woman.      
"Of course, my job is all about listening.  And my aim, really, is to teach the world to listen.  That's my only real aim in life."
And that is what she proceeds to do in the talk.  I'm sure you've heard about how those with a particular disability (e.g. deafness) can develop the other senses (e.g. hearing) to a much greater degree.  This is what she has done, as she doesn't just listen with her ears.  She says, "I also hear it through my hands, through my arms, my cheekbones, my scalp, my tummy, my chest, my legs and so on."  In fact you'll notice that the first thing she does is to remove her shoes, so that she can hear the music she plays better.

Well, do we need to be deaf too, to do this?  No, she encourages us all to really learn to listen, to fully experience the sound of the music.  She says, "It's unbelievably important for us to really test our listening skills.  To really use our bodies as a resonating chamber."

And she concludes with the following challenge.
"The next time you go to a concert, just allow your body to open up, allow your body to be this resonating chamber.  Be aware that you're not going to experience the same thing as the performer is.  The performer is in the worst possible position for the actual sound, because they're hearing the contact of the stick on the drum, or the mallet on the bit of wood, or the bow on the string, etc.  Or the breath that's creating the sound from wind and brass.  They're experiencing that rawness there.  But yet, they're experiencing something so unbelievably pure, which is before the sound is actually happening.  Please take note of the life of the sound, after the actual initial strike or breath is being pulled.  Just experience the whole journey of that sound, in the same way that I wished I'd experienced the whole journey of this particular conference, rather than just arriving last night."

Wow, now there's a woman who has mastered her instruments.  And I really love her wonderful Scottish way of speaking!  I wish I could roll my R's like that!

Well I took her challenge to allow my body "to be this resonating chamber" when I went to see the Mahler's Second Symphony performed last Sunday.  And it was certainly a wonderful experience, with the amazing variety of sounds that Mahler delivers in that awesome piece.  And really, there is no way to experience that sound as fully as at a live concert hall with a full orchestra and chorus.

What does this say about the ear buds and iPods we see everywhere we go these days?  Well it certainly is limiting the experience of the sound to what is coming in through the ears!  Remember, she said we should "really try to connect with those sounds far far more broadly than simply depending upon the ear."  So for me, attending a live performance of music is far and away more satisfying than any other way of experiencing music.  I invite you to put down your headphones, or turn off your boom box and go to the telephone and order some tickets to a real live concert.  You'll be glad you did.
But I just can't restrain myself from making one final point.  You'll recall that she said, "Every one of us, depending upon where we're sitting will experience this sound quite quite differently."  Of course she's right, but for one exception!  And that is when the performers, the conductor and the audience are all participating as one in the creation of the sound of silence!  I had the privilege of being able to help create that glorious sound when I went to hear Mahler's Ninth Symphony.  It was an exceptionally rare and moving experience and one that I will never forget!!  Remember when she asked about the sound of snowing?  It's the same thing!  So you can do that too, on a snowy night.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Uncle Art's Scrapbook

I was born in Galesburg, IL and my family lived in a rented house on Florence Avenue at that time.  Right behind our house was the backyard of a house on Brown Avenue, which was the next street over.  In those days in the Midwest, people talked to their neighbors and often became good friends with them.  That's what happened with my family and Art and Mary Stilson, who lived in that house behind us on Brown Avenue.  My Mom and Dad became close friends with the Stilsons while we lived there.  In 2007 I took a picture of that house, which is a lot fancier now than when the Stilsons lived there.
 I don't remember anything from that period on Florence Avenue.  Before I started grade school we had moved to another house that my father had built for us across town.  My memory does go back to that house.  Even though we had moved across town, we stayed close friends with the Stilsons and would often go visit them in their small home.  And they had come to be known as Uncle Art and Aunt Mary to me and my brother, even though there was no true blood relationship there.

Uncle Art was a large man of modest means who lived happily with his wife, who was an excellent homemaker and interested in the arts.  She was an excellent cook, she did a lot of sewing, and she often sang in a local choir.  They had an upright piano, which she liked to play  Their backyard was filled with a very large garden, where they probably grew most of the food they ate.   I remember row after row of very large stalks of corn in that garden.  They didn't have any kids of their own, but they were always glad to see me and my brother arrive for a visit.  We always got Christmas cards and birthday cards from them, and probably some presents along the way as well.  Aunt Mary always had a cat.

Uncle Art had been laid off from his job, so they were getting by with limited resources.  But they had that garden and Aunt Mary always canned a lot of food for the winter months.  Occasionally there were serious talks with my parents about their situation, but usually they were just happy to see us and we'd have a lot of fun together.

Uncle Art did a lot of reading in newspapers, magazines and books.  I don't recall there being a television in their home in those days.  Uncle Art loved to find interesting stories, tidbits, and oddities in his readings.  He would clip them out and when we would come to visit, he would be sure to pull  something out from his scrapbook to show us.  "Oh, look what I found in the paper the other day," he'd say.  Then he'd watch while my Dad read it, perhaps aloud to us all, and then he'd laugh loudly with us all about the story.

He also had records that he'd pull out to play for us.  Early on they were probably 78's, but later he upgraded to regular LP's.  I remember him playing Spike Jones for us and howling with laughter over those hilarious tracks.  And one time he had a very special record to play for us, as he had discovered this amazing piano player called Victor Borge, who could really play the piano, but was really a comedian.  I clearly remember the day he played the Phonetic Punctuation routine for us.  We were all rolling on the floor with laughter on that one.

Uncle Art would have loved the Internet.  I'm sure he would have been all over the web, reading and saving interesting tidbits and oddities for his scrapbook.  And when I came across the following video, it made me think of Uncle Art immediately.  He would have loved this video of Carl Sandburg, in which he makes an accurate prediction about the outcome of the 1960 Presidential election.

You see Uncle Art was a big fan of Carl Sandburg, who was also born in Galesburg, only a long time before me.  He had written the definitive three volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which was on Uncle Art's bookshelf and I'm sure he had read them.  Of course Lincoln was the most famous American our state of Illinois had ever produced and Sandburg was the biggest name to ever come out of Galesburg.  Uncle Art loved them both.

Many years later, after Uncle Art and Aunt Mary were gone, I discovered a link between this favorite son of my hometown, the favorite son of my home state and my favorite songwriter, Bob Dylan.  In fact, Dylan had once quoted Sandburg when he was performing one of his early songs, Talkin' World War III Blues.  When I first heard this song on the Freewheelin' album, Dylan was quoting Lincoln in the song.                                
Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time,
But all of the people can't be all right all of the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
And yet when he performed it in the Halloween Concert at Philharmonic Hall in NYC in 1964, he sang:
All the people can be some right part of the time,
Part of the people can be some right all of the time,
But all the people can't be all right all of the time.
                        Carl Sandburg said that.                          
What's with that?  Why did he change the line?!  Which is right?
Of course with the connections to my hometown, I had to research the point and finally wrote up the answer to those questions on my Dylan bibliography website, Conclusions on the Wall.  The key to my solving this puzzle came when I discovered a two record set of Sandburg reading from his Lincoln works.  I had to buy the records because I remembered that Uncle Art had owned that album and had played it for us.  It was Halloween 1998 when I found it in the CD shop and took it home with me, exactly 34 years after Bob had sung the Sandburg line in New York City.

Once I figured it all out, I put together a page in my bibliography website all about it.  I think I enjoyed making that page more than any other on my website.  And to be sure, if Uncle Art had still been around, I would have proudly pointed him to it.  He would have loved it and would have surely added it to his scrapbook!
Take a look for yourself and see what you think!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

That Magnificent Sound

It is 8:00 pm and I just returned home from a Sunday afternoon San Francisco Symphony performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), with Laura Claycomb (soprano), Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano), and the full San Francisco Symphony Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin.
The original plan was to take both my Chiro Friend (CF) and the Dancing Cellist (DC) to this concert.  But as it turned out, the Dancing Cellist was under a lot of pressure to prepare for her college final exams, which are next week.  So on Saturday, it was decided that her mother, the Dancing Poet (DP), would attend in her place.  Neither CF nor DP had ever been to a live performance of any music by Gustav Mahler.

DP attended the pre-concert talk with me and CF joined us for the concert itself.  The very informative talk was given by the Program Annotator for the symphony, James M. Keller.  Keller is a graduate of my alma mater, Oberlin College.

I am not a music critic, nor a music journalist.  So I don't intend to write a review of this, or any other, concert.  I intend to describe my life in music in this blog, and that is all.  I will write about what I personally experienced  in hopes that the reader might find this of some use.

On the drive home, one word came to mind to describe this performance.  It is magnificent.  Look it up and you'll find the following words as synonyms for this word: grand, splendid, majestic, superb, glorious, impressive.  They all apply.  

There is no way to describe this experience in words.  One simply must experience  the music  directly oneself.  And that is what I encourage everyone to do.

I am partial to Mahler.  He and Bob Dylan are the two musical giants who have meant the most to me in my life and have had the most impact upon me as a listener.  So perhaps I came to the concert with a bias in favor of this piece of music.  But upon its conclusion, both CF and DP were excited about the performance and were very happy to have spent the afternoon in this way.

I am not a critical listener.  That is, I am not listening for things that I might criticize.  I am there to experience the sound and see where it takes me.  With a larger than usual orchestra and the full chorus and two soloists, there were probably somewhere between 200 and 250 dedicated musicians, between those on stage and the horns, trumpets and percussion in two locations offstage.  Surely each one has spent thousands of hours learning their craft and practicing their instrument to master its use, in order to win the right to sit on that stage to play for us today.  For most, they did not do this in order to make a fortune or to become world famous.  They did it because of their love of music.  And to my mind they are doing God's work, elevating the consciousness of those who pay to see them perform.
So I have tremendous respect for these world class musicians.  And in recent years, this orchestra  under the direction of MTT has recorded the full cycle of Mahler symphonic works and has gained a world-wide reputation for being an excellent Mahler orchestra.  We are very fortunate in the SF Bay Area to have this great symphony available for our listening pleasure.  So I considered it a great honor for me to be able to hear their performance of this work.

I am open to feeling whatever emotions and feelings the performance might bring my way.  Before they began to play, I was feeling nervous and anxious, just like I used to feel before I performed music in my childhood.  Perhaps I was reliving some of those feelings, or perhaps some of those feelings were coming from some of the performers or others in the hall, or both.   Whatever their origin,  those feelings went away as the music began to be performed, just as they used to do when I was a young performer.

Now understand that this work deals with the subject of death and resurrection.  Mahler originally called what eventually became the first movement Funeral Rites and the fourth and final movements specifically address death and resurrection in the words sung by the soloists and chorus.  In that way, this is serious music, dealing with a serious subject.  For me this had special meaning, as I have been going through the mourning process  after the loss of a love of my life, Marcia (RIP).  And it is this loss that has directly led me to this rejuvenation of my musical life and the series of concerts that I will be attending during these next few months.

In preparing for the concert I had read the chapter on the Second Symphony in a Mahler biography I own.  And I had listened to a number of performances of the symphony, both on CD and with You Tube videos.  The latter mostly consisted of performances by the NY Philharmonic directed by Leonard Bernstein and an 8/30/98 performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Simon Battle.  The latter videos have excellent video quality, as well as subtitles with the English translation of the singing in the final two movements.     

On three separate occasions during the final days leading up to the performance today, I had burst into tears while watching the last eight minutes of the Rattle/CBSO performance.  In each case I was watching the video with a great deal of interest, but not in any sort of morose state, and each time my tears had simply burst out unexpectedly as I watched.  Each time this grief was accompanied by thoughts about Marcia.  And each time it felt like a healing experience.



Perhaps part of my nervousness before this performance was over wondering whether I might find myself bursting into tears during this performance as well.  Our seats were in the middle of the second row, less than ten feet from the edge of the stage.  I didn't want to cause a scene.  So before it started, I warned both CF and DP about this possibility, so that they would not be thrown off by it, if it should come to pass.

Well it did not happen that way.  But the music did move me in significant ways at many points during the performance and at three different points (not the same point as when I watched the videos) tears began rolling down my cheeks.  I just let them roll.  I didn't even wipe them off, not wanting to direct any of my attention off of the performance.  And once again these felt like healing moments.

As I thought about all this on the drive home, I realized the point I wanted to make in writing about this experience.  And that is that far too many people these days are missing out on these experiences.  There was one empty seat in the first row right in front of us, but mostly the concert looked to be sold out.  But I had been able to buy my tickets only six weeks before the concert.  For such a large metropolitan area, this tells me there are a huge number of people who don't have the slightest idea what they are missing by not attending concerts by this world class symphony orchestra.

Perhaps I should keep this incredible secret to myself, as it certainly makes it easier for me to get tickets.  But how does this affect our culture and the overall well-being of our population?  As Dr. Karl Paulnack has said, attending a performance of Mahler's Second "...can be a very deep transformative life saving experience."   And as he said in his Welcome Address to new students at The Boston Conservatory, "music is a basic need of human survival."

He concludes his Welcome Address by saying the following. 
"Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do."
When one first reads his statement, perhaps it seems like hyperbole, wishful thinking.  But when you  directly experience the majestic power of great music performed by a great symphony orchestra, his statement begins to feel both plausible and right.  Surely this is God's work.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Role of the Audience

A week ago I wrote about the Welcome Address to new music students given by Dr. Karl Paulnack,  In that speech, Paulnack discussed how "Music is a basic need of human survival." The speech was given in 2004 and Paulnack went on to expand on this discussion in 2008 and 2009.

On August 24, 2008 he gave a sermon at his church in Boston in which he discussed his ideas, but extended them to also consider the role of the audience in live performance.  The audio of that sermon is still available at the website of the church.  In it, he says the following.

"What matters more than the type of music that you like, is that we submit ourselves to it.  That we enter into a partnership with music where we recognize its potential as a therapeutic agent.  And live music is much much better for this than recorded music. . . With live music, the specific energy that you bring as an audience member affects the performers in subtle, but real, ways. And you influence what is being created.  In effect, you co-create the performance.  And music ends up being created with you in mind." 
Does that sound familiar?  If you've read my article on The Sound of Silence, you may recall I wrote that at the end of the performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony "the audience had become performers along with the orchestra! We all helped to create that effect."  And when I talked to the orchestra members afterward about the magnificent performance, one of them commented that "it was very unusual for an audience to remain that still, not just at the very end, but throughout the final movement."  Clearly he was saying that the actions of the audience had had a positive effect on the performance by the orchestra.  This is just the sort of thing Paulnack was discussing in his sermon.

On April 25, 2009 Paulnack expanded upon this role of the audience in a telephone interview with Janice Harris published as a podcast on her Music Therapy website.  In that interview, he states the following.

". . . if you go to a performance and you sit there quietly with your gaze on the musicians, giving your whole heart and soul and attention into that performance, focusing on those musicians, supporting them, in a way; if you go with that kind of devotion, musicians thrive on that.  We can feel - we can actually feel which members  of the audience we have.  Who's with us?  And we usually play to those people.  We play to those people who are riveted on us, who are focused on us. . . They don't recognize how much of a positive impact they have on performance by sharing it.  And really, the performances are shaped half by the people in the audiences and their states of receptiveness, just as much as they're shaped by the people on the stage."
So the role of an audience member is not a passive role.  The more we engage with the performance, the more it will enhance the performance for us, as well as for everyone else.

And in that same podcast he discusses the power of some musical performances.

"Going out to Mahler's Second - that's not 'entertainment' - that's not what that's about.  It's a very deep and transformative - it can be a very deep transformative life saving experience.  So I think one of my intentions here is not to put down in any way people who do music as entertainment, or the use of music as entertainment.  There's nothing wrong with entertainment.  It's not a bad thing.  But to assume that all music somehow is entertainment or has a function of distracting us or carrying us away from the deeper aspects of life, is I think, a misconception in our society.  Music can actually carry us very very deeply into our lives and into a deeper experience and a deeper connection with our lives.  Which I see as a different function from entertainment."
Wow, he has set a high standard here!  This comment made an immediate connection with me when I heard it a couple of weeks ago, as I had just purchased tickets to the 3/14/10 performance of the Mahler Second Symphony by the San Francisco Symphony.  I will be taking both my Chiro Friend and the Dancing Cellist to this concert.  I bought three tickets to this one, as I didn't want to have to make a choice about which of the two of them would get to go to this one.  So I got tickets for both.  We're all really looking forward to this performance!


Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Concert Season Begins

On February 11, 2010 my series of seven San Francisco Symphony concerts began with a performance at the Flint Center in Cupertino, CA.  My Chiro Friend had agreed to join me for this one and this was to be the first time she ever attended a symphony orchestra concert.  I thought this would be a nice way for her to get started with this kind of music.  It would be a short drive from her office to the concert hall; much shorter than going all the way to San Francisco.  And the concert was to include The Planets by Gustav Holst, which would be very easy to enjoy, even for a young woman new to classical music.
And it did prove to be a good choice.  We both enjoyed the music conducted by Charles Dutoit, very much.  She was most excited about the various emotional moods represented in the Holst work.  As we left the concert she was talking about how she might be able to incorporate the music into the health care talks she gives to people.  She realized that it would be easier to play a passage that brings on a particular emotion, rather than just describe the emotion with words. I thought that was fantastic, as she was immediately applying this new experience to her own life in a really creative way!

It had been really interesting to be next to her as she attended her first concert.  Before it began she let me know that she already knew that we weren't supposed to clap between the movements.  Yes, I confirmed to her, that is the tradition.  And then she grabbed the program and began reading the program notes with great interest, to see what we would be hearing.  Excellent, she really is getting in to the experience!  I was very pleased that she was really participating.   

The concert began with Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by William Walton.  When the first movement finished, the crowd began it's usual chorus of coughing, shuffling, and throat clearing from all directions around us.  She cracked up and whispered in my ear, "Is it always like this?"  Well yes, I had to admit, pretty much.  She found this rather amusing and gave me a big smile about it.  The second movement ended, followed by the same sort of rattling around by the audience.  Another chuckle on her part.  She listened intently during the playing, but didn't get all serious about it.  A perfect attitude.

During the intermission, we got up and walked around a bit, used the facilities and so on.  She disappeared for a bit and then reappeared with a small package in her hand.  You see, she had been seeing clients right up to the time when we had to leave for the concert.  So there was no time for dinner before the show.  The poor girl was probably starving!  So she had gotten herself a snack, which was the small package in her hand.  Hey, no problem with that.

So we headed back to our seats to get ready for The Planets.  And when we got settled, she started in on her snack, offering me some, but I declined, as I wasn't particularly hungry.  And then I saw what she had bought at the concert hall canteen.  It was a bag of Corn Nuts!  Can you say crunchy?!! 

Wait, the Maestro is coming out again.  They're about to get started with The Planets.  Quick, eat some of that crunchy goodness.  Crunch!  Crunch!  Crunch!  Hey, no problem, the applause started up to welcome the conductor back, pretty loud.  Still time for some more crunching.  And then the first movement began.  Ooops, caught with a mouth half full.  When the music got louder, I could hear some teeny tiny, mouth closed,  slow, crunching noises, just because I was sitting nearby.  And so it went.

Now The Planets has seven movements, so that meant six breaks between movements for the crowd to loosen up for the next movement.  And the same routine every time with the coughing and throat clearing, but now there was some added crunching in my vicinity as well.  Finally my dear sweet Chiro Friend could not contain herself any longer.  On the next break between movements, she leaned toward me, open mouth near my left ear and let go with a loud C R U N C H    C  U   U   R   R   R   U   N   C   H  ! !   It was hilarious.

Hey, she's a great chiropractor, but she's got a sense of humor too.

Now I don't want to mislead the reader.  We weren't creating a scene or bothering anyone.  It was just a little fun in the moment.  Overall we both listened very intently to the music, which is, after all, a very showy piece and a great introduction to a new listener of the great variety of sounds that can be produced by a good orchestra.  We both left the concert in great spirits after an evening of wonderful live music.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Follow Your Heart

On January 24, 2010 my life began to shift in a new direction.

I had decided to set aside much of the day to remember Marcia, my partner in life during much of the previous decade, who had passed away on November 1, 2009.  I had been going through the mourning process since then, with her in my thoughts every day.  Right after her passing I had taken a 3,000 mile road trip in my car, to Colorado and back, to meditate about her and our lives, together and apart.   I spoke with my  family, my closest friends, my co-workers, my clients, my chiropractor, my general practitioner, and my favorite neighbor about Marcia, my life with Marcia, and my loss.  I drove to Los Angeles and attended her very moving memorial service. I had no particular plan or agenda, nor any particular time table.  I had just decided to let my thoughts be on her and to honor her memory with my thoughts.  I was in no hurry to "get over" the loss, or reach any particular conclusion with the mourning process.  I had decided to just let myself have the time to explore this process.

January 24, 2010 would have been her 66th birthday.  Marcia never made any big deal about birthdays, but for her 65th birthday I had designed a special birthday card just for her, complete with some nice photographs, an appropriate Dylan quote, and some heartfelt prose about her qualities.  She liked it a lot, saying, "Very thoughtful of you and beautifully done."  Marcia was a fine artist, so the "beautifully done" meant a lot to me, as she had excellent judgment about the quality of art.  She was very pleased that I was "exploring and experiencing the creative process." 

I never imagined that by her next birthday she would be gone.  And so as that day approached, I resolved to do something special to remember her.  There were a number of things I did to remember her throughout that day, but the most special thing I had planned was to devote the evening to meditating about her, inviting her presence in my heart.  It seemed to me the best way I could do that would be to listen to a recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on my living room stereo, while letting myself go to her.

I chose that piece partly because of the subject matter, Mahler's "Farewell to Life."  But my attendance at a performance of this symphony in 1994 had been one of the peak experiences in my life, so I knew that  the music would be worthy to the occasion.  And the article I wrote about that performance was one of the first things I had Marcia read when we first began connecting as a couple.  She liked the article very much.

And so that's what I did.  It was a wonderful evening, well spent.  Somewhere along the way, I began to feel nourished by the music.  As Dr. Karl Paulnack has said,
"Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can't with our minds."
The music was doing that for me that evening, as I meditated about Marcia and our lives.  It was helping to heal my heart.  And one clear thought came to me, above all others.   

"I need to experience live classical music more often.  It makes me stronger, more sane.  I will be better, with more of it in my life."

The very next week I was working at my desk, with Pandora playing music for me when the internet music service ran one of their brief ads between songs.  It was an ad for the San Francisco Symphony, which was promoting a 50% off sale coming up in just a few days.  Bingo!
I spent the rest of the evening exploring their website and looking at their upcoming concerts and the great deals they were offering on tickets.  I decided to order tickets to seven of the concerts as soon as the sale began.

But I also decided not to attend alone.  In recent years I had gone to a number of concerts alone.  And though the concerts were wonderful, I always missed having a companion at the performances.

In fact the very last concert I had attended was a Leonard Cohen concert in San Jose, the final performance in that tour. When I had a discussion with the two young ladies sitting next to me, one of them asked, "So tell me, why a nice man like you is here at this show all by yourself!"  Well of course, I was really there with them, at least at that moment.  But I had to admit to myself that she really did have a point.

And so I decided to find someone to go with me to these concerts. In fact there will be at least three different women attending various of these concerts with me.  The first to agree was my Chiro Friend, who had never attended a symphony concert in her life, but had offered wise counsel during my grieving process, not to mention all the great help she has given me with my body aches and pains.  The second to agree was my Dancing Cellist Friend, who had a room in my home for a couple of years and had been there for me many times.  The third to agree was my Dancing Poet Friend, who has been very dear to me for nearly forty years, a friend for life.

I have started to follow my heart, to act on that firm resolve that came into my consciousness that Sunday evening in January.  This was the first step that I took with this new direction, that has already had far reaching beneficial effects upon my life.  I invite you to keep reading this blog and follow along as I write about my life in music.


The Sound of Silence

The following is a copy of an email I wrote to a good friend of mine late at night on May 28, 1994.  I had just returned from a performance of the Mahler Ninth Symphony and I was in a state of total inspiration.  I sat down at my computer and just typed it out, sending it on its way at 2:15 am.  For many years it has been on my Bob Dylan Bibliography website and it is the page that I have pointed friends and clients to more than any others.  I decided that it should also be on this new blog, but thought it might benefit from some editing before I published it on the blog.  So tonight I read it over for the first time in quite a long time and decided not to edit it, other than a few punctuation changes.  Otherwise, I decided that I had pretty much said it all that night, and so I have simply reformatted it for this medium.  I hope you enjoy it.   Ron

The Sound of Silence

I just got back from the SF Symphony performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. It was a most amazing experience, in a most unexpected way. I'm writing this partly as my way of reliving and duplicating what occurred, and partly to keep myself from being stuck in the win of it for the rest of time.

One hour before the concert, as they often do, they had a lecture on the music by a local musician, conductor and teacher (Robert Hughes). Being a big fan of Mahler's music, I went to the lecture. It was very informative, as he described the various themes, tempos, orchestrations, and so on used by Mahler. Examples were given throughout, by playing short passages of the music on tape.

Just a little bit about the symphony itself. It consists of four movements. The outer two (1 & 4) are about 30 mins each. The inner two are about 15 mins each. I don't know whether you're at all familiar with Mahler, but he uses very complex orchestrations with every instrument having it's own voice. Solo passages come soaring out at various points from all sorts of different instruments.

The speaker made the point that Mahler gives the second violins their own voice, rather than merely having them give depth or support to the first violins. Because of this, he said the conductor (Herbert Blomstedt) had decided to use a placement of the performers that was becoming common in Europe for the Ninth.

Instead of having all the violins on the left of the conductor, with the 1st violins on the outside and the 2nd violins on the inside, he was placing the 1st violins in their usual position, but the second violins would be on the right side of the conductor. This would have the effect of separating the voices so they could be more easily heard. This moved the cellos to the center, where their sound could more easily radiate directly out at the audience. The violas were to be in their usual position to the right of center, but now just inside of the 2nd violins on the outside.

This did seem to have the intended effect, as the stereo separation of the 1st and 2nd violins was pronounced, and the cellos could be easily heard even in the most pianissimo passages. (By the way, my seat was in the exact center directly behind the conductor, but in the last row of the orchestra box seats at the very back of the hall).

The lecturer described the complexity of the long first movement, with many recorded examples. The program described it as "surely Mahler's greatest achievement in symphonic composition.... the high point of Mahler's own practice in the deep and subtle art of transition, of organic expansion, of continuous variation." It's tempo is basically semi-slow, but spilling over into allegro. And it is very very rich.

The short second movement is Mahler's rewrite of a then-popular dance by Johann Strauss. Mahler's version is much more expansive and leisurely. He uses three different tempos in the movement, but they are all faster and lighter than the first.

The third movement is music of violent urgency, which Mahler wanted performed "very defiantly." The tempo is fast. He describes the style as "Burleske." There are virtuosic displays by various instruments, an echo of an exuberant march, and jagged themes transformed into tender warm melodies. Finally the fierce music, returning at still greater speed and in more ferocious temper, brings the movement to its crashing (and I do mean crashing) cadence.

The final movement is like a mirror of the first in some ways. It is s-l-o-w, an Adagio. The lecturer made the point that even though the 1st and 4th movements are both 30 mins long, the 1st takes up something like 40 pages in the score. The 4th takes up only 16 pages. The notes are held a l-o-n-g time.

He made the point that it was actually very demanding on the audience. After a full hour of concentrated attention, the final movement presented a slowly moving, but richly textured hymn, heard from the many different voices of the orchestra. It would continue for the final 30 mins of the piece.

From the program again: "... disintegration begins. All instruments but the strings fall silent. Cellos sing a phrase which they can scarcely bear to let go. Then, after great stillness, the music seems to draw breath to begin again, even slower than before: Adagissimo, slow, and ppp to the end, Mahler warns... More and more, the music recedes, a kind of polyphony to the last, the cellos and second violins gently firm, the first violins and violas softly afloat. Grief gives way to peace, music and silence become one."

The lecturer ended by saying that as the various instruments gradually drop out, we would come to experience the most wonderful silence in the end.

My thought at the time was that it would be a very short-lived silence indeed, as the applause of the audience would surely come crashing in upon it, as it always does. In some cases, I have found it annoying that between movements of a work, the audience seems to go into fits of coughing and shuffling, as though they were children in church finally released from the warning glares of their parents. This has sometimes broken the mood of the piece for me, and has seemed like one advantage of recordings over live concerts.

So then the concert itself. The music was very much as described by the lecturer and the program notes. Everything seemed to be going along as expected. The various movements were as described. The audience did their usual number between movements. And then we came to the last movement.

It rolled along in its langourous way. Near the end, the brass dropped out for good. The percussionists had taken their seats behind the tympanis. The passages became quieter and quieter. Amazingly, so did the audience. A pin dropping would have echoed above the receding tones of the music. There was no coughing, no uncomfortable shuffling, no rustling of programs. Everyone was transfixed by the mood of the music. The cellos barely whispered their tones. The first violins quietly breathed their last. The second violins and violas floated out their pianissississimo strains.

And then it was over.

Only... it wasn't! The second violins and violas were the last. But when they played their final notes, they just barely raised their bows above the strings, not budging in any other way. The conductor became frozen, with his arms in the air, just as when he was conducting.

And he was still conducting! Only now he was conducting the silence! No one moved, the concert hall was completely enveloped in peace. With the conductor's arms still up, and the violin bows still poised above the strings, no one dared to applaud. If they were wrong and it was not the end, their clapping would be a rude interruption of the music. And I'm sure that was exactly what the conductor intended!

And so the silence continued in the most delicious and satisfying way, as the final coda, until finally the conductor lowered his arms. The audience literally gasped, as they remembered to begin breathing again. And then gentle applause began, gradually giving way to full applause.

The effect was literally electrifying!

There were many curtain calls, as the conductor had each of the many soloists, and each section of the orchestra stand for their applause. He brought the retiring flutist to the front of the podium for his applause. And finally it was over.

I walked out of the concert hall, and stood just outside the doors watching the crowd pour down the stairs toward the outer doors. I just stood there not wanting to leave, thunder-struck by what I had just experienced. I had never heard silence performed before!

I stood there for about 15 mins as the concert hall emptied out. Finally I couldn't stand it any longer and I approached a small woman who was standing near me. "Have you ever heard such beautiful silence before?" I asked. She beamed and began gushing about how wonderful it had been. She said she was waiting for her daughter, who was the concert master of the youth orchestra, and she was so glad her daughter had been there to experience the silence.

Somewhat relieved that it had not been just my imagination, we discussed how special it had been. How it had been deliberately created by the conductor.

I went down the stairs, and stood outside on the street for a while, again discussing the silence with some other people, not wanting to leave. Finally I walked around the outside of the concert hall toward the orchestra's entrance. A group of four or five of the performers came out. I asked a trombonist, "Just how long was that silence, anyway?" The group laughed. One of the women said she thought he (the conductor) had become stuck. Another commented that it was very unusual for an audience to remain that still, not just at the very end, but throughout the final movement. The trombonist estimated the final silence had been perhaps 10 sec (I was thinking maybe 7). I congratulated them, and we all went on our way.

I could think of nothing else on the long drive home. I realized that for the silence at the end, the audience had become performers along with the orchestra! We all helped to create that effect. And the differing sound quality at different seats caused by the acoustics of the hall no longer mattered. For the silence, all seats had exactly the same glorious sound.

The prophetic warning of the lecturer at the end of his talk was ringing in my ears.... "you will hear the most wonderful silence..."

I also thought about a letter he read from Mahler to Bruno Walter, about this work. He had said that through his music he was constantly finding new answers to all the questions that troubled him. But that with the final movement of the Ninth, there were no longer even any questions! (He completed the score in April of 1910. It was his last complete work. He died in May of the next year, with the 10th still unfinished).

It also reminded me of a Bob Dylan interview in March of 1985 in which he said: "Well, songs are just thoughts. For the moment they stop time. Songs are supposed to be heroic enough to give the illusion of stopping time, with just that thought."

And that's what we all did, we stopped time. All the turmoil, the constant jumble of thoughts, the goal seeking, motivation and it's problems; all of it, came to a stop in a giant now.

And then we gasped for air, and living resumed.

For me, these are the experiences that matter.




Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Value of Music

Four months ago I received an email from an old friend, which contained the transcript of a speech that was given on September 1, 2004 at The Boston Conservatory by Dr. Karl Paulnack, director of the Music Division.  It was one of those messages that start with the header of a forwarded message, showing a dozen or so email addresses that it had been forwarded to before it arrived in my in box.  Often such emails contain bad (or good) jokes, appeals for some sort of political action, or the like.  Most of these get deleted after a quick scan of their content.

This one was different.  I read it and wrote back, "Wow, a really really fantastic speech.  I completely agree with what he said.  Thanks for sending it."

Mind you, this speech had been making its way around the internet from one in box to another more than five years after the speech was given. Clearly I was not the only one to find it to be fantastic!

But it only planted a seed for further thought at that time.  You see, the email had arrived just two days after Marcia had ended her battle with cancer by leaving her nearly 66 year old crippled body behind.  I had first known this woman almost forty years ago and in the last decade I had come to adore her and know her better than any other person in my life.  That day I was just at the beginning of the mourning process.  My thoughts were with Marcia and I was just going to concentrate on honoring her memory and dealing with her loss, until it felt right to do otherwise.

As I continued along through the mourning process, this seed began to grow and along with other events, contributed to a series of life changing realizations that have given me a new purpose and direction in my life.  This blog is where I will be documenting some of those changes.

So I want to share this speech with you.  In the email I received, the subject header said, Why Music?  It appears on a number of websites with the title, Why Music Matters.  After appearing on many other websites, The Boston Conservatory finally put it up on their own website, with the title, Karl Paulnack Welcome Address.  I will not copy it onto my blog, as many others have done, as Dr. Paulnack deserves to have more direct control over his own writing.

But I will quote one part from it.

"Music is a basic need of human survival.  Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can't with our minds."

When I told my friend that "I completely agree with what he said," it was this idea that I was writing about.  And that role of music in life has been manifested for me as I have been going through this mourning process, just as he describes it.  So this is at the core of why I am creating this blog.  I will be coming back to this idea in many ways.

So I want you to go to The Boston Conservatory website and read the speech for yourself.  And if you find yourself moved, like I was, I hope you will return to this blog and join me to explore this subject in the future.