I’ve lately become a great fan of the slightly inelegantly named webiste, Brainpickings. Today they posted on Facebook (don’t knock it – it’s not all egotism) a list of 7 Essential Books on Music, Emotion and the Brain. I feel that two titles have been unfairly omitted: Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body and Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature – both of these links lead to lead to Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature.
I follow Nietzsche on Twitter. He doesn’t return the compliment. My days are peppered with @NietzscheQuotes – yet I still can’t spell his name in a hurry. This recent one set me thinking:
Admiration for a quality or an art can be so strong that it deters us from striving to possess it.
Upon seeing this, I was immediately transported back to the late 70s when I used to attend guitar summer schools. Even then, as a callow youth, I noticed a polarity in reaction to outstanding recitals by visiting artists. The response of some would be, “I’m going to give up” – a skewed compliment suggesting that the peak reached by the artist lay outwith than the numbers of years left to them for catching up. I knew they were joking but it sounded defeatist and disappointing.
I hadn’t thought about this for about 35 years but reading the above quote coincided with an unusual conversation with a pal who asked, “how did you get to be so cultured?” I laughed at what seemed like obvious irony – but he was serious and was looking for an answer. The best I could think of was “just being interesting in things.” He then said, “Yes, but how do you get interested?” And I was quite stumped.
In the frenzy of end of term concerts, Showcase etc., it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of preparation and lose sight of the big picture – the raison d’être of the job. This was remedied last night when around 30 former pupils came along to the NBHS Spring Concert – the last one for Linda Medine who has taught Music there for many years.
Joining the existing members of the Chorale on stage they performed a beautiful arrangement of Robbie Williams’ Angels – magnificently prepared and directed by Gill Casson. The sound was huge and the whole thing was very moving.
This surprise item really meant a lot to Linda – as she had meant a such lot to them – enough to come from far and wide for a lovely send off. What a nice end to the term.
What will the fate of classical music (and the arts in general) if Scotland becomes an independent nation? There is a short discussion on the topic at 1:30 of this edition of Radio 3’s Music Matters. I wouldn’t describe it as conclusive, but it does get the topic on air and shows that, already, there are some entrenched positions – including intended emigration in the event of independence.
What does the idea of key in music mean to you? Do you think keys have identifying colours? Ivan Hewett (Telegraph music critic) explores the business of keys in the first of a new series of Key Matters. Here, in episode 1 of 5, he concentrates on A major. There is also a short article about the programme here.
The story behind the song – interesting account of the late Gerry Rafferty’s massive 1978 hit, Baker Street. I met Hugh Burns (of the iconic guitar solo) a couple of times and he is every bit the gentleman he comes across as in this programme.
Can you think of a situation where age, race and classical music would come together in a single article? Read on…
There’s really much, much more to this video by Charles Limb than the couple of points I’m about to select but here goes….
There is a very clear depiction, at 06:15, of the difference of range of frequencies (Hz) and level (dB) in music and language.
There is also an interesting demonstration, at 07:07, of how those of us with normal hearing take pitch perception for granted – compared to cochlear implant patients, whose perception can be out by as much as two octaves
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/bTE0MRRXNzs?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
There is also a very interesting talk on neuroscience and musical improvisation by the same author here – look out for great demo of piano improvisation by Keith Jarret at 01:15 – including some nice ‘outside playing‘ at 02:08
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A great article in The Guardian (Mon 2 Jan) featured artists from various disciplines offering tips on creativity, inspiration and realising ideas. Placed in the arts section, it would be silly to criticize the piece for lacking a wider field of professionals, but I did find myself wishing for contributions from those in other areas of expertise e.g. science, engineering, social policy, education. The wider the field, the more boldly common themes tend to stand out.
In this regard I have to say that I’ve always found it something of an irrelevance that, in school life, Music is grouped together with, say, Art or Drama. As far as academic side of Music goes, I feel it has most in common with Language(s) and then Maths. Actually, on this point, let me bore you with another possibly pedantic personal opinion: it is often claimed that Music and Maths are very closely related. I think this is an overstatement. Music and Arithmetic are closely intertwined but Calculus, Trigonometry, Algebra and Geometry rarely darken my door – unlike alliteration. Certainly as regards the honing and analysis of technique, then Music has as much in common with PE as any other subject – and let’s not forget teamwork!
Returning to the article, I was pleased to see that composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, scotched the idea of inspiration allowing us to avoid hard graft. Fortifying this take on the creative life, he cited various details of working method: routine; a quiet place to work; the difference that time of day can make. He opines that “the afternoon is the worst time for creativity.” It can feel like the worst time for learning and teaching. Many pupils (and possibly staff) seem to undergo a dip around 2.00-3.00 and perk up when within sight of the home straits. In the unlikely event that I am charged with redesigning the school day, I will opt for 7.00-2.00, freeing up the afternoon for siesta, meditation, reading or sport. Turnage also feels his critical eye/ear to be more lenient in the evening, often necessitating morning revision.
Susan Philipsz, has some very straightforward suggestions: “keep it simple” and “be audacious” and, in similar spirit to Turnage, “if you have a good idea, stick to it. Especially if realising the project is a long and demanding process, try to keep true to the spirit of the initial idea.”
Singer/song-writer, Martha Wainwright, confesses to a piecemeal approach: “I write in short spurts – for five, 10, 15 minutes – then I pace around the room, or go and get a snack.” Playwright, Polly Stenham, touches on the physical side, advising us to “go for a walk.” Author, Haruki Murakami (in another article) takes this much further. “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing.”
Artist, Polly Morgan, stresses the fruitfulness of a cross-curricular approach: “Don’t restrict yourself to your own medium. It is just as possible to be inspired by a film-maker, fashion designer, writer or friend than another artist. Cross-pollination makes for an interesting outcome.” Harking back to my first paragraph, I would widen this field considerably. Morgan also seems willing to embrace the tough choices which many of us would prefer to avoid: “Don’t be afraid to scrap all your hard work and planning and do it differently at the last minute.” I have certainly found this approach indispensable upon arrival at gigs which differ widely from their description.
Director, Ian Rickson, encourages us to “embrace new challenges. When we’re reaching for things, we tend to be more creative.” This reminded me of an inspirational idea by Joe Zawinul, keyboard player and founder member of Weather Report (and incidentally one of the few who seemed able to write music which was happy but not inane). In his 7th decade, there was more chance than ever that his improvising would fall into favoured patterns. In a bid to stumble upon new sounds, he programmed one of his keyboards so that pitch ran in reverse order. Playing this, along with others formatted in the normal way, many novel ideas emerged which would not have occurred to a trained hand and ear.
Perhaps my favourite sound bite from the piece comes from opera singer, Kate Royal who reminds us that, “art is everywhere.” Taking the word art as a synonym for inspirational practice then, with providers and consumers of public service having to produce more with less, this seems like as good a way to step into 2012 as I can imagine. Happy New Year!
You can access the full article here.
But let’s leave Joe Zawinul with the last word:
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…because I heard it via Facebook first – the power of social media:
the headline says it all – but why not click anyway
I’m just back from what has now become an annual East Lothian charity event, organised by our very own Maxine Wilson on behalf of Macmillan Cancer Support. Instrumental Instructors in East Lothian schools put forward soloists and small groups for two (different) programmes. Tonight’s – the first of two – was sold out. I had two hats this evening: one as accompanist for former NBHS singer, Zoe Moskal-Guy, and the other directing a small group of MGS guitarists.
By coincidence, I sent off today the master of Love Burns – an album featuring Zoe and me, along with some very special guests. In a few weeks 1,000 copies will be delivered and the website www.loveburns.co.uk will go live. Watch this space…
Playing with the small MGS group (7 pupils) was a treat. We played a piece which we aired in 2010’s East Lothian Showcase Concert – that time with a much bigger group – around 40 players. With only 7, everyone can hear one another and it’s possible to play in a much freer way, without the necessity of a rigid beat to keep together. I was extremely proud of their sensitive performance – and grateful to all for cheerfully giving up their evening for this worthy cause. Many thanks to all involved.
This was the 2nd nice event of the week, coming a few days after Sunday’s ELjam Showcase Concert in the Brunton Theatre. It’s nice to see pupils (and staff) from across the county coming together in such positive settings.
I recently experienced four days which I would have to sum up as amongst the most stimulating but toughest days I can recall. They were spent at a conference (organised by the Mariani Foundation and hosted by Edinburgh University – specifically Katie Overy of the IMHSD) entitled: The Neurosciences and Music: Learning & Memory
Stimulating for the following reasons:
- dedicated, uninterrupted time to devote to an area of fascination which often only pops up intermittently – namely the intersection of music, language, memory, learning, science (of various sorts)
- the world’s leading thinkers – many of whose names I had already come across – were presenting recent research
- the questions/comments often added another dimension to the talks – I noted that resonant, thought-provoking questions were equally likely from delegates in identical or contrasting fields to the speaker
Tough for the following reasons:
- although I am now very interested in science, I do not have a scientific background – my last formal contact was failing Higher Chemistry and Physics in 1977
- speed – all speakers were keen to run to time and presentations were necessarily quick – this meant that slides containing acronyms, data, graphs, brain scans etc. seemed to be racing by*
- concentration – not my own (although this was no doubt challenged) but more the concentration of 18 hours of listening and a further 6 hours of poster viewing/chat to authors over four days was quite dense
I would equate the content of those four days with at least a year’s reading, TV/radio documentaries, on-line exploration. For that reason, I was glad to have my Zoom H2 mp3 recorder with me and intend to re-visit many of the talks in order to write things up over time. Until then, though, here is an outline of content to give some broad overview of the content.
*One of the delegates seated next to me, using an iPad, switched seamlessly between – typing, photographing, videoing. That’s the way to go! Other devices are available 🙂
Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning & Memory
DAY 1 – Thu 9 June
“Working with Infants and Children”
Workshop 1 – Experimental Methods – 4 x 30 minute presentations
Workshop 2 – Social / Real World Methods – 4 x 20 minute presentations
Day 2 – Fri 10 June
Keynote lecture – Human memory – 45 minutes
Symposium I – Mechanisms of Rhythm and Meter Learning over the Life Span – 3 x 20 minute presentations
Symposium 2 – Impact of Musical Experience on Cerebral Language Processing – 4 x 30 minute presentations
Symposium 3 – Cultural Neuroscience of Music – 6 x 20 minute presentations
Poster session I – 2 hours to view posters/chat to authors/take away A4 version handouts
Day 3 – Saturday 11 June
Symposium 4 – Memory and Learning in Music Performance 5 x 20 minute presentations
Symposium 5 – Mind and Brain in Musical Imagery – 5 x 20 minute presentations
Symposium 6 – Plasticity and Malplasticity in Health and Disease – 5 x 20 minute presentations
Poster session II – 2 hours to view posters/chat to authors/take away A4 version handouts
Day 4 – Sunday 12 June
Symposium 7 – The Role of Music in Stroke Rehabilitation: neural mechanisms and therapeutic techniques – 6 x 20 minute presentations
Symposium 8 – Music: A Window into the World of Autism – 4 x 25 minute presentations
Symposium 9 – Learning and Memory in Musical disorders – 4 x 25 minute presentations
Edinburgh International Film Festival previews – neuroscience is a theme this year – 15 min presentation
Conclusions and thanks.
Poster session III – 2 hours to view posters/chat to authors/take away A4 version handouts
18 hours of talks – 6 hours of poster sessions