Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Sound(s) of Silence: Comparing Notes

Author, professor, and musicologist Adam Ockelford. (Photo: Getty)

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." – Elvis Costello

Guilty as charged. Yep, I guess I’m definitely one of those Declan grumbled about who attempts to dance about architecture. The same quote has often been attributed to the artist/comedian Martin Mull, but since the subject is using language to try and define or describe sounds, let’s leave it in Costello’s sarcastic hands for now. It somehow just feels right coming from him.

In Comparing Notes: How We Make Sense of Music, a captivating new book by Adam Ockelford, newly published by WW Norton and distributed by Penguin/Random House, a noted musicologist asks some thought-provoking questions. How does music work? Indeed, what is (or isn’t) music? We are all instinctively musical (not so sure about that one) but how and why? There would seem to be two kinds of books about music -- maybe more but at least two: those that try to describe music in a certain context and those that try to define music in all contexts. I suppose I’m even more guilty of Costello’s criticism, since often I not only write about music itself (as in my recent Amy Winehouse or Sharon Jones books) but I go so far as to write about people who write about music. Thus, writing about writing about sounds: a double offense as far as Costello’s credo goes.

Two good examples of these two kinds of books would be a couple of favourites of mine. Alex Ross (music critic of The New Yorker) in his 2008 book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century did a great job of helping listeners understand how and why our very concepts of what made musical forms change so drastically during the early days of the last century. He chose the descriptive method (what the ancient Greeks called ekphrasis) to evoke a feeling in the reader that approximated his own experience of the works under examination. I share that approach.

The other approach is parallel in its motivation (to increase appreciation for listening) but opposite in its technique (grappling with a definition for how music is made in the first place and how we experience it regardless of what styles we might lean toward). This is the approach taken so effectively in Comparing Notes, in which he shares an often technical mastery of the musical arts but in a down-to-earth manner easily accessible to all those non-technical music lovers, and I’m one of them, who simply love to become engulfed by the sheer power of organized sounds. Most importantly -- as I often do in my own writing about music, even if I’m expressing some personal preference for this or that musical genre or artist -- Ockelford manages to provide an equivalence of experience for whatever musical form he’s exploring. In other words, and these are solely my own examples, not his: the joy of a sax solo by Charlie Parker, or a guitar solo by Jerry Garcia, or a storm of poetry by Bob Dylan or The Beatles, or the haunted angel’s voice of Scott Engel Walker, are all, at some level, completely identical to and equal to each other.

This is so simply because they all evoke in listeners whatever comprises the ideal in the musical style they happen to enjoy. And therein is one of the pleasures of this new book: he takes us on a guided tour of how human beings first recognize music, regardless of what style it’s in (given his own tastes, it’s often classical European music) and also why music has the impact and effect on us that it does. He also shares with the reader the outcomes of his long personal and professional history as a means of providing an intimate entry into a potentially daunting agenda: explaining what music is by exploring what it does.

The author is a Professor of Music at Roehampton University in London, where he directs the Applied Music Research Centre, and he has also written an amazing study of innate musical gifts in In the Key of Genius, his biography of the so-called savant Derek Paravincini. A musicologist, composer and teacher himself, his early-career discoveries while he was working with perceptually challenged children altered forever the way he viewed both creativity and music knowledge. That is what he shares with us in his attempt to “make sense of music.”

In a sense, his new book is also a chronicle of his own encounters with extraordinary musical talents, one which demystifies the entire sonic art form itself while also offering us surprising insights into our own pre-verbal, non-literate origins as sentient beings. The result is a remarkably readable book on a demanding subject which he makes a pleasure by extracting the core elements and issues out of musical theory, all the while not appearing overly theoretical. He helps us to learn about the key psychological, neurological and spiritual elements without being encumbered by an ongoing awareness that we are in fact leaning anything at all.

One of the key cornerstones of his book is the somewhat surprising notion that all of us, by the very nature of our cognition as thinking and feeling animals, are innately musical, that we can all respond to music without any training or instruction, largely because it belongs to our inherent intuitive frameworks. In essence, his lively book, in itself a culmination of many years of research and operating as a layman’s summary of his several earlier publications, demonstrates just how abstract patterns of sound that might not appear to mean anything at all can in fact be so meaningful as to move us to tears. One of the ways he does this is to take us through many convergent twentieth-century musical theories, cogently explaining each, while also sharing his remarkable personal experiences with the students who became his teachers. As he puts it, “The vivid nature of perception – crucial for both our functioning and our survival – beguiles us into thinking that music exists beyond ourselves in a material way.” On the contrary, as he points out, it starts out within us: “From pitch and rhythm to dynamics, all the elements of music cohere through the principle of imitation to create an abstract narrative in sound that we instinctively grasp, whether listening to Bach or to the Beatles.” Therefore the book is ideal and essential reading for anyone who has ever loved a song, a sonata, a symphony, or a jazz composition, and wondered why. In fact, the book is all about those two things: the why and the wonderment.

The author assisting a young protégé, from whom he admitted to learning immensely more about the essence of musical engagement than in all his former years of scholarly music study. (Photo: Getty)

“How the human brain learnt that musical sounds should be processed in a particular way, in our development as individuals and in our evolution as a species, is clearly a crucial question.” He asks and answers the question in a masterful manner, by exploring the notion of a special form of perceived relationship among sounds, a type of mental connection that makes music what it is by operating as a cognitive link between sounds through which a sensation of intentional repetition is formed. This link he illuminates is what he calls zygonic, from the Greek root word zygo, which refers to a yoke, a union in the presence of two similar things, in this case of two recurring musical notes contrasting with an ongoing series of others that is suspended metaphorically in the mind of the musical listener. It is not nearly as exotic or mystical as it might seem: it simply designates, perceptually and cognitively, why we end up being blissed out by either a shimmering Bach concerto or The Beatles' brilliant virtuosity (and versatility) on an album such as their 1966 masterpiece Revolver.

For the right kind of listener, one attuned to the subtlety of the sonic experience, The Goldberg Variations, for example, should be just as emotionally transporting as “Eleanor Rigby.” As you might expect, or should have suspected by now by my appreciation of his writing, it is possible to superimpose a recording of the Goldberg composition over that elegant Revolver song and discover that they are identical in form and content, as different as they might appear on the surface separately. Don’t take my word for it; try it yourself at home. The results will stun you. Ockelford’s earlier book on an exceptional musical prodigy offers us a perfect entry into the thought-flow of his current area of interest (what is music?), and indeed he references it crucially in the prelude to Comparing Notes. In his introduction, titled "Insights from the Blind," the author describes his three-and-a-half-decade-long search for answers to the question of what music means and how we make sense of it by sharing his early volunteer work at Linden Lodge, a residential special needs school in the late 70’s. All of the students were blind and many had developmental challenges or disabilities, including aberrant language limits, so he was told not to have high expectations of their capacities.

Having spent ages analyzing complex musical scores from Beethoven’s late sonatas to Bartok’s early adventures, he was fairly confident in his own knowledge and equally comfortable trying to engage the children at the most elementary levels of entry into musical reality. But as he was being shown around by an administrator, he entered a dimly-lit room from which what sounded like mid-twentieth-century avant-garde compositions were wafting. He was spooked by the eerie aura. When his guide switched on the light, Ockelford was stunned to see not some sophisticated adult tickling the ivories but rather a tiny blind boy about 10 years old who did not speak or otherwise engage with people at all. Still stunned and hearing the echoes of what sounded like complicated Scriabin textures, he was asked by the guide to play something for the boy. From his lofty academic tower, the author decided to play the quirky opening of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, thinking it might capture the wayward attention of the young listener.

After standing with rapt attention for a few minutes while Ockelford played the piece, the young boy, who seemed otherwise utterly detached from his environment, moved towards the instrument. The author was nervous that his demonstration hadn’t gone down well with the boy, but, as he himself puts it, “What happened next was to change forever the way I thought about music.” The boy began to play the piece, note for note, as he had heard it, without having heard it before, without the ability to read, without knowing anything about Liszt at all.

He played it over again from memory: “Just like a recording, flawlessly. It was uncanny. How was it possible for a boy who was blind, and, I assumed from his lack of verbal communication, had learning disabilities, to reproduce the introduction naturally, fluently, without prompting? It wasn’t merely that the notes were correct: he seemed to have an effortless, mature understanding of the music, with an intuitive feel for the unfolding emotional narrative. I knew that in spite of all my advanced musical training and thousands of fours of practice, I would have struggled to do what Anthony had just achieved, apparently with little or no effort at all.”

Thus began his true tutoring in music at the tender hands of young people who couldn’t even describe or discuss what it was they were doing so artfully and effortlessly. To do so, he guides us through the fascinating jungle of how music “works.” The map of the sonic territory he covers along the way is both informative and entertaining, without being overly pedantic or highly technical (except for the occasional foray into some useful cognitive and neuroscience intersections with art and culture). “The notion of a special perceived relationship between sounds – a type of mental connection between notes that makes music what it is – is, by definition, abstract, and so runs the risk of being somewhat fuzzy in conceptual terms.” Ockelford has done a great service in helping us to understand, whether we like African trance drumming, Duke Ellington’s subtle piano or Jimi Hendrix’s raw electrical energy, how it is that we construct musical meaning.

It’s fair to say, I suspect, that at that early epiphany-like moment when he encountered a young true musical genius playing in an almost dark room in a school for the supposedly disabled, Adam Ockelford suddenly realized, as if in the midst of a meditative illumination, that there was indeed much more to music than what met the ear. It was then that he also decided that “through the prism of the overtly remarkable, we can discover the uncelebrated exceptionality lurking in each of us.” Luckily for us, in Comparing Notes, he takes us on an incredible journey into the very heart and soul, even the guts, of what music, music-making and music appreciation are all about. There is a love affair among composing, performing and listening to music in which all of us can readily participate. Whether or not we can actually comprehend why we might cry while hearing Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, or why we feel the need to jump up and twitch around while hearing James Brown or Sharon Jones, the answer is simple: because.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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