Looking back…

This year has resolved itself nicely. On a personal note, only a few months ago I would have assumed this year would end in discontent. The considerable improvement in my state of mind can be attributed to the beautiful things in my life — which, for the sake of this blog, means music. I hope I am not being too self-absorbed. I simply want to affirm what most people reading this already know: what a consolation music can be — how meaningful it is for many of us.

I’ve noticed some changes this year in the way I listen to music. I spend less time sitting at home listening to music and more time going to concerts, playing guitar and composing (however badly). When I first discovered classical music a couple of years ago I was in such an excited rush to hear new music that I approached many composers and their works superficially. Spending more time playing, reflecting, composing, attending performances etc. seems to me more meaningful and lasting than binge-listening online.

When I do listen to music, I close my eyes more often. This is much less trivial than it might sound. I am bombarded with visual stimuli throughout the day and this soon becomes habit-forming. My head in particular has the peculiar habit of jerking about trying to survey the room as if I were doing an impression of a pigeon. On top of that, I’m a terrible fidgeter, pen-chewer and joint-cracker. Closing one’s eyes concentrates the mind to the extent that, with a really good piece of music, I remain quite motionless and totally absorbed.

The highlight of the year has undoubtedly be the discovery of the lute repertoire. I’ve had the privilege of hearing three extraordinary lutenists perform this year (Thomas Dunford, Matthew Wadsworth and Paul O’Dette), then the joy of learning some of this music on guitar, and finally the thrill, just in the last two weeks, of getting my hands on a lute (which I’ll blog about soon).

My favourite concert this year was the early music group L’Arpeggiata performing relatively obscure works by Luigi Rossi (c. 1597-1653). Runners up include The Feinstein Ensemble performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (just two days ago), Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House, Thomas Ades conducting the Beethoven symphonies, and Monteverdi’s Vespers (annoyingly I can’t recall the performers).

I am completely enamoured of this aria from Rossi’s opera Orfeo. L’Arpeggiata performing:


It’s not always easy being a music listener

There are pieces of music I barely understand, even after serious attempts to do so. And it can make me slightly anxious wondering why. Sometimes I imagine it is because they are sublime, so brilliant that they almost blind you — this has been my experience with a lot of Bach. Other times I wonder why on earth I bother — is there actually anything to be gained by repeated, concentrated listening to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, say? And then there are those total blind spots, mine being Mahler. His bloated works seem to me like the allure of the planet jupiter: an awesome, intimidating planet that’s really just a gas giant.

As a listener, one has to train oneself. You have to have a good musical memory. All music is remembering what came before, enjoying the note or chord of the moment, and anticipating the direction of travel. If you are genuinely just letting it ‘wash over you’, as so many people say, you might as well be given an automated machine that plucks random notes of a scale. Music only works when the listener observes and remembers the patterns of the music, or else phrasing and surprise and development is meaningless to them.

New musical styles will obviously mean new demands on the listener. I am least acquainted with late romanticism, perhaps, so it takes many more listens before I can step back and perceive the music’s architecture. There is something mathematical about music in this sense. Music is an unanswered question, but pieces of music are attempts at answers — the working out when one tries to solve an equation. A listener has to follow the logic of that working out, and that should be an interesting and revelatory thing, but not necessarily easy until it is learned.

There are too many instances to count where a work was utterly incomprehensible to me — then a month later I’d be listening to it with such understanding that I would feel as if I were inside the music itself. I’m never exactly sure what I did to get from A to B, except listen a lot, nor am I sure why certain works can seem so abstruse at first. But that process is among the most exciting things about music, like shaking and feeling and eventually ripping open a Christmas present. I’ll end with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, just one recent instance of this: