The Joys of VERY Amateur Music


Although this third movement is less “pathetic” than the preceding ones, the player alone will be to blame should the Pathetic Sonata end apathetically.

Thus writes the author of Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics, at the foot of the first page of the score of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique (That’s ‘Pathetic’ as in pathos, ie emotionally moving, not as in contemptible, in case you were wondering). The bold font emphasis was added by me, by the way – it’s not in the original.

Many were the admonitions of this type that one used to encounter in learning, performing and reading about music. I don’t know if such admonitions still abound, but I used to take them very much to heart.

Here’s another gem from the last page of the same movement:

In proportion to the greater or lesser degree of passion put forth by the player before the calando, this latter is to be conceived as a diminuendo and ritardando. Excess in either direction is, of course, reprehensible.

A piano teacher once told me that, while Mozart piano sonatas seemed easy to play, especially the slow movements, they were actually especially difficult because their smooth lightness and sustained notes would ‘expose’ the inadequacy of any player whose touch upon the keys was not delicate and even. I interpreted this as meaning that only an impostor would attempt to play a Mozart Sonata without first obtaining the very highest degree of musical performance qualification possible. Their crime of trying to hide their lack of skill behind the apparent simplicity of the score would be exposed by the very first unplanned variation in pressure ( a ‘plonk’ in lay terms) leading to their justly deserved shame and humiliation and, it is to be hoped, excommunication from any future association with decent, honest, genuine music lovers.

Although I did take this sort of sermon to heart, I nevertheless dared to play sonatas by Mozart. I enjoyed it. But I just had to secretly hope that no true music connoisseurs would ever hear me, perhaps as they walked past the open window of the room in which I was playing, and be goaded into a rage by my lack of finesse – not to mention the unmitigated temerity of presuming to play Mozart. I imagined they would feel it were as though I had reanimated the corpse of Wolfgang Amadeus himself, just so I could slap him in the face and jeer at him.

I don’t think that any more. In fact, I may have swung so far to the opposite extreme that I have to remind myself not to be too intolerant of those poor souls that do happen to be internationally renowned piano virtuosi.

In short, I love amateur music. There is a point at which it may become difficult to listen to, as with a tone deaf singer or the tuneless screeching of a child unwillingly doing their ten minutes a day practice on the clarinet or violin. But short of that (and even that isn’t too bad, but that’s another essay) I find that musical flaws enhance rather than detract from the performance, as long as the player’s heart is in it. Sincerity and enthusiasm is all that’s needed to make a performance truly marvellous.

My youngest daughter will graduate this year from high school, after which I will no longer have a socially acceptable reason to attend performances of school musical ensembles, whose enthusiasm is often in inverse proportion to their skill. What a pity! Like a Persian carpet, where (it is said) the maker always includes a deliberate flaw because only Allah is allowed to be perfect, the flaws in an amateur musical performance are an essential ingredient, without which the performance would lack – I don’t know, maybe ‘soul’?

For ensembles of young children, the many mistakes, constantly varying level of pitch accuracy and plodding pace are, of course, adorable. But my liking for amateur music is not limited to a sentimental fondness for kitsch cuteness. I feel just as warmly about performances by tall, spotty adolescents in rock bands – as long as they have not been stage managed by Simon Cowell and do not have PR agents in tow. What is important is sincerity and enthusiasm. The occasional (or frequent) mistake emphasises the humanity of the performer.

And in any case, a liking of cuteness could not explain my recently acquired toleration of my own mistakes since, if I recall correctly, some biologist or other (was it Richard Dawkins? Or perhaps Francis Collins? I get them mixed up. Goodness knows they have so much in common) has proven conclusively that it is impossible for any individual member of any mammalian species to find itself cute. I’m not talking about pretending to be cute. All humans seem to do that at a certain age. But pretending to be cute is not the same as finding oneself cute. Indeed, it requires a healthy dose of cynicism to pretend to be naively clumsy and inarticulate just to manipulate the emotions of those around you. It must be done with a cold, clear, calculating mind and a total awareness of what one is doing, and leaves no possibility open for being taken in by one’s own deception. Or so I imagine. It is many years since I discarded any hope of garnering positive attention by feigning sweet ingenuity.

I digress. Refocussing: I think perhaps it is the humanity revealed through their imperfections that make amateur performances so valuable. We have had flawless performances available ever since the piano roll was invented. No doubt it is now possible for a computer to produce a virtuoso performance of a piece of music direct from the written score. I’m not knocking that. Even when that is done, we still have the human element provided by the composer. I doubt the day will ever come when a computer can write something like Beethoven’s fifth symphony. And if it does, I may find myself believing that the computer has attained consciousness.

But music is an activity for participation, not passive observation. Even apparently passive listening often involves participation of some sort. If one taps one’s foot, sways a little to the rhythm, or hums along, maybe out loud or maybe silently inside one’s head, one is participating. If that mild level of participation is enjoyable and life-affirming, how much more so when one is fully involved in producing the music? Churches seem to have understood this for a long time, with hymns that all the congregation participates in singing. I also think of the wonderful chants that some African villagers do, and of Australian Aboriginal corroborrees. As I understand it, these are social activities, in which all tribe members participate, rather than demonstrations of skill.

When one is learning to play an instrument or, having learned the instrument, trying to master a difficult new piece on the instrument, it can be disheartening to think that, however much effort one might put in, one will never be able to perform the piece as well as a computer program programmed by a mildly competent computer nerd, regardless of whether they have any musical ability. It is a little sad to think that the role of musical performance could be supplanted by instruments played by computers. My response to such negative thoughts is to remind myself that a critical part of any performance is the personal experience of the performer. It will be many centuries before they can program a computer to not only perform Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, but to enjoy playing it as well.

That experience of playing multiplies when one is part of an ensemble. It is especially so in a choir, when one can feel the harmonies with the other singers resonating throughout one’s body.

I think the knowledge that there is an important experience of the performer is part of the experience of the listener too. If we reflect on it, we can feel that the performer is feeling the music and, in a way, communicating to us through the music. It would be different, a less complete experience, if the music were being performed by a (non-sentient) computer and we knew that to be the case.

And that’s why I think international piano competitions are bad! Does that opinion follow smoothly enough from the previous paragraph? No? Well, never mind, that’s how I feel. Like many of my opinions, that particular one (which is only a minor aspect of my overall preference for amateur music) was planted in my head by another. It was a talk given by an Australian that was an internationally renowned concert pianist – I forget their name – about how damaging the world of international piano competitions is to musical appreciation, as well as to the lives that compete in them. Most of the contestants are virtuosos, whose difference in skill can only be discerned by the most experienced of connoisseurs. Yet one person will win and be declared ‘better’ than the others. What nonsense. Perhaps the problem is that there are too many virtuoso pianists and not enough paid jobs for them.

The Berlin Philharmonic is an amazing orchestra and tremendous to listen to. But I wonder whether my daughter’s high school orchestra sounds more like the orchestras that premiered works by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or Schubert, than the Berlin Phil. From what I have read, the musicians of late eighteenth century Vienna were poorly paid, possibly ill and malnourished and distracted by the worldly cares that beset the financially insecure. They frequently had insufficient opportunity to learn and practice a new piece – sometimes with score changes occurring mid-rehearsal – and the halls in which they performed were irregularly heated, which would have driven constant variations in tuning. My brother and sister-in-law married in a small, freezing stone church in the midst of a dark Oxford winter. I remember the sounds of the string quartet drifting in and out of tune as they played ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’. The pitch went up when an eddy blew warm air from the bar heater towards them, and down when the warmth moved away. When I think about it, I realise that that is probably the way the piece was meant to be played. From what we know of JS Bach, the Leipzig churches in which his pieces were performed were probably even colder and draftier than the one in Oxford. There were no electric bar heaters in 1725.

And yet, even though the premier performances of those works may have been riddled with faults, the audiences still responded with adulation and rapturous applause. They could see past the occasional wrong note, loss of synchronisation and variation in pitch, to the underlying genius and emotional power of the composition, and the sincerity of the performers.

I don’t want to sound critical of virtuoso performers and ensembles. They are valuable too and have a key role to play in the world of music. I have no reason to doubt their dedication and sincerity or their enjoyment of the music they play. It is marvellous to hear every now and then a highly skilled performance of some challenging orchestral work. There are some, like Mahler’s second symphony (‘Resurrection’), that are so gargantuan – in both length and number of musicians and different instruments required – that it’s just not feasible to perform it with anything other than a top-level, fully professional orchestra. But they are not what music is about, just as teams like the All Blacks or Manchester United are not what sport is about. Attending an FA Cup Final or a Super Bowl would be a great experience but, given a choice between never being able to watch professional sport again and never being able to watch my children play sport, or play sport myself, I would give up watching professional sport in an instant. And it’s the same with music.

sbhs music



Excitement about learning complicated things

Do we all have things we look forward to learning? In early 1983 I was very excited about learning the meaning of ‘Direct decomposition of a finitely generated module over a principal ideal domain’. That was the name of the central section of the main text for my second year uni algebra course. The text was ‘Rings, Modules and Linear Algebra’ by Hartley and Hawkes.

I understood from the course summary and the blurb on the textbook that learning how to do the activity described by the above italicised phrase was one of the main goals of this course.

What I found particularly appealing about the goal was that it referred to three different things, none of which I knew what they were. What is direct decomposition? Dunno! What is a finitely generated module? Dunno! What is a principal ideal domain? Dunno!

To add to the titillating obscurity of the subject, each of the three things was qualified by an adjective or adverb. The first two things only had one qualification each: direct decomposition rather than just any old ordinary decomposition, and finitely-generated module rather than just a commonorgarden module. But the third thing actually had two qualifications. This was not just an ideal domain or a principal domain but it was a principal, ideal domain. How exciting is that?

(Mathematicians may wish to object that the comma does not belong, and that the word ‘principal’ actually qualifies the word ‘ideal’ rather than the word ‘domain’, so that ‘a principal ideal is a thing’, whereas a ‘principal domain’ and an ‘ideal domain’ are ‘not a thing’, to borrow the ‘thing’ terminology that seems to be so popular amongst today’s young people. But let’s not allow this minor technical point to spoil a good story).

Why, you might wonder, was I so fascinated by a topic with so much jargon in it? What, you might ask, and perhaps not entirely without reason, is my problem?

The answer, I think, is that I have a fascination with jargon, and more generally with weird, obscure and bizarre things. The jargon has to be justified though. I have no interest in the jargon invented by some professions (merchant bankers and stock brokers in particular come to mind) to describe perfectly ordinary concepts in obscure ways in order to make them appear clever to others and justify their exorbitant fees. No, what excites me is jargon that people have no choice but to invent because the concepts it is describing are so abstract and complex that ordinary words are useless.

The jargon of mathematics and many of the sciences is of this justified type. When a physicist tells you that the steps necessary for predicting the perihelion of Mercury include performing a contraction of the Riemann tensor and another contraction of the Ricci tensor in a Swarzschild spacetime, or that the possible states of a carbon atom form an exterior algebra generated by the Hilbert spaces of electrons, neutrons and protons, she is describing things that cannot be described in plain language. And yet they are real things, not just insubstantial ideas. They are things that enable humans to perform wonders.

More to the point though, when Doctor Who announces that he has ‘Reversed the polarity of the neutron flow’, we learn that as a consequence of this linguistic peculiarity the universe, which was about to have its space time continuum rent asunder (ouch!), has been saved. This is no postmodernist proliferating syllables for the sake of mystery and pomposity, as in:

“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis.” [Felix Guattari]

At heart, I think my fascination with genuine jargon is just part of an insatiable curiosity. The world is so full of intricate patterns and amazing phenomena, yet we will only ever get to see a tiny part of what is there. I want to find out what I can while I have the chance.

I can’t remember much about that 1983 algebra course, but I can picture that topic title going around and around in my brain like an obsession. I particularly remember running around the uni oval in athletics training, thinking as I went that within a few months I would actually be one of the privileged few that understood ‘Direct decomposition of a finitely generated module over a principal ideal domain’, even though at that time I had no idea of what it even meant. It was like counting down the days to Christmas.

I can’t remember the point at which we finally learned how to do it. Perhaps it was a bit of an anti-climax. Perhaps it turned out not to be as exotic as it sounded, or familiarity had bred contempt (or at least dissipated some of the awe) by the time we neared the end of semester.

As well as spoken jargon I also have a taste for unusual symbols. In primary school, when everything we do in maths is a number, the idea of doing algebra in high school, where we would use letters rather than numbers, seemed very grown-up. In junior high school we could look forward to trigonometry with those funny sin, cos and tan words, then logarithms and exponentials with log x and superscripts ex and then, even more alluring, calculus in senior high school with those loopy integral signs ∫.

At uni I couldn’t wait to be able to use the ‘plus’ and ‘times’ signs with circles around them – ⊕ and ⊗, the special curly ‘d’s that are used for partial differentials ∂. And the upside-down triangle ∇. I imagined it would be like learning a secret language, into which only specially selected people would be initiated (Yes I was vain! So sue me. What privileged, talented 20-year old isn’t?) As it turned out I didn’t get to use ∂ much, and didn’t get to learn about ⊗ or ∇ at all, because of my subject choices.

I very much wanted to learn about ‘tensors’. I had heard that they were like matrices (rectangular tables of numbers that all maths students have to study in first year uni) only more complex, and that you needed them to do relativity theory. But again I missed out because of my subject choices. Not that I regret that. If I hadn’t made the choices I did, I’d have missed out on learning about finite-state automata and NP-complete problems, and would never have had the opportunity to design a computer chip that converted binary to decimal or to write parallel-processing computer programs to simulate populations of aliens (that’s beings from other planets, not the human immigrants the Tea Party are so worried about).

Over the last few years I have rectified my lamentable ignorance of tensors, ⊗ and ∇, as a consequence of my mid-life crisis. Some people buy red sports cars and get plastic surgery. I decided I couldn’t live another year without understanding General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

An unexpected bonus of this flurry of crisis-induced self-study was two new hieroglyphics 〈x| and |y〉 – complete with funny names: ‘bra’ and ‘ket’ (because when you put them together to make an ‘inner product’, written 〈x|y〉, you make a ‘bra[c]ket’ – get it?).

An unexpected bonus of this flurry of crisis-induced self-study was two new hieroglyphics 〈x| and |y〉 – complete with funny names: ‘bra’ and ‘ket’ (because when you put them together to make an ‘inner product’, written 〈x|y〉, you make a ‘bra[c]ket’ – get it?). That affords me the smug satisfaction of being able to understand – if not necessarily able to follow – most of what is written on the sitting-room white board that’s often in the background in The Big Bang Theory. And yes, it usually is real physics or maths, not just made-up jumbles of unrelated symbols. Sometimes it’s even relevant to the story-line, like when Sheldon had Permutations and Combinations of a set of 52 elements written on the board, because he was trying to figure out a magic card trick one of the others had done (not that they ever referred to the board). That’s in contrast to Doctor Who, where they just sling any old combination of fancy words together (‘Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’ is not a ‘thing’. Or at least, it’s not a ‘thing’ you can do.).

I’m not expecting this essay to resonate with many people. It is a rare perversion to be intrigued by arcane language and symbols. But perhaps it’s not unusual for people to long to learn something or other that is currently far beyond their knowledge or abilities. It might be how to crochet an intricate doily, to speak a foreign language fluently, to recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from memory or, when a bit younger, yearning to be able to ride a bicycle without training wheels, swim the Australian Crawl or play a piano with both hands at the same time.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2014