Saturday, February 18, 2006


Remember Music, the Brain and Ecstasy? One of the books it is based on is called Emotion and meaning in Music by Leonard B. Meyer, which tries to evaluate the roles of consistency, variety, anticipation and surprise in creating emotion in music. We were supposed to be set up by consistency and anticipation while variety and surprise created the emotion.

I've often wondered how this fits with ones real listening experience. It's quite true that replaying the same piece over and over eventually loses its charm. The Ecstasy book says this is due to the fact that our brains are geared to notice movement and change, that mere repetition soon recedes from our awareness.

Where the concept seems to fall apart is in the truly subtle performance. What explains the performance that grows in our awareness with each hearing? And what explains the ecstatic anticipation of a particular joyful climax? Pieces like the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde grow in our imaginations and are profoundly enhanced by our knowledge of where this particular phrase is going. It is a sign of a performers supreme mastery, for instance, if they are able to subtly delay the climax of a phrase. This is one of the greatest tools of the performer's trade.

In my own life I know that to have studied and performed a piece enhances my own awareness of a truly great performance. Knowledge is bliss.

Can a particular performance of a work be so subtle that you don't hear its beauty in the first hearing and in the tenth it continues to grow in your awareness? Of course.

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