“Understanding” music. The paradox of the musical experience

I don´t understand it!

I once interviewed the Danish composer Bent Sørensen about his music during the Bergen International Festival in 2007. While talking about the effect of music Sørensen was quite firm on the fact that music was not necessarily to be understood, but first and foremost to be experienced.   It is not difficult to agree with this, but at the same time it is something of a paradox that one of the standard responses to contemporary or “difficult” music of any kind quite often is the phrase  “I don´t understand it”. So I thought I´d write a little bit about why “understanding” so often is experienced as something vital to our experience of the music.

This is in fact very logical as we are, by nature, equipped with a perception that is based on organization and “pattern-seeking”. We organize our perception of the world around us in order to be able to perceive it, and this act of organizing is what gives most people a sense of “meaning” and “understanding”.

In other words “understanding” is not strictly about getting an intellectual grip on something with our minds but more about sensing a sort of inner structure and coherence within what we are presented with. This is especially true when it comes to our experience with music and with language.

The element of temporalityklokke bern

Music is, along with language, a temporal art, meaning that it manifests itself along a timeline and we experience it as successive sound-manifestations. In contrast to this a painted picture can be experienced in the flash of a glance, although maybe not in its every detail. Music and verbal language share the fact that both of them are temporal expressions, we might call them temporal objects. So how do we humans experience temporal objects? What happens in our minds when we encounter them?

The “then”, the “now” and the “soon to come”

The key to the experience of something temporal is the sense of duration that it creates in us. We do not experience a temporal object as a series of “nows” one after the other. If that was the case then nothing would seem to endure through time; everything would be experienced as unrelated momentary flashes that would be wiped from our minds the moment they were replaced by something else.

When we experience temporality through our perception it comes with a primary sense of past and future given from the very beginning together with the “now” of the situation itself.  In phenomenology the full and immediate experience of temporality is called The living present. This is the name of the temporal whole so to speak, and as a whole it is composed of three moments called primal impression, retention and protention. These three moments are inseparable.

I´ll illustrate: Look at how we experience a sentence spoken to us. When we listen to someone speaking we are in a way in three different places at the same time. One part of our mind focus on the words at the very moment we perceive their sound (primal impression), one part retains the by-gone beginning of the sentence in the back of our mind, creating coherence between the by-gone and the present (retention) and the third part senses what is to come, making it possible for us to mentally anticipate the conclusion of what is being said (protention) and at the same time shedding additional light on what has gone before (this is also what makes it possible for people to interrupt each other during a conversation as they anticipate – correctly or incorrectly – the end of the other persons sentence)

In other words: Primal impression, retention, and protention refers to the way in which our consciousness structures its experience of temporal objects, both objects that are present and before us, and inner objects experienced in our mind.

With these three aspects we build our understanding of the world.

Do you know what you are saying?

Ever heard the joke about the millipede who one day started to ponder in which sequence to move his legs and from then on were unable to move ever again? Millipede

Every expression we make consists of a myriad of details (like the myriad of legs on the millipede) which have their natural place and relation to each other. When we speak we use words, pronunciation, stress and tone of voice consciously to impart meaning and as listeners all of these elements contribute to our understanding of what is said.

In music phrasing and a logical relation between the different parts of the music together creates an organic whole where every part is logically related to the other like the parts of a living organism. When we speak or play we seldom focus on all of these details as that would be a sure way to go mad quite quickly or end up paralyzed like our poor millipede. Instead we focus on the expression and the meaning which we wish to convey and then the details naturally fall into place all by them self.

The German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler describes this as he says that the only indispensable condition for an audience to be able to understand a speaker is that the speaker himself knows what he is saying, that he understands the meaning of what he is speaking of; Only when what is communicated is in accordance with one’s own understanding can it be given the right sound which leads to others understanding it as well. Furtwängler were of course speaking of conductors as well as speakers using verbal language.

Yet again the quote of the great conductor Celibidache becomes relevant “When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning. When the end keeps what the beginning promised.”

The importance of memory

In order to know that the end has kept what the beginning promised I need to be able to remember the beginning (retention-work) and my memory works best when confronted with something familiar, something regular.

The language of contemporary music often (not always) consists of irregularities; irregular rhythms, irregular keys, irregular harmonic changes, irregular instrumental combinations, irregular instrumental techniques (etc etc) giving our retention a hard time retaining what has gone before. At about the same time our protention gives up trying to anticipate what is to come since it is having trouble finding a match in our database of previous musical experiences.  So after a while all that  is left is a constant stream of primal impressions which gives us the sense of being lost in a foreign musical landscape with a vague sense of confusion and the feeling of not “understanding” where we are.

For some people this can actually be a blast as it triggers their curiosity, but most people don´t like to be lost.

So we turn of the music.

There are of course several ways in getting acquainted with this strange and sometimes beautiful  foreign world, for it can be beautiful, but that is for a later blog text.
karel 1

The inner and outer experiences of music

kamfestHaving  just returned from the annual Trondheim chamber music festival KAMFEST I had some thoughts in my head, spurred by the many musical experiences there. KAMFEST has always been one of my favourite festivals in Norway as it always seems to somehow be able to think outside of the Box when it comes to chamber music and concert programming in general. A great mix of Expressions, genres, venues and, most often, superb musicians. This year’s composer in residence was the multi-faceted composer /pianist/poet and artist Lera Auerbach who were participating in all of her artistic roles. The program varied from the music-theatre-opera The Blind, chamber music works where the composer performed herself, poetry recital and a silent auction of some of her pictures.

This combined presentation was a rare experience and I wondered in advance how Auerbach would succeed in filling all of these roles. Through history there have been many examples of great composers who also have ventured into the field of performer; a double role which was much more common in older times, from the improvisation-competitions of Mozart´s time to the semi rock star-hysteria surrounding virtuosi composer-performers like Chopin and Liszt. But that said there are considerable differences between the demands to performers of today as to that of earlier times, both in instrumental changes and technical demands.

Some of the things I experienced with Auerbach concerns the theme of listening in a very profound way, more specifically: it concerns something we might call outer and inner listening.

Outer and inner listening

Inner listening

When a musician performs, he or she is experiencing the music emotionally and bodily as well as intellectually and technically. It is easy to get swallowed by the emotions welling up from within when confronted with music by Rachmaninov or Scriabin. We often choose the music we play precisely because it talks so strongly to us. A musician, however, is faced with the responsibility of making not only himself but the audience as well experience these same emotions. That is quite a different thing.

There is a myth going around that says that if you only experience something very strongly yourself, then your experience will somehow automatically spill over onto the people listening to you. Maybe the reason for this idea is the convincing nature of these strong emotional reactions. Often they might get us so involved in our own experience of the music we are playing that we quite forget about the audience.

We might call this process inward listening as the performer is completely absorbed in his or her own emotional reactions to the music. It is a very personal kind of listening which can have a tremendous impact on our lives, creating sometimes a lifelong relationship between the performer and the composer of the music.

L1020891However, just like a spiritual or religious experience, experiences like these are often highly personal. A performer who aims to communicate with an audience needs to take on a different role. The purpose is not to experience for ourselves but to make the audience experience, and in order to do so we need outer listening.

This type of listening is strongly linked with the ability to tear ourselves loose from our own emotions and to be able to observe the sounds we are making from the outside. Just like a pointillist picture needs distance in order to be perceived properly a musical composition needs the all-encompassing perspective of a musician who knows its totality and is able to portion out every last detail according to its place in the sum-total of the work.

When a particular place or harmonic turn in a composition yanks our emotional cords we are naturally turned inwards, listening deeply to our own emotions reacting to the call of the music. In a natural response our emotions are crying for the release of a fortissimo blow-out to match our inner experience but our mind and musicality knows there is more to come and that this part must be balanced against both what has gone before and what is to follow.

The great Rumenian conductor Sergiu Celibidache adresses this in the following way:Sergiu+Celibidache+celibidache8

“A sequence of tones follows a structure which finally connects the beginning with the end. When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning. When the end keeps what the beginning promised. Continuity doesn’t mean: to go from one moment to the next, but: after going through many moments to experience timelessness. That is where beginning and end live together: in the now. What is required to experience any structure as a whole? The absolute interrelation between the individual parts.” ( from the film “You don t do anything. You let it evolve”. Produced by Pars Media)

If we choose to simply wallow in our inner bliss while playing we have left the audience behind and are no longer listening to the actual music we are making but only to the one we are experiencing internally. We have also paradoxically lost the sense of “now” in the music which Celibidace talks about.

In the case of Auerbach the word “overwhelmed” seemed essential. In the works where she performed herself this was the essence that she projected as a performer, and I was left with the impression of a performer struggling (but quite ecstatically) with too strong emotions, emotions that were literally choking the music she was performing. Emotions in music shouldn´t be a problem except if the emotions exist solely in the performer and doesn´t extend to the audience.

At one point when struggling with the balance between outer and inner listening we might actually feel as if we are committing some sort of betrayal, consciously leaving our emotions behind to get about the work of communicating. We fear losing those emotions which the music initially stirred in us. But what is the result if we fail to make this switch between outer and inner listening?

When Auerbach played her own music I saw only her. She filled every pore of the music with her own experience of it and there was no question about how it made her feel. At the same time it was a lonely experience listening to her playing because I was witnessing a reaction to a music of which I was deprived; the music was happening inside of Auerbach, not on the stage. As a consequence I was presented with a music that lacked in depth and detail, where there was no holding back in anticipation of later pleasures, no lines stretching over more than three bars at a time, no delicate differentiating between subtle nuances of tone colour. The elements were all there in the music but they passed by un-noted like an unlit tramcar.

I´m sure it was a great experience, I´m just sorry I didn´t get to hear it.

(This blog-post might seem overly anti-Auerbach which was not my intent, it was just that she provided a chance to adress this topic and illustrated my point to perfection. However, I quite enjoy some of her more symphonic music very much and would encourage everyone to check out her Works here:  http://www.leraauerbach.com/ )