Monthly Archives: June 2012

“Reading” on the subway

At the risk of wandering further and further away from my promised post, I’m going to write about what it’s like to “read” on the subway in New York City, without actually bringing a book or tablet. This is, yet again, probably one of those highly explored territories that I just happen to be traversing for the first time. Actually, I’m certain that it is — but  I still think it’s worth writing about. And it touches on the “sensibility” side of “Sound and Sensibility.” The post that will someday come (if you must know) is a commentary on how music relates to Maria Popova’s recent essay (6/15) titled, “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.” It’ll sort of be like Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” version 2.0, except nowhere near as scandalous! I’ll just be commenting on what it means to be “well-read” musically and otherwise, and to what extent that even matters.

Back to my original thought. It’s occurred to me that the subway (like coffee shops and cafés) are perfect nooks for creativity. My friend and fellow blogger, Sam McNerney, has written for Big Think about environmental cues that induce creativity. And while the sound level of a subway is way above that which maximizes creative thinking (90 dB as opposed to around 50 dB), I’ve found that actually being inside the subway, as long as it’s a relatively uncrowded one, allows me to become more sensitized to my surroundings. I can hone in on details; I can see stories unfolding. Even short ones… it’s like the fabric of a novella or a snippet of nanofiction is unfurling before me. Again, like I noted in my last blog, I hear the words of the story in my head, but I can’t make out the language. Nor do I know exactly what’s being said.

This morning I watched an African American man and his young son (who was probably about five years old) sit together. The man was rocking out to music on his iPod, but every so often he would glance at his son and the son would glance back in this way that was incredibly precious. The boy was being very quiet, but simply watched his father like he was the king of everything. In response, the man delicately fixed the boy’s sleeves, rolled them up, adjusted the buttons on his shirt, and held him close when the subway car suddenly jerked. I was reading a story, and that’s why I don’t need to bring a book with me on the subway.

Later in the day, I witnessed a young woman — braided, blond hair with soft but austere facial features — get on the subway and pull out an envelope. It was a card, presumably from someone she knew well. She opened it and I watched the glimmer of a smile form on her lips. The ambient sound of the subway car pushed me into this world of heightened sensibility. I saw an important internal moment play itself out on a young woman’s face, and settle back into neutrality as she slipped the card back inside her bag. And yet there was no doubt some residue left over — she was thinking about something still, and I wondered what it was.

I suppose the point of this post and of the last has been to demonstrate that sound and sensibility are related in ways we might not expect — even (maybe especially) when the focus isn’t on sound at all… when we can use the principles of sound and music as a way of navigating other ways of being and seeing and feeling. It’s also about the nature of writing —  ideas never come in precise packages; they’re fuzzy heaps of words that sound like they could be something other than gibberish, and it’s our job to find the string of sense that threads the nonsense.

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Acrobatics in Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park — a hub of unexpected insights!

Before I fulfill my promise to elaborate on my last post, I want to digress for a second and write about something really beautiful I observed in Washington Square Park the other day.

It was actually one of those impromptu things that probably happen in New York all of the time, and to a passing citizen it wouldn’t be much of a spectacle. But to me it was kind of magical to watch. Nothing about it was directly related to music or sound, except for perhaps the really distinctive way these two artists were communicating with each other. Their movements had the rhetorical import of sound, though they weren’t actually producing it. In other words, I could sense what was going on between them and what the meaning of it was, as if there had been a soundtrack or some form of musical accompaniment explaining all of these things to me. Like watching music. I was totally wrapped up in the way they alternated between simply sitting and gazing at passers-by, and engaging each other in playful practice and technique.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has ever experienced this! Maybe I was able to become so absorbed in the synesthetic aspect of their casual performance (they were acrobats, who seemed to be rehearsing publicly but in a very private manner) because across the plaza, a clarinet ensemble was playing the Fauré Pavane (a very pastoral piece). It could be that I was more sensitized to this couple’s interaction because of the literal soundtrack the clarinets were providing. But I was actually more interested in the creation of the acrobats’ voiceless, silent soundtrack.

They were Eastern European (or at least, I think they were). One was a dark-skinned muscular man with a clumsy smile and a gap between his two front teeth; the other was a slender but toned young woman with sharply curved eyebrows and a red feather in her hair, which was pulled back tightly in a bun. They would stand up suddenly and do tricks that seemed quite simple and unplanned, all of the time gauging each other’s mood, inclinations, and desires. They were clearly involved in an intimate dance, whether or not they were romantically involved — though it seemed likely. I was so entranced by the effortlessness of it. They were in the plaza for no other purpose than to practice together and to learn the art of constructing a dynamic cocoon for themselves in the midst of a crowded space. Has anyone else witnessed something like this? I felt like I was peering into a different world — one that I could appreciate from the outside, but never actually penetrate.

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Musical Family Trees

Sometimes I wish I were a professional musician, because that would mean inclusion in a funky, extensive pedagogical family. It would mean a special kinship with fellow musicians born of similar “lineage.” I started thinking about musical family trees last night, when I attended the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Nielsen’s 3rd Symphony (the program also included Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Korngold’s Violin Concerto). Naturally, I was eying the principal clarinet, Mark Nuccio, as he played some of his important solos — lucky for me, there was a tiny window between two violists through which I could make out Nuccio’s gestures. It occurred to me that the way he moved and expressed himself physically while playing was so… clarinet-y? I’d seen so many clarinetists engage with their instruments and with the music in that distinctive way, and it wasn’t just a product of the instrument’s build or positioning with respect to the body. It was sort of a hunched over, jerky, spasmodic, but weirdly fluid way of gesturing that reminded me of what it’s like to watch John Fullam, principal clarinet of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

I was curious as to whether or not these two performers had studied with any of the same people. They hadn’t, but I still wondered if perhaps they had ties further back in the “network” of clarinetists. The study of a musical instrument is quite literally a study; it’s not just about advancing one’s technique or mastering difficult excerpts. It’s about aligning oneself with a particular philosophy or approach. And these views are so ingrained in each of our teachers that they are, whether purposefully or not, passed down to us. Has anyone charted this chain of influence, for any instrument? Historians and philosophers invoke intellectual family trees as a way of organizing the actual genesis of ideas. In some regard, watching any kind of performance (not limited to classical music) is a portal to other worlds of thought and creation. For all we know, the way Mark Nuccio played that one exposed passage in the second movement of the Nielsen, or a fleeting lick in the Korngold, was something that his teacher would have done, too — and Nuccio may not even be conscious of this inheritance. But of course, that does not take away from its beauty.

What I’m getting at has a lot to do with my next post… so stay tuned!

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