Sunday, November 25, 2012

Offering Greatness by the EarFull

It’s been an autumn for exploring the world of Rainer Maria Rilke, and I've been enjoying the writings of Stephanie Dowrick as she reflects on the reader’s experience in  In the Company of Rilke 

When discussing Beauty and greatness she quotes from John Armstrong's book on Goethe
“It is obvious that one can encounter great objects…or great individuals… and yet be untouched by them, they remain ‘outside’ of us. Admiring them, saying that they are great doesn't automatically enrich your inner world.” 
Here I paused and thought about the scenario implied when we offer concerts of great music and use that double-edged word “masterpiece.” We spend a lot of time and energy telling people ‘this is great music.’ Greatness in music has become something very tangible, measurable, a thing we are able to offer in regular doses.

Greatness of music is a topic I’m quite curious about, and readers will be familiar with my habit of shifting through other arts and fields for answers and new perspectives. One of my favorite fields for mining ideas, of course, is wine tasting, which regularly deals with greatness. So what makes wine great?

One common thought is what makes wine great is complexity.

Matt Kramer in his “Making Sense of Wine” debates the topic:
“The single greatest standard used in assessing the quality of a wine is complexity. The more times you can return to a glass of wine and find something different in it – in the bouquet, in the taste – the more complex the wine. The very greatest wines are not so much overpowering as they as seemingly limitless.”
He continues: 
“What satisfies us so fundamentally about complexity is still the subject of speculation, largely in the academic field of aesthetics. It appears that we favor – relish might be a more descript if less exact term – uncertainty or lack of predictability. One researcher contends that uncertainty in music is complexity. And that uncertainty gives greater ‘meaning’ to music.”
“Another researcher in this field employs the notion of disorder or entropy. The more things are jumbled, the more “information” can be conveyed at one time. The trick is our ability to sort it out and make it meaningful. In short, there must be both –pattern and uncertainty (complexity) for sustained interest. Complexity is thus more than multiplicity. For a wine (melody) to be truly satisfying, especially after repeated exposure, it must continually surprise as part of a larger and pleasing pattern. So it is with wine.” [Now do you see why I find wine is such a wonderful playground or contemplating music?]
I tend to see this concept of ‘complexity’ more in terms of the potential for offering metaphor. When the distance between “This is That” is far - the metaphor-building space wide and rich with many detours on the way - then interactions may continually offer new and fresh reception. ‘Complexity’ could imply a ‘simple’ piece might lack ‘greatness' – yet the components of music such as color, texture, movement, gesture, etc. that go beyond structure and harmonic outline create opportunities for potentially rich and complex metaphors.  Each hearing of a work offers nudges in new directions while following a familiar path.

The quote of Armstrong continues, however, adding another layer to greatness:
“Admiring [greatness], saying that they are great doesn't automatically enrich your inner world….Goethe is alluding to the most intimate and elusive aspect of experience: that in which we take possession of the things we encounter and make them our own.”
Greatness it seems is a two-party system. While possibly a ‘thing’ of music, greatness is also an experience – and ‘most intimate’ and ‘elusive’ at that.

What jumps out here is how the current concert format is a rather heavy-handed system for dispensing greatness. How many of our behaviors on stage and in the concert proceedings (repertoire, program notes, pre-concert talks, distributed information, code of conduct, physical environment etc.) limit the listener to a role of being fed greatness as a thing  we solely supply? (I've scrutinized this topic often enough!)

When or how do we allow for this “most intimate and elusive aspect of experience?” Would we let go of our ownership of greatness and allow listeners to take possession - and make it their own?

I am seeing an important shift in concert formats that does offer space for listeners to take ownership. Usually artists who speak from the stage divulge information regarding the greatness within the music - the thingy-ness of the music. In some newer formats, however, musicians speak from the stage to share insights into their relationship with the music and how they took ownership of the music - providing glimpses of possible avenues for the listener to travel when building their own intimate relationship and ownership of the music. (The live entertainment world, ironically, knows well to avoid telling an audience what a work is or what it means, because it shuts down the welcome between the person on stage and the audience. The most gracious - and successful - response is to create space for the listener/viewers’ version of the event. But classical music is far from understanding the stagecraft of a live performer.)

This is a topic to chew on over a life-time. And I will take a public plunge into the fray on December 10th, 2012 when I present the Classical Connoisseur - Wine and Music Tasting event at PianoForte. We will have on hand not only some great music and top-notch musicians, but some great wines. We will explore the qualities of wine and music - greatness included.

We will curiously compare the act of wine tasting and music tasting. What qualities do composers create? What qualities might the musicians add? What qualities do you the listener create in your “most intimate and elusive” act of making what you hear your own.

I’ll be sure to remember Rilke and Goethe - and point out the difference between wine tasters and wine drinkers. Only one takes the time to swallow.


My recommended reading list for exploring the wine-music-aesthetics connection:

Questions of Taste edited by Barry C. Smith.  Oxford University Press. 2007. 
This includes the thought provoking chapter “The Philosophy of Wine” by Roger Scruton, the philosopher, writer and wine correspondent for the New Statesmen. In the music field he’s the esteemed author of  Understanding Music Philosophy and Interpretation 
Kent Bach in his chapter: “Knowledge, Wine and Taste” raises the question “What good is knowledge in enjoying wines?”

Making Sense of Wine by Matt Kramer. Running Press 2003. 
A chapter deals with the concept of connoisseurship, a topic the music field would do well to understand more thoroughly. One of the classic books on wine.

Reading Between the Wines   by Terry Theise. University of California Press 2010. 
The chapter called “Befriending your palate” offers perspectives on qualities: what we know (informational bits) verses what we know via our experience. A fun book, too.

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