WAYS OF HEARING Reflections on Music in 26 Pieces

Eds Scott Burnham, Marna Seltzer & Dorothea von Moltke

ISBN 978-0-691-20447-5  Princeton  £14.99

 reviewed by Alan Dent

The best pieces in this book are by professional musicians, which is predictable: take a person away from their expertise and they are an idiot. Gustavo Dudamelís essay on Fidelio, for example, is a little masterpiece. You would need to be well trained in music to grasp its details, which is perhaps a problem in writing about music. There is an entire industry devoted to writing about what is associated with music, especially pop. You could fill a library with books about The Beatles, but most of them have nothing to say about music and are probably written by people who donít have the skill. Most of the music discussed here is of the kind people listen to rather than through. No one, presumably, ever played air cello. The pop variety is a muddled form in which the music serves group identification and narcissistic propping of unsure minds. To write properly about music you need to know how it works, and few of us do. When Dudamel writes that Beethoven had ďthe timpani tuned in tritonesĒ only a minority will grasp what that means and its implications. Yet itís precisely because, as a non-musicologist reader, you realise you are in the company of an expert, that the best writing here is so pleasing.  

Perhaps the book is aimed at a musically sophisticated audience. That would be a pity. Itís a fine thing to put highly skilled work in front of a much less competent audience. The notion of pearls before swine implies the majority can never be anything but swinish. Like Dudamel, Edward Dusinberre carries his talent naturally. Driving to a recording on a winterís morning, he listens to and muses over Schubertís String Quartet: ďWhile the second cello continues its pizzicato frame and the inner voices journey through their chord changes, I am propelled to the second and fourth beats of each bar by a simple dotted rhythm.Ē Most listeners, even to serious music, probably pay most attention to their emotional response, music having the advantage over language that it can go straight to the emotions without having to be filtered by the nuisance of semantics. To be made aware of the kind of listening an expert musician engages, is an encouragement to find out more.  

Jamie Barton impels in the same direction. She explains how enraptured she was on first hearing Chopin and, tellingly, how Claudio Arrauís interpretations seem to her most in keeping with the composerís music. Thatís a good lesson in listening and thinking carefully. Charmingly, she relates how a compilation CD, Chopin and Champagne, changed her life. The title might seem cheap and commercial but the artists certainly werenít: Arrau on all but one track and the London Philharmonic. Perhaps thatís a good reminder of how people can be inspired to a love of the arts in the most unusual ways and how we should encourage whatever interest people show without being judgemental.  

Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei have in common both music and familial similarities, not all of them positive. Their contribution is a fascinating exploration of communication across cultural differences. The identity they discover in two apparently unconnected songs is a reminder of our common human inheritance, of how little comes between us in spite of superficial distinctions. Music, of course, is universal. Not in the same way as language which is an inherited faculty present in all of us (barring fairly severe damage). Not everyone is musical, but all cultures are and there seems to be evidence for a more or less universal response to music of certain kinds, even in people who canít hold a tune.  

Arnold Steinhardt focuses on Beethovenís String Quartet in B flat. Heís excellent on the nature of the string quartet as a form and enlightening on details about his chosen one: how, for example, in the Cavatina movement, a very unusual key change generates the acute sense of someone who is ďbeklemmtĒ (anguished). He quotes Einstein who said things must be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler. Steinhardt sees that simplicity as the core of string quartet, a true musicianís insight.  

The least successful pieces are probably those from poets. Poetry can be about anything of course, but in company with people who know music inside out, the poets seem somewhat out of place. Paul Muldoon contributes a piece on Elgar. The rara avis always was in fact quite commonplace. In response to his famous question, it could be said though the poem purports to be about Elgar, itís really about Muldoon.  

There are one or two references which might seem somewhat dubious. Elaine Pagels writes of her love for Elvis, but perhaps youthful indiscretions can be glossed over. Pico Iyer praises Leonard Cohen whose songs are surely put in the shade by those of Georges Brassens who Laurie Anderson and Edgar Choueiri wisely include amongst their favourites.  

Jeff Dolven makes a mistake in his piece, Work Song: it was Baudelaire not Stendhal who said that beauty is the promise of happiness; and there is an interesting reference to evolution and mathematics in Alexander Klugeís essay on opera. The mathematical faculty canít be an adaptation because the majority of people whoíve walked the planet have never used it, but then nor can musical ability but look what joy that brings.