You know the line “talking about music is like dancing about architecture“? It’s true: talking about music is a little like dancing about architecture (or singing about economics, if you prefer that version of the line), but I make this claim as someone who loves to sing about economics and who constantly dances about architecture.
Talking about music is one of my favourite things to do. I’m both fascinated by the way music works and astonished at its power to unite and divide, to motivate and to soothe. I think about music nearly all the time; admittedly, this is my ‘job’ as a composer, music educator, music publisher and marketer, but I’m certain that my musical jobs are the result of my thinking about music nearly all the time, rather than the other way around.
Mostly, I like to think and talk about the way music makes us feel.
This makes me a tad unusual in academic and art music circles, where a commonly held view is that “talking about how music makes you feel isn’t really talking about music at all” (Andrew Ford, Meet the Music mid-concert talk, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, October 21, 2010).
My view is the complete reverse: unless we are talking about how music makes us feel (in the sense of describing our feelings and in the sense of exploring how music elicits these emotional responses) we aren’t really talking about music at all.
All the chatter we can engage in regarding compositional devices and timbral effects really only makes sense when we apply that analysis to how these devices and effects change our physical and emotional worlds, whether we are performers or listeners, or both.
All this is by way of prefacing some recent talking about music that I’ve been engaging in.
Yvonne Frindle, the publications editor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, contacted me a couple of months ago about trying my hand at writing a program note for Matthew Hindson’s yet-to-be-premiered double piano concerto. Of course I jumped at the chance, and was soon collecting the score and some scraps of interviews and quotes in order to create the note.
I’m looking at scores all the time in my role as a composer and as an print music editor, but working through a full orchestral score is something I’ve not done for many a year, I realised wryly as I began to read through page after page. This is a BIG work by contemporary standards, where commissions are usually so modest that a new orchestral piece might only last for 12 minutes or so. At 25 minutes, roughly, this is a very substantial work. On top of this, having two pianists soloing against the orchestra creates new levels of compositional intrigue!
The first thing to strike me about the work was the emotional kaleidoscope Matthew Hindson has applied to his subject matter (the concerto is a commission to celebrate the marriage of the two pianist-soloists!) – the music really does explore what ‘marriage’ is about from a number of angles, rather than just paying lip service to the circumstances of the commission.
Now, I find this ‘first thing to strike me’ very interesting: it wasn’t any of Hindson’s compositional effects or devices that caught my attention, but rather the way the music was (is!) going to make the audience feel from one moment in the composition to the next.
After getting a sense of the emotional content of the work I went back and started looking at exactly what the audience would be hearing from a technical point of view: the melody in this instrument or that, the arpeggiated figures in this or that register, which particular interplays between ensemble and soloists. It was at this point that I noticed the very many ways in which Hindson has created bell-effects throughout the work.
I then went through the work again, this time with an ear for formal properties and an eye for traditional ways of explaining/analysing the construction of the work.
And then it was time to start writing: you can read the program note that ensued here.
One of the aspects of the composition that was most important in generating an emotional response from the audience was the use of the Lydian mode. In the program note you can see the breakout box we made explaining what the Lydian mode is, how it differs from the major scale, and so forth. Yvonne then asked me to create an audio feature for the SSO website, as a further means of explaining how the use of this mode works to create this emotional response.
Now while my singing about economics is rare, and my dancing about architecture rarely witnessed, my talking about music is now very much on the public record. And rather than being an irrelevant and tangental self-indulgence, talking about music is as much a part of musical culture as tuning a guitar before a jam-session or choosing just the right mix for a personalised playlist. Talking about music is about sharing our enthusiasms and our insights, and just as conversation makes people feel included and valued, so talking about music demonstrates the value music brings to our lives.
Talking about this particular new orchestral work has been a delight, and even more delightful is hearing back from people who’ve listened to the audio feature and have then gone and booked tickets to one of the concerts. Conversation creates community: long may we dance about architecture.