Maxime's Essay,The Milan Lectures,Conducting Where does Music exist?

Where does Music exist?

Milan, Duomo

The Milan Lectures, part 2
David Whitwell

Where does Music Exist?

In the first lecture in this series I mentioned that Aristotle invented a new branch of philosophy called Aesthetics. He also was the first to point out that if you speak the word dog this word is only a symbol of the real animal, not the actual animal. And if you write the word dog this word is only a symbol of the spoken word, which is only a symbol of the real animal, thus we are now two generations away from the actual animal. This sequence is precisely the problem when we try to write music on paper. Music notation is only a symbol of actual music. In fact, the symbols of music we see on paper are really only a representation of the “Grammar of Music.”

If, then, what we see on paper is not actual music, where does music exist? First of all, music is the only art form which cannot be seen. You can go to a concert and see the musicians and their instruments, but you cannot see the music. It exists in the form of vibrations in the air, which you can feel and hear, but which you cannot see. This being the case, we must conclude that music exists only in the mind of the listener, the performer and the composer.

The thought of music existing in the mind takes on great importance when we consider the results of twentieth-century brain research. We have two large, but separate hemispheres of matter which comprise the brain. Their official medical names are the left side and the right side. They are libraries, the left side consisting of data, language and numbers while the right side consists of our experiences. First, it is very important to understand that everything in the left brain is past tense, something told us or something we have read from other persons. Therefore only the right side, consisting of our own experience including the present tense, is the real us! You can immediately understand the initial challenge of education. The room is full of students who are very much in the present tense, while the teacher comes in with information from the past, from other sources. No wonder the students have such a potential to be bored.

Second, only the left brain, where language resides, can write or speak in sentences. The most powerful language of the right brain is music, something which has been observed for many centuries and thus the most common definition of music among centuries of philosophers is, “Music a special language which allows us to communicate feelings and emotions.” This distribution of purpose allows us to understand why it is so difficult to write a love letter. In so doing we are asking the left hemisphere to write about something it knows nothing about! But also this explains how ordinary listeners with no background in music can nevertheless hear a performance of music and be deeply moved by the experience. This seems to be true with persons of every nationality and it seems to be something innate, an ability we are born with.

Understanding this separation in brain function allows us to understand what Mahler meant when he wrote,

“The important things in music are not found in the notes on paper.”

This allows the reader to also understand why my definition of a conductor is, that they are one who brings to the rehearsal and concert things which are not on paper. Where then does the conductor find this information which is not on paper? The answer reminds me of a famous Indian parable in the Sufi literature.

A student was walking through the village of his teacher and soon saw his teacher on his hands and knees in the front yard looking for something in the grass.
“Master, what are you looking for?”
His teacher replied, “I have lost my house key, please come and help me look for it.”
The student of course immediately joined his teacher in the yard looking for the key.
After a few moments the student began to imagine this was some sort of lesson and so he asked, “OK Master, where did you actually lose your key?”
His teacher answered, “I lost it in the house somewhere.”
“Why then,” asked the student, “are we outside looking in the grass?”
“Because there is more light out here,” replied the teacher!

This is what the conductor must do. They can study the score as much as they want, they can analyze the chords, etc., but at some point they must go somewhere where there is more light. The most helpful tool for doing this is memorization.

On memorization

What do we mean by the memorization of music? If I were to ask any experienced musician, “Do you know the Verdi Requiem?” they would answer, “Of Course!” and that would be a true statement. But this does not mean that they could take a pen and write out the viola part of the entire Requiem. To do this would require some sort of photographic memory, but photographic memory refers to the eye and not the ear! Instead, what we conductors memorize is what Wagner called the \term{melos}, by which he meant the stream of melody and emotion that flows through the composition. There is no need to memorize the names of notes and chords, etc., which are the tools of the composer.

This reminds me of a very nice story about the great conductor, Toscanini. A young student received permission to interview Toscanini in his home in New York City. When the student was ushered into the studio of Toscanini he found the conductor sitting before a piano studying a score of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The student asked Toscanini why he was studying this score which he had performed and recorded from memory for seventy years? And Toscanini answered, “Well, but what if I missed something!” And probably Toscanini did in fact find something new, because while the score remains the same, the conductor with each passing year has more experience which may cause them to understand some details or phrasing in the score now with their greater experience.

This reminds us that music is a life-long study! It is not like a fact of math, for example, which you can learn and then walk away from. Instead, music represents experience, not data, and our gaining of new experience year after year changes how we interpret the experience. And thus, if you choose a life of music, you are obligated to study music for the rest of your life and you have no choice!

Related Post