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"getting there is all the fun" with Michael Hammer -- WEEK ONE

above: Pictures from a previous "OLLI" class The banner photo nothing says spooky like a good cemetery at night. I jog past this one in the wee hours some mornings for exercise. So far nobody has come out of their graves to cheer me on.

This Week's Featured Recording: for Friday, October 22

Bigger on the Inside    October22, 2021

It is a curious fact of history that on November 22, 1963, three famous men died: the English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley (who is perhaps best known for his "Brave New World"), the British popular theologian C. S. Lewis, and the American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. One fellow, Peter Kreeft, wrote a novel in which he imagines the three of them meeting in purgatory and having a conversation about faith.

But there is a fourth item to note about November 22, 1963, and it involves a beginning. The long-running science fiction show Dr. Who made its debut on this auspicious date. I find that interesting because both Lewis and the writers of Dr. Who liked to use the phrase "bigger on the inside." Lewis meant it more philosophically than the television show, surely; in the BBC program it refers to the fact that the Doctor's ship through which he can travel both in time and in space appears from the outside to be an ordinary 1960s British police box, but once inside one discovers it is actually a vast cavernous command station which also has hallways leading off to all kinds of rooms that we never actually see but must include living quarters and some that are less functional and exponentially stranger. The writers refer to these rooms occasionally for fun and wit, and the bean counters on the show don't mind if their extravagance is contained in merely a line of dialogue.

C. S. Lewis, who surely got to the phrase first, used it in a series of children's books he wrote in which a wardrobe that the children discover in a sprawling English country house contains another world to which they travel when the wardrobe permits, or beckons.

In both cases it is a relatively small piece of cabinetry that contains another reality. I suspect Lewis wanted to refer to it also as the phenomenon whereby someone who was familiar with Christianity would find it much more various, nuanced, and complex than someone who was unfamiliar with it and only had occasional brushes with some of its most damaging members on the nightly news. The same is surely true of any major religion, or any other major institution known to humans. As the Spanish proverb goes, "two persons, three opinions."

I find the same to be true about Classical Music. The term itself has become a phrase to contain all of the music that you hear on the radio that was written in at least the last four centuries from at least two or three continents. Technically, though, it is meant to refer to a period from about 1750 to 1810 whose composers wrote music out of a basic set of assumptions about what music should be. Those characteristics are said to be classical, and they mirror classical ideas in the other arts, too: a sense of balance and symmetry, a sense of cool reason dominating the messy emotions, logic in design, and aesthetic beauty in impact.

What is curious about all that is that the Classical Era in music was followed immediately by the Romantic Era, in which the predominate ideas in musical art were pretty much the opposite. Now we look to the passions, forget symmetry and rhetoric, structure our pieces so that they barrel toward a climax, the accumulated tension resolving through means of dynamics rather than merely harmonic dissonance.

Persons who really understand the Romantic Era itself will point out that it is impossible to accurately generalize even that time and place. Although from our vantage, in a world with such a diversity of sound worlds, the 19th century looks relatively homogeneous, the people living through it had no such idea of conformity. It is often pointed out that Romanticism--at least as a historical era (which is not quite the same as a movement)-- often seems to contain its opposite; that may even be one of the characteristics.

Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that, given the differing artistic aims of the two periods, that when you turn on your radio to the "classical" station, the much you may be listening to might in fact be the opposite of "classical" music. The difficulty with characterizations is mainly in trying to fix ideas in historical periods, and to claim that they are the same. If we think of Romanticism and Classicism more as attitudes than times and places, we can at least get some fairly workable stereotypes out of which pour a sea of exceptions. And we can quickly realize that being current on those individual achievements in art makes it harder to broadly label anything. Being inside helps you to realize that.

If, on the other hand, your aim is to dismiss all of it as music you don't want to hear, it is much easier to have a single label, even if it might apply to a far greater diversity than the music that you do happen to like. Incidentally, the same has been true of Christianity, whose adherents have often labelled all others as "atheists." Although etymologically the word should be reserved for those who don't believe in the existence of a God, it has historically been used on people who are actually very religious, but do not share, in part or in whole, the views or doctrines of the ones making the accusation. At one point Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians considered the other "atheists." As Rome once considered all Christians, for that matter.

In this sense labels are more useful for those who would rather not enter. It allows a quick and handy way to refer to a path not traveled. The world has a tendency to get complicated when you are examining it up close, but it is still worth noting that in the vast swarm of individual examples of things, a good generalization can make the maelstrom seem to stand still, for a second or two.

Thus it is that "serious" music, or "art" music, or whatever the pointy-headed elites are supposed to be listening to, contains within it competing visions. Before the 20th century came along and challenged every basic assumption one could think of, these were mainly divided into the "classical" and the "romantic." There were plenty of debates about the music of the day, critics and fans of every well-known artistic movement and every composer, and lots of practitioners of their craft who just knew how to do it the right way and that the other folks were just wrong. You can read up on that, enter into the ideas, the debates, the musical styles. Or you can just prop your feet up and listen to some nice Brahms for a while and forget about all that human confusion.

I don't blame you for taking the second approach sometimes. Old controversies are easy to leave behind, and music is wonderful; besides, it seems so peaceful much of the time.

Just remember the door is open. Sometime you might want to come inside.

...And now another word
from our friend,
Mr. Bach

People have been wondering for a long time what they can do to become not just better pianists or organists, but how they can become great. Because, after all, why settle for anything that won't get us worshiped by throngs of adoring fans, right? And who knows the secret alchemy to greatness better than our own Johann Sebastian Bach, possibly the greatest composer who ever lived, and certainly a great organist and harpsichord player as well. So let's ask him. Let's shove a microphone right up in his face as he's leaving St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, and see what he thinks it takes to become great. Are you just born with it? Do you need some special diet or workout, or can you pay some guru five installments of 88.95 for the secret so that you, too, can be the one everybody is talking about. Oh Mr. Bach...?

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