Monday, April 4, 2011

Other sounds that cellos make

So I am trying to expand my horizons a little and listen to some classical music. My problems with classical are many: lack of patience, lack of education, tendency to fall asleep when listening to similar sounds for more than thirty minutes, and the fact that classical music recordings are often very quiet -- if I want to listen to it, in other words, I have to make sure nothing is happening in my computer that might produce any other sounds, which would be rendered deafening by the increase in volume necessary to hear all the stringy bits. However, I've been incredibly bored with most of my usual musical haunts this year (the latest trends in indie rock are simply awful [what is the deal with this chill wave shit]) and usually in this situation I try to get interested in jazz, but you know what, I give up on jazz. So classical it is.

A lot of the stuff people have recommended to me in what people in the know may or may not call the neo-classical vein has been just incredibly tense. I mean excessively so. Minimalism is a lot of fun and all and I've liked Bang on a Can in small doses for a long time, but let me say now that I continue to be a Terry Riley man -- Riley being sometimes quite the serious, super-tense guy himself, but also the wonderful hippy behind Harp of New Albion, among others. So while I appreciate the recommendations of my friends and correspondents, ultimately I've decided to begin with some Bach (Suite no. 1 in G Major) and Stravinsky (The Firebird and Petrushka). This is not music that hangs back, constantly menacing you with the possibility of something actually happening. It begins immediately and then it continues happening. Very nice.

At this point you've probably figured the depths of my ignorance if you're better acquainted with classical music, so, good news: I'm not going to try to say something sophisticated about it. Rather, I wanted to note how much I love the incidental sounds of one particular recording. For the Bach cello suite I went with a recording by Anner Bylsma, essentially because I thought the sound was really excellent: it feels like you've just climbed inside his cello. As a result, you get to hear a series of light taps -- some crisp, some shuffling, some like light slaps -- that must be, unless I'm mistaken, the movement of Bylsma's left hand on the strings.

These sounds are incidental, a result of the excellent mics used for this recording. It's possible you would hear them in a normal concert venue, but I have my doubts. Why do I love these sounds? Well there is the texture of them. The way they fall on my ear. But also there is the way it lets me feel Bylsma's movement: and, by implication, the weight of the instrument in my hands, the way you have to breathe to play the song. The music gains a physicality, a body. The body feels lovely.

I've long had a fondness for the incidental sounds musicians make that mean they are alive. I'm not one who parted ways with The Mountain Goats when they went full-band (though I am struggling to follow them enthusiastically into their newfound mellow) but I will say that the best part of the old guy-and-a-guitar records is how much you could really hear the guitar -- not the tone, but the body of the instrument. The pick or his fingers striking the strings, the sound of those impacts, is at times almost primary, almost more important than the melody itself, such as it is. I love Dufus at their most propulsive for similar reasons: when they really start jamming, they play the guitar like a drum.

As I've written here before many times, I think I go to art for the thrill of imagining how it would feel to make that art as much as anything. Drum solos are only fun when they give you the space to imagine yourself playing the solo: that slightest bit of stretching, that lovely silence, wherein you feel the stick about to come down (and with it the drummer's fist, wrist, forearm). That same silence in any instrument. It's one of my favorite things. When a singer breathes into the mic. If you get a little thrill when you hear tap-dancing, and I think the relative success of Tilly and the Wall suggests you do, it's because you have some idea what your legs would have to do to make a sound like that.

Which may explain the difficulty, for me, of appreciating fully orchestral music. I can't empathize with an army, can't begin to imagine what it would take to make those hundred-odd sounds. And the mics are far enough away you never get to hear them breathe. It helps to see them, I've found: to see how many are sweating, how they bite their lips and lean their heads. With sufficient education and practice, one can imagine how it would feel to be the composer hearing what he or she wrote rendered so massively. And what a thrill, if you can find the time and education. This must be why those who really love this music so often imagine themselves as the conductor, rather than, say, third chair flautist.

I can imagine a record where priorities were inverted: where the instruments mouths, feet, asses, hands have mics pointed at them, but not the instruments themselves. Where the music is distant, and the playing very near.

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