December 22, 2011

The joys of anterograde amnesia...


A few days ago, while driving home, I played Jean Barraque's piano sonata on my car stereo to soften the boredom of a long commute.  About ten minutes into this 45-minute long complex serial composition I suddenly felt (rather than thought) that I have no idea of how the music got to the point where it was at that moment.   If the music I listened to at that time were to be considered the whole of my experienced reality (which would be not far from truth, as I was cruising in a nearly empty carpool lane with next to no driving-related distractions), then I failed to form memories of events experienced only a few minutes earlier.  It then occurred to me that listening to this kind of music - in which the organization of every parameter is perceptually inaccessible without a detailed knowledge of the score - is about as close as a neurologically normal person can come to experiencing what it's like to have anterograde amnesia.

I did not need music for the rest of my drive home because I was plenty entertained by chewing on the following conjecture:  The seemingly insuperable difficulties posed by total serialism for the general audience may not at all be rooted in aversion to relentless dissonance and/or completely athematic pitch progressions.   After all, there is plenty of abrasive, aggressive dissonance in some (non-serial) compositions of Bartok,  Shostakovich or Ustvolskaya; and there are stretches of athematic (and not tonally anchored) writing in such popular works as Strauss' Salome and Elektra.  Rather these difficulties may be rooted in the genetically coded fear of (and the resultant stress from) disorientation.   (I say 'genetically coded' because in many contexts disorientation can be fatal: getting lost in the forest, losing the sense of direction under water, or just taking a wrong exit off the freeway at night to find yourself on the poorly lit streets of South Central LA.)  The behavioral expression of this fear in the concert hall may take  seemingly unrelated forms, such as fidgety boredom or anger at the composer.  But then it is not uncommon for drivers who are lost to become irrationally angry at the passengers in their cars, or at some unknown "municipal assholes" responsible for poor street lighting and illegible street signs.

One immediate challenge to my armchair (or rather driver seat) speculation is the fact that, in a certain sense, I enjoy listening to the Barraque sonata (and to some other serial works).  The unpredictable unfolding of the music's parameters makes me feel giddy rather than apprehensive about my existence in the perpetual musical "now", with no detailed memories of its past and no clear anticipations of its future.
     But then this acceptance of serial music came to me only after a lengthy and gradual immersion in the music written in the second half of the 20th century.  And this suggests the possibility that I have simply learned to disentangle this kind of musical experiences from my subconscious fear of disorientation, and to perceive them instead as thrilling, in the way in which we are thrilled by disorientation after having entered a maze...
 
I also began to wonder about the extent to which pianists who have played the Barraque sonata in public (Roger Woodward, Claude Helffer, Nicolas Hodges) had to rely on their procedural memory to get through the piece even with the score before them...   And then the drive was over.  I was home.  There were now better things to do than to speculate about the psychological demands of serial music.  Like listening to the Barraque sonata on my vastly better sounding home stereo...

5 comments:

laybl said...

As one who drives long distances as an alternative to flying, I'm familiar with a "how did I get here?" phenomenon. Not quite the same as listening to extended pieces of music that have no seeming beginning or end...see dentistry.

In another blog you spoke of musicians who make repeated mistakes...see Schnabel, and it makes me ask, would a novel written in serial, atonal style, with no obvious narrative, nor any recognizable characters, merit the respect you offer music written in this "where am I" style?

As an artist/photographer I can appreciate works that defy easy interpretation, but the element of time inherent in music suggests a problem of mental fatigue not associated with the plastic arts.

In fairness, your commentaries seem to be more interesting than many of your subjects.

Bob B. said...

Boom, I share much of the way you look at this kind of music, though having the score on hand wouldn't help me. My interest in this direction started out with listening to Webern back in the early 70s. I've deliberately gone after challenging listening since then.

I believe that much of our listening is done at the subconscious level, and that the subconscious picks up on whatever underlying structure may be there more quickly than the conscious mind does. I enjoy becoming gradually aware of order or form. Usually a second or third listen of something good is much more rewarding than the first.

I also enjoy dissonance and atonality. I like seeming chaos with a masked order within it.

Bob B.

jackbrahms said...

Be very careful when listening to shakuhachi playing on the south bay curve.

Rob said...

Boom: Great analysis. This is true for me: "And this suggests the possibility that I have simply learned to disentangle this kind of musical experiences from my subconscious fear of disorientation, and to perceive them instead as thrilling, in the way in which we are thrilled by disorientation after having entered a maze..." But, since I once experienced TGA (temporary global amnesia) for 36 hours, that was more frightening than any late-20th century music!

RonanM said...

Feldman, in Triadic Memories, experimented to find out how many repetitions of a phrase were needed in order to efface the memory of the last one. His purpose was not so much disorientation and to encourage the listener to give up the hope that 'something' was going to 'happen'. He described his music, famously, as like walking around Berlin. "The feeling that you are going somewhere gives way to the realisation that it's the same everywhere".

Perhaps the popularity of Feldman's music is due to his success at bringing the listener into the present moment. The difficulty of serialism is, by the same token, perhaps rooted in the apparent allegiance to large-scale structure, combined with methods that make this process utterly inaccessible to the listener.

I am reminded of the triumphalist soviet architecture of the public buildings I saw in Georgia: windows far to big and too high off the floor to be looked out of by people, doorways that dwarfed actual humans that passed through them. If the buildings had been abstract modern architecture, they would not have been such apparent snubs to human dignity. It was their use of familiar architectural elements, scaled way beyond the human, that was repugnant to me.