Monday, 2 January 2017

Time travel and music.

I listened the other day to a podcast from the BBC series “All in the Mind”, it explored the idea of mental time travel and how we revisit our past and anticipate the future. It explored the idea of the uniqueness of this activity to mankind. Having made progress with the research into primates being able to sign and respond to a limited vocabulary it seems that we desire something more complex than the use of language to demonstrate our uniqueness on this planet.

As we have said before music is an art form played out in real time, performers, composers and listeners are all deeply involved with the passing of time and perhaps less obviously involved in the anticipation of what is to come. We must also be aware of the instant at which we perceive the unfolding drama of music, I use ‘perceive’ as the physical processes of response may mean that we are constrained from responding in the present, but experience delays, more of that later.

Let us begin with familiar examples of visiting the past. We have built up a hugely profitable recording industry on reworking performances of Baroque and earlier music. There is considerable research to demonstrate why certain choices are made but in all truth reconstruction of music is as much an act of imagination or mental time travel as it is science. Many unfinished scores have been completed, some, like the final fugue from the Art of Fugue have several possible workings while others may require less speculation, for example the orchestration of piano scores. Reconstruction from sketches is a task requiring considerable empathy with the composer's technique, and the musical world owes a debt to the work done with Elgar and Maher in particular. This is not time travel as in Star Trek but the deep insights gathered through diligence provides opportunities for pleasure and discussion.

Listeners attempt reconstructions when they recall previously heard music. I understand that I am not alone in having lucid recollections of music, rather like an MP3 player being switched on in my head. On a lesser level I can conjure up a melody and play it at the keyboard adding appropriate (and sometimes more exotic harmonies). All of this is revisiting past material which forms a template from which I can draw at will. Some Jazz players enjoy blending melodies into an improvisation when the harmonic formula is shared, it can be amusing or even striking if well prepared. This idea of a matrix of events like a cutlery drawer from which you draw the appropriate tool for the job has an important role to play in the process of anticipation.

Anticipation is an everyday event in our lives, we are sometimes surprised by the fact that our bodies have taken over the task of picking up the correct screwdriver for those tiny computer parts before we realise that they are needed. In terms of artistic matters we may anticipate how a novel or film will evolve, it is often the essential part of the entertainment provided. We may anticipate the outcomes of discussions on political or philosophical matters, though we are learning that anticipating the results from a large community can be unreliable.

For music the process of anticipation is essential as it often requires rapid and skilled responses, whether accompanying students in an examination, performing in an ensemble, improvising in a group, or controlling a mixing desk. Slow responses can terminate and ruin any of these, and experience helps provide rapid responses that make the errors pass by with little or less attention.

Musicians like actors often picture themselves performing in a hall or theatre with audiences before the event, for many it is a way to overcome the sense of fear before the presentation. The usual model for anticipation is stimulus / reaction, repeated as a chain of events for the duration of an activity. In “guided imagery” there is no real stimulus though we may use our memory to simulate the sense of expectation. In the sporting field much is made of visualization, but to think of the action as visual is misleading, the kinesthetic and auditory functions are equally important. I recall a visit to Cardiff Arms Park where I was shown how their amplification system was used on entering the playing area to get players used to the roar of the crowd and increase the adrenalin before play. Those who are unfamiliar with the technique may start with this short but intriguing document:

The quantity of material as stimulation in music can be large. Consider the information in sight reading a single line from a vocal score at a moderate pace. Now reflect on the idea of playing the Ives piano sonata (Concord) at sight which is on a par with climbing Everest. Remember that if the stimulus has to be processed (reaction) there will always be a time lag. This applies to reading a text, and research has been done to determine the time lag in the process of the working of the eye, processing the text, recognition of patterns and conventions, e.g. speech marks, use of italics, rhyme in poetry, bold lettering and so on. The lag is increased if the text has to be read out to an audience. Many of us are aware of the power point curse of people reading from the slides, and our gratitude when there is an experienced user who draws on experience and uses the slides as simple markers. In order to perform a reading, whether it is text or music, we cannot let the chain of physical events slow us down, so we draw on the matrix of experience. Having played many Bach piano pieces it is easier for me to sight read a new Bach piece than it is to play a Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue, and that may be easier than playing a Bax sonata, and that again easier than a piano sonata by Nurtan Esmen even though the technical demands may not be dissimilar. Put another way we can make predictions even though we may not know the exact context.

In our experience we may know for example the reactions demanded of us in playing a scale and gather that requirement as a chunk of information rather than read one pitch after another. At the level we are discussing the structure of the performance is prepared before notes are played. Psychologists recognise that we are creating structures from birth to develop anticipation.

The notion of training now takes on a different emphasis, repetition isn't the means to accelerating our responses, rather it is the development of the experiences which form the matrix that permit rapid reactions. For the improviser anticipation is the filtering of possibilities from the schemes in his / her experience, the main material is already in place.

To return to teaching, one could describe in words how to play an instrument, but this sort of instruction does nothing for the novice performer. There are physical interventions, demonstrations and many repetitions of basic movements. No one really knows how these skills are incorporated to produce a performer, how the individual actions move onto the level where we no longer pay attention to the control of single events, we abandon our concern for the basic structures, we have to, as dwelling on any part of it interferes with the process.

This has its part to play in the listening process, and, to return to the previous blog on musical climax, a significant part to play in the engagement we have on an emotional level with the music we enjoy.

For most of us the subject of conceptual involvement in the past and future is understood at an intuitive level, but when applied to music making we often take the miraculous, like time travel, for granted.