Thursday, October 20, 2005

hearing double

This evening I went to hear Karen Birch, a New World oboe fellow and the new director of community engagement, presenting an Inside the Music program on Hindemith's Sonata for English Horn and Piano. After playing the piece, she talked about familiarity in music, and gave the audience some analysis and history before performing the piece a second time. The familiarity of a second hearing would hopefully breed understanding and engagement, rather than contempt.

A line from her program notes on Hindemith reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Election: "He was a highly moral and ethical man, and his emotional struggles are reflected in his music." One of the movie's jokes is that Matthew Broderick's character is always asking his students to distinguish between morals and ethics, though not even he and his fellow teachers can really tell the difference. I think sometimes we just like to have two words for something - just as we see with two eyes, and hear with two ears, the duality adds an extra dimension, even if the meanings are practically indistinguishable.

The Hindemith Sonata itself seemed like a good example of this kind of dual thinking, with its two instruments, two main melodic ideas, two tempos, all complementary and intertwined. When Karen asked for our initial reactions, one woman said it sounded sad, another said forlorn, a man said it sounded like it followed a long journey. As Karen pointed out, our words seem to slide around the meaning of music, or maybe the music slides around our words - we end up repeating ourselves, or speaking in cryptic riddles, in an effort to pin down those elusive sounds. Still, it often helps to add a second word - "forlorn and resigned," or "allegro pesante," the second word always gives us an angle on the first.

If the piece seems reminiscent of a journey, probably it is the use of variation that propels that sense. The six movements are in three groups of slow/fast, so there is a real sense of returning with new understanding, hearing a theme in a new light. Karen talked about three different modes of approaching a new piece: auditory, analytical, and informational. No matter how familiar a piece is, it only takes shape within our minds, and all the background, analysis, and commentary we've heard surely impact the form it takes. Still, a great piece of music can sweep all that aside and create its own mold; sometimes it can even reshape us in the process.

At one point Karen was countering a prevailing criticism of Hindemith's style, but she couldn't think of the word - the audience tried to help her out - "bookish? formal? academic?" No, intellectual was the word she was looking for; but her experience of this piece was not intellectual at all, but "heartbreaking."

My experience of Hindemith has often been closer to this description of one of Leonard Bernstein's less successful pieces:
It seems a parody, a spoof of Jewish existential anguish; recently, when I put on a recording of it, my wife looked at me in horror, and my noisy fifteen-year-old son, stunned, sat down glumly, as if he were being punished.
-David Denby, "The Trouble With Lenny," The New Yorker August 17, 1998, p. 50
Not Jewish existential anguish, but a sense of self-conscious discipline does seem to dry out a lot of Hindemith's works. Or maybe that's just the filter I impose on them - this was a glum work, but one filled with subtlety of expression. Karen's performance and discussion was far from a punishment, and everyone seemed to enjoy the opportunity to hear and hear again.

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