Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nature and Intention

Tom Service has been really struggling to find a new theme for articles over at the Guardian. His latest effort is to collect together several "soundtracks" from space explorations and call it "implacable awesomeness." These are electronic emanations from comets, Saturn, the sun and Jupiter simply (though one wonders about the details) transposed into human auditory range.

I suppose the rough equivalent would be the beauty of a sunset or any other natural phenomenon. But these sounds of space exploration are special because they are relatively new. Our ancestors did not have access to them. But while they sound "spacey" enough, there really isn't much there to be interested in. While I love and appreciate natural beauty, and I suppose this could be characterized as a kind of natural beauty, there is a fundamental aesthetic emptiness to all this sort of thing.

What I think is important about natural beauty is our witnessing of it. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the First Duino Elegy:
Ja, die Frühlinge brauchten dich wohl. Es muteten manche
Sterne dir zu, dass du sie spürtest. Es hob
sich eine Woge heran im Vergangenen, oder
da du vorüberkamst am geöffneten Fenster
gab eine Geige sich hin.

Yes--the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing.
[from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell p. 150-151]

We are the witnesses and real art is the expression of our reaction to the world's beauty (and ugliness and every other aspect). It is one of the fundamental dumbnesses of our time that we are getting a bit foggy about this. But there is another even more disconcerting aspect: we seem to be losing our ability to notice the difference between aesthetically finer expressions and cruder ones. On a simple level we can see this in the movies where the subtle repartee of movies of the past is currently replaced by Things Going Boom and Things Moving Very Fast accompanied by Whoosh and Pow.

Getting back to the spacey music of Tom's article, he says:
Thanks to Cassini, Voyager and Rosetta, we can encounter the music of the spheres as a physical, sonic phenomenon rather than only as an abstract philosophical concept
The "only" is the interesting word. Tom is making a typical move in valorizing the "physical, sonic phenomenon" over the "abstract philosophical concept". What are, more or less, random clickings and sheaths of sound are less interesting than the philosophical idea behind the music of the spheres, aren't they? What is perhaps appealing about these kinds of aesthetically vacuous sounds is that they are indeed empty of meaning. The wonderful thing about that for our narcissistically obsessed generation is that we can derive or impose or simply imagine any content at all. It's all about us!! I suspect that this might even be some of the appeal of the music of John Cage where you can also pretty much imagine whatever content you wish.

But real aesthetic expression does have content--not always obvious or simple, but really there. Whatever the inspiration might be, natural beauty or philosophical concept or Greek myth or just the musical materials themselves, the composer crafts his or her music as an expression of or reaction to (or against) something in his or her experience. Gustav Holst wrote a suite of pieces for orchestra called The Planets whose inspiration is more astrological than astronomical, but it still gives us something of a musical example:


The difference between this and the soundtracks that Tom has in his article is intention. Composers usually mean something by their music, though due to the abstract nature of music, we need to use a rather broad definition of "meaning". Some of the meanings found in the "Mars" movement of the Holst are martial. This is an otherworldly march, otherworldly because it is set in 5/4. But the stern, martial qualities are evident. What are missing from the space soundtracks are any intentions or meanings. Saturn is not trying to tell us anything or express anything; this is literally nothing but the swirling of atoms in the void. To our time, in which all meaning and intention seems fraught with danger, this is refreshingly empty, it seems. But empty it is.

Some composers have managed to capture both the spaciness that we seem to like, but within the context of an expressive musical composition. One of the best examples of that that I have heard lately is Nyx, named for the Greek goddess of the night. This piece uses, as Salonen describes them: "the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods" to capture a kind of contemporary spaciness, but still the music is highly organized and "meaningful":



Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

If you haven't seen the classic Monty Python sketch about Beethoven, then you really must:


You have to love the madly wandering plot that leads back to Beethoven. Wagner apparently at one point lived in an apartment across from an iron-monger, which made composition rather difficult.

* * *

Tom Service over at the Guardian is looking around for another project after his two year-long ones on contemporary composers and symphonies. In the meantime he is putting up the occasional article that seem to be oriented towards pumping traffic. Lists, when in doubt do lists! So here are "10 of the best: where jazz meets classical". As Tom says:
As the London jazz festival gets into full swing, this week’s 10 picks are devoted to that much denigrated, occasionally inspired, sometimes insipid, but also genuinely fruitful interzone between jazz and classical. There’s a deeply problematic but potentially catalytic cultural politics and musical symbiosis between the practices and possibilities of both worlds - as if it were possible to reduce the massive diversity of both “jazz” and “classical” to single musical planets rather than the musical multiverses that they both are. The point is, composers and musicians over the last century have wanted to make the most of everything in the sonic world around them, trying to create something that sounds like a distinctive, single thing rather than that most benighted of phenomena, a “fusion” that sounds like neither one thing nor the other.
Well, I'm deeply grateful that I didn't write that! Tom's first example is Mr. "Third Stream" himself, Gunther Schuller, who really wanted to unite jazz and classical:


Twenty seconds of modernist meanderings followed by a whole lot of bebop pretty much shows it is a bad idea in my book. But that may be just because it combines two kinds of music that I particularly don't like! Next is Duke Ellington, which is quite a different story. But it is kind of interesting that he only performed it complete three times in his career. Next is a piece by Milton Babbitt for jazz ensemble that is not likely to have too many fans in either genre. Then the Ebony Concerto by Stravinsky which is not one of his better pieces. Are we starting to get the impression that trying to fuse together jazz and classical usually brings out the worst in both? I think we can skip over jazz versions of Mahler and Bach, don't you?

* * *

Here is a little piece about Sibelius' Valse Triste and copyright law over at Slipped Disc. The interesting thing is the discussion in the comments section that takes Norman to task, then goes into detail about copyright law and the "corporate murder of classical music".

* * *

Tomorrow, November 22, is Saint Cecilia's day, the patron saint of music. Here is Henry Purcell's Ode to St. Cecilia:


* * *

Here is an exhaustive statistical analysis of female versus male players in American orchestras. It is fascinating to note that 95% of harp players are female while 95% of tuba players are male. Conductors are 91% male. Only one orchestra has a preponderance of female members, that's the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with 53% female. What I would really like to see is a discussion of what these numbers might mean other than a conspiracy by the heteronormative patriarchy! And can we please get more male harp players? I mean, only 5% male? That's a disgrace!

* * *

Can being open and tolerant to diversity be taken to excess? Well, sure, as evidenced by this article in NewMusicBox: "Listen To Music, Dammit!" The opening is not too promising:
Too often I hear people say things like “pop and rock concerts are a massive snore, unless you live and die by A minor and C major.”
C'mon, nobody says that--nobody talks like that! This is slightly more plausible:
There is no way to make an argument that one type of music’s formal devices are better than another’s. This is not to say there isn’t a range in the quality of how well pieces take advantage of those devices.
But since the writer, Nick Norton (whose schtick always seems to be the same: there is no right and wrong in music), offers no specifics and doesn't even try to make an argument, one wonders. Nick meanders his way to this sanctimonious close:
Ultimately, it comes down to this: what, as an artist, is the benefit of being closed-minded or closed-eared? There isn’t one. What are the benefits to listening to and being aware of as much music as possible? There are about a zillion. Make it a mission to hear something new each day. Even if you hate it, figure out why you hate it. It’ll make you a better musician.
That's called beating a straw man to death. There is just something so deliciously inept about arguing vehemently and so very definitively about something that is stated in such vague terms! Here are some of my thoughts on the same topic: "How to listen to music: the Boring Quotient".

* * *

To clear the audio palette, let's close with some Sibelius. Here is Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic in the magnificent Symphony No. 2:


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Four Influences

But enough about you, let's talk about me! Wait, I mean, enough about all these famous composers from the past and present, who are all, face it, boring old white guys. Let's talk about my music, after all I'm a, um, well, sure, another boring old white guy. But, as Harrison Ford averred in Six Days, Seven Nights, I have "skills". Sure, I can't repair a de Havilland Beaver like he did, but I can write music.

Back in October I put up a post on my Symphony No. 3. One of these first few symphonies is going to be premiered in an orchestral concert in January (or maybe February). I didn't get many comments on this symphony, so I request you visit that post and give it a listen. I think it has some nice bits!

What I want to talk about today is why I started writing symphonies, after just writing for guitar or chamber music with guitar for most of my career. Coming out of that will be some thoughts on just what composers inspired me and influenced me.

I started composing just a few months after I started playing an instrument. The instrument was the bass guitar and what I wrote were songs. I probably wrote forty songs before I was twenty years old. They are all lost, except someone might have a reel-to-reel tape of three or four of them.

After I became a classical musician, at around twenty, I spent a number of years simply mastering the technical challenge of the guitar before returning to composition. I wrote a couple of pieces for solo guitar, but the best one from those years was a piece, inspired equally by Ligeti's piece for harpsichord, Continuum and by Steve Reich. My piece was titled Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord and it was very well received by the audience. Unfortunately, both the score and recording of it are also lost (don't ask, evil moving company!).

When I started teaching a lot and chairing a guitar department at a conservatory, I began to think about writing for students and I wrote a few pieces for a guitar orchestra I was conducting. I do actually have a recording of one of those pieces, Long Lines of Winter Light:

video


This is in moment form, invented by Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1950s. How that works is there are a number of small musical "cells" arranged in a kind of flow chart. The conductor indicates what level in the flow chart the players are and when to move to the next one. At each level, the players have options as to which cell they choose to play. The conductor can also select particular players to go back or forward and play particular cells. For example, in this performance, I pick the very first cell, the "snare-drum" effect one, and have it keep intruding later on, threatening to blot out whatever else is going on. The piece ends with a few players playing a little lyric melody.

I didn't continue with this sort of thing. In fact, for quite a few years composition was rather hit and miss as I didn't consider it my central musical activity. This changed several years ago. I realized, bit by bit, that the really important activity for me was composition. I started out writing again and the influence of Steve Reich was important. But soon I drifted away from that and realized that what I wanted to compose was music that used more traditional devices, especially harmonic ones. My feeling was that harmony was where a lot of the most interesting, subtle and affective musical impact came from. Most contemporary music, Steve Reich included, does not make a lot of use of harmony in this manner. Harmony for Steve Reich is rather static and for a lot of other composers it is unrelieved dissonance. Mind you, with composers like John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov and Esa-Pekka Salonen, this is no longer true as they seem to be using harmony in a lot of interesting ways. Not to mention Philip Glass!

So as I worked with various pieces for odd ensembles like violin, harpsichord, harp and guitar, or two guitars, or violin, viola and guitar, I was trying to rediscover harmony. I wrote a couple of suites for guitar with this aim. I recorded and posted the five movements of the first suite here, here, here, here and here.

As I worked on the pieces for solo guitar, I discovered that fully half of the ideas I was having simply could not be fitted onto the guitar. So the radical idea occurred to me of writing for orchestra! I was encouraged in this by discovering that it was not so difficult to write for violin and I had previously written for flute. I had never written for brass or percussion so I wrote a short piece for choir and brass to try it out. Then I set out to write an overture for orchestra. This was so exciting and fulfilling that decided me on writing symphonies.

Who influenced me? I have owned recordings and attended concerts of symphonies by the Big Three, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, for many years. But recently, much as I love Mozart and Beethoven, it is really Haydn that keeps interesting me. Over his 106 symphonies he did an astonishing number of remarkable things. The next, chronologically, would be Jean Sibelius. Yes, I'm skipping over everything written between 1830 and 1900 (Sibelius' first symphony was written in 1898/99, but it is really his second that grabbed me), but the very large 19th century symphonies really aren't an influence. I must give a mention to Franz Schubert, though, whose last two symphonies are simply magnificent.

Of the 20th century symphonists it is Sibelius that really grabbed me first. Then I did a seminar on the symphonies of Shostakovich and that has really stuck with me. Utterly unlike Sibelius--unlike anyone else, really, largely tonal, but powerful and expressive. The last of the four influences is Philip Glass who has to date written ten symphonies. Yes, I like them and I think they are good music, but I think what I get most from Philip Glass is simply permission to write symphonies. You might think that the romantic idea of composers responding only to their inner muse or compulsion is the truth, but it is not. In fact, composers, from before Haydn on, tend to respond to the needs of their patrons. Or, in the 20th century, the fashions of the day. If everyone decides the cool thing to do is to write multi-media oratorios, then a surprising number of composers will do just that. Have a look at a lot of the stuff written in the 1960s if you don't believe me. So the fact that a cool composer like Glass is writing symphonies tells me that there may even be people who want to hear them.

So those four influences I mentioned in the title are Haydn, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Glass. Let's have a listen to one of them to end. Here is Philip Glass' Symphony No. 3 played by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies (the same ensemble who recorded the complete Haydn symphonies!):


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Concerto Guide: C. P. E. Bach

C. P. E. Bach (1714 - 1788)

The German music historian Hermann Abert has noted that in the mid-18th century there were two main approaches to instrumental music. One is a Viennese tradition which used a lot of thematic material and affective contrast. Think of J. C. Bach, whom we talked about last week, and his successor, Mozart. The other approach, a North German one, is found in the music of C. P. E. Bach. Charles Rosen talks about him in Sonata Forms:
The most prominent representative of the North German tradition was Philip Emanuel Bach, a composer whose interest in intimate and intense expression led him to explore the possibilities of dissonance and remote key relationships (i.e. dissonance on a higher structural level). Striking modulations in Scarlatti are generally more coloristic than expressive; in C. P. E. Bach, they have a remarkable and sometimes incoherent passion which is reflected in the intense and idiosyncratic character of his themes. The highly individualized motif or theme was to become central to sonata style. [Sonata Forms, p. 143]
Of course, the successor to this tradition was Joseph Haydn who is known for his use of many of the features of C. P. E. Bach's style including juxtaposition of remote keys, sudden silences and irregular phrase lengths. Rosen points out that it is the memorability of C. P. E. Bach's themes that allowed their transformation during development sections to be heard thus having a large influence on the development section of the sonata. Incidentally, while he had a short-term influence on Haydn, you might even notice some on another North German composer from Hamburg where C. P. E. Bach spent the last part of his career: Johannes Brahms.

Why this division between two sons of J. S. Bach, who was based in Leipzig in Saxony? J. C. Bach, like so many before him and Mozart after him, went to Italy to study. From age 21 he studied in Bologna. Later on he pursued his career in London. C. P. E. Bach, on the other hand, went north. His first employment was in Berlin and he spent the last and most prolific part of his career in the northern port of Hamburg.

C. P. E. Bach's concerto output was enormous: many times that of his symphonic output. He wrote numerous concertos for flute for his patron in Berlin, Frederick the Great, but also many for oboe and cello. But the largest category is for his own instrument: keyboard. He wrote about fifty concertos for one and two keyboards.

Today I want to look at his Concerto for Cello in A minor, Wq 170, written in 1750. This is a powerful, tempestuous piece with enormous rhythmic energy. Think Vivaldi, but painted in richer colors. Here is a performance:


There is not a good score online; all I could find was a so-so piano reduction, but here is that first, chromatic, angular theme:


































Some things to note: the arpeggios get some of their drive from where the semitones are placed: as upbeats to the next harmony. That first idea takes up five measures and the next, a sequence, takes four, followed by two different three measure sequences. The total of this opening phrase: fifteen measures. The last measure on the page is the beginning of the next, six measure idea which finally has an irregular cadence (viiº 6/4 of D minor) on the minor iv chord in first inversion. If you want to think of all this, five different thematic ideas, as a single phrase, it is twenty-one measures long.

When the cello enters it has an entirely new theme, a lyrical one to contrast with the orchestra's, firmly in A minor:

Click to enlarge
This goes on for a while, then the orchestra returns with its opening theme, but this time in the subdominant, D minor. In a Baroque concerto, the ritornello would always come back in the tonic, but that system is breaking down. The new kind of concerto in the classical style will take a different kind of approach that I will get into in some detail in future posts. For the moment, let's just notice how little the dominant has been emphasized so far. No significant cadence on the tonic in the opening section, the cello solo starts in A minor, but cadences, as I said, on D minor. A lot of this opening movement wanders between A minor, E minor and D minor -- sometimes within a single measure! The only prominent cadences are to first inversion chords. Even at the cadence setting up the cadenza there is no standard cadence:


How odd is this? In the Classical period, every cadenza by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven begins with the orchestra and soloist sitting on a V7 chord, usually with a trill. What we have here is a tonic! But the preceding chord is equally odd: D# A C F# is viiº7 of V, but here it prepares the tonic. (UPDATE: True, the underlying skeleton, considering the measure before, is V to i, but the V is underemphasized, mostly in first inversion, and it is that odd viiº7 of V that gets the accent.)

C. P. E. Bach, though acknowledged as an important influence by both Mozart and Beethoven, is really going in a completely different direction than they did, harmonically. His is the path not taken: more obscure harmonically, without the clear definition afforded by the Classical tension between dominant and tonic found in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Like Domenico Scarlatti, he is carving out a territory all his own that will not be taken into the mainstream after his death--at least not the harmonic structure.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why Composition is like (and not like) Building a Bridge

I was out walking the other day and started musing about how we structure music compositions. How do we do it? The question is pretty simple, but the answer could be enormously long. You might consider the whole of the Oxford History of Western Music, in five hefty volumes, to be just a brief introduction to the answer! This reminds me of a friend of mine who did a doctorate in composition with Morton Feldman at NYU Stony Brook. At the end there was an oral exam and one of the questions was the very simple "what was the influence of Claude Debussy on 20th century music?" The answer to THAT question could go on for a very, very long time.

So, how can music compositions be structured and how does that relate to bridge building? The metaphor occurred to me because I was thinking about the problem of long compositions. How you structure a two or three minute piece is pretty clear, at least we have a lot of examples that are easy to analyze. Usually it is something like one phrase (8 measures or 16 measures as a period or sentence) followed by a different phrase, followed by the first phrase repeated. In Baroque binary dance movements we can label the first phrase A and the contrasting one B. This gives us a form A repeated, B A, then B A repeated. This is often shown as AABB, but since the A is often repeated after the contrasting B, this leads to a form called "rounded binary" which is better labeled AABABA.

That's not much like bridge building! By the way, I never took engineering in university, so I know almost nothing about bridge building, just so you know. But I have a feeling that the structure of something like this:


is based on factors like the strength of the materials used, the distance spanned, the weight of the bridge and basic principles of physics. In music the analogous factors might be the instruments used in the composition (orchestra, string quartet, solo harmonica, whatever) and their ranges and timbral qualities, the duration of the piece and? Ah, there is the rub! Because what comes next is where it gets very complicated. The composer has a myriad of confusing choices. Say you are writing a symphony. You have historical models in three, four and even five or more movements (Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 is in five movements). Each of these movements might be structured in various ways using forms as varied as "first movement sonata form", minuet and trio, scherzo, aria form, rondo form or something entirely different. But there are other symphonies in eleven movements, each of which is a setting of a poem for voice and orchestra--this is what Shostakovich chose for his Symphony No. 14. Or you could go in a completely different direction and write a lengthy single movement as Allan Pettersson did in several symphonies. His Symphony No. 9, for example, is in a single, uninterrupted movement about 70 minutes long. (Oddly enough, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 was written in 1969 and Pettersson's Symphony No. 9 in 1970.)

So how are these structured? I don't think that question has ever been answered with any thoroughness. When it comes to genuine theoretical understanding of the principles underlying the structure of a lot of music, we just don't know. It makes sense when you listen to it, but just how and why is hard to answer. We have a pretty good theoretical understanding of how music was structured up to, say, 1830, but from then on, the answers are rather tentative.

Unlike engineers, composers work from intuition, not a clear set of physical laws. Sometimes I think there are some basic musical principles, like tension and release, like dissonance and consonance, like pulse and sustain, but how these can be used in a composition seems to have so many applications, that general principles just don't seem to be evident. Still, it is tempting to think that musical structure can be as evident as engineering.

In fact, there was a school of composition that tried very hard to make this happen. It is a school of what Taruskin calls "maximal complexity" and that is also called "total serialism". The most well-known practitioners are Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, who looked back at the music of Anton Webern for inspiration. These composers create a musical structure whose entirety is dictated by a set of basic principles used to create a tone row that is processed in various ways. Two interesting things came to pass with this method: first of all, audiences did not find the results very palatable and secondly, the principles and processes used became more and more complex and ultimately obscure so one begins to wonder if there is much difference between this method and intuition.

So, the upshot is that music composition is not very much like bridge building after all. But it would be very interesting to read what music theorists might have to say in, oh, a century from now...

Pettersson's Symphony No. 9 doesn't seem to be on YouTube, so here is the much shorter, at 43 minutes, Symphony No. 7:

UPDATE: I replaced the clip with one with better sound. 


(One final thought: Pettersson's symphonies tend to be monothematic in the sense that the whole large form is spanned with a single theme or motif such as a scale segment or even a simple melodic cell like E to F. One is reminded of the simple, soaring arc of a suspension bridge...)

Proposed Posts

I'm afraid I don't have anything much for you this morning, but tomorrow I will be continuing with my series of posts on the concerto.

I notice something interesting, though: three years ago I did a post on "Voiles", the piano prelude by Debussy, and it keeps attracting page views year after year. I wonder why that is? It is a fascinating piece, true, but not one that you would expect to attract nearly 1500 page views! The post is an analysis of the structure of the piece, which is largely based on the whole-tone scale. You also wouldn't expect something so theoretical to attract so much ongoing attention. Or would you? So I want to ask my readership, are you particularly interested in these theoretical posts? Would you be interested in more of them? What if I did a series of posts on the Debussy preludes? Please let me know in the comments.

I am often surprised at how many composers (and music critics) read my blog, so here is your chance to speak out.

And that means our envoi should be this, the prelude by Debussy titled "...des pas sur la neige":


Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Fragility of Musical Instruments

Via Norman Lebrecht we hear about a violinist's shocking discovery when she opened her case one day:


The tailpiece just came apart. Well, it is a fairly old instrument, a Stradivarius dating from 1689. Hmm, J. S. Bach was just four years old when this was built. I have had the exact same experience with my guitar, a 1983 Robert Holroyd:


You have no idea of the shock and horror that you feel when you open your case and find your instrument, companion of untold hours of practice and performance, suddenly come apart! Luckily, these things can be fixed and my guitar, and, presumably Ragin's violin, was made good as new.

Musicians and their instruments have a nearly-symbiotic relationship in which your body and the instrument almost become one. There is a science-fiction short story by John Varley, "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance" that captures a bit of this feeling. It is not just the most accomplished professionals who feel this--music students often do as well. I was talking with a small group of students once when one of them, who was sitting down with her guitar face-up on her lap, dropped her tuning fork (which is a rather heavy, though small, metal object which can seriously harm an instrument) on the soundboard of her guitar. All of us reacted with horror, as if we were witness to a car crash. You have to be very careful with the tops of guitars, they bruise easily!

I will spare you the horror story of the lutenist whose pegbox fell afoul of an elevator door and was snapped off. You can image how nasty that was:


The problem with string instruments is that the strings exert a considerable force on the structure. A classical guitar, tuned up to pitch, puts about 125 lbs of torque on the bridge. 24 hours a day. Year after year. Over time this distorts the plane of the soundboard and the bridge may even come off at some point. Very few of the lutes from the 16th and 17th centuries have survived to the present because they are very fragile instruments.

Instruments have to be constantly maintained. In the case of my guitar, due to the dry climate where I live, I keep a humidifier inside the guitar at all times. Strings have to be replaced after sixty or so hours of use. The whole instrument (frets, varnish, tuning pegs, etc.) has to be restored every twenty years. Wind instruments need careful maintaining too. Flutes and other instruments with keys that close soundholes have to have those keys carefully adjusted and the pads, which close the soundhole, replaced on a regular basis. Things like the double reeds for oboes and bassoons that are the origin of the sound, are carefully manufactured, by hand, by the players, who carve them individually for their particular technique.

I won't even get into the intricacies of re-hairing a violin bow:



Actually, a lot of this is what attracted me to music in the first place. It is the very concreteness of the instrument and what you have to do to play it, both with your body and the instrument, that keeps you connected with the physical universe. Philosophy just seemed too abstract. Music is often called the most abstract of the fine arts: it is evanescent, evaporating into nothing as soon as the sound stops. But to the people who play the music, it is pretty concrete: sound vibrations coming from vibrating strings and soundboards, columns of air and drumheads, produced by fingers, nails, lips, hands, bows and drumsticks.

Musical instruments are fragile structures, with delicate balances and maintaining precise tensions and stresses. This is why it is so upsetting for musicians to have their instruments put into the cargo hold of an airplane, stacked under suitcases, even inspected by officers who know nothing of their fragility. And the worst indignity: confiscated for some obscure bureaucratic reason.

Whew, time to listen to one of those instruments. This is the very fine lutenist Paul O'Dette playing lute music of early 16th century Venice: