An email to Nicholas

Dear Nicholas,

Thank you for your previous two letters. I’m sorry I was so slow getting back to you after the first one, that you had to write another.

I didn’t know Canon meant essentially the same things as Round. I’m sure I must have been told, but I never got what it meant or cared. I only really appreciated rounds at all in actually singing them with people at Kentwell (the Tudor recreation thing I do).

Amusingly, I look up the most complex round I know (it isn’t instant to learn, as the note of “well” sounds off, so you have to teach it to drunk people carefully), which is the original “cat is in the well”. It’s called Ding Dong Bell in Ravenscroft’s Pammelia. Where, so I just now amusingly founded, headed “Canons in the unison”.

While trying to find out what exactly round means just now, I came across what glees were originally, and glee clubs. I really wish they still existed!

The ground bass is clearly an important reason that I like Pachelbel‘s Canon. And it doesn’t vary in volume. Oh, and there are hardly any instruments – I think adding any more is basically a waste of time for me, as I’ll fail to pick them out.

Moving on to your second letter… It started to irk me right at the beginning – only at the end did you give me an easy way to articulate why. I wasn’t moved by Williams musical version of Christina Rossetti’s poem. Worse, I wasn’t even moved by the poem itself!

Doing as you say and describing my emotional reactions the first time I heard it…

The voice was irritating, overly oscillating such that I couldn’t pick out the words. It actually managed to make the poem harder to understand. There were some uplifting bits musical in the middle, but the tedium of the vocal parts overruled that.

As for the poem, my! It glazes my eyes over, making me simply not want to read it. It is full of metaphors that have no meaning to me. To such an extent that I’d have to force myself to read it as whipped homework to get anywhere further with it at all.

I am going to take your advice, to not try to “understand” music, and not do so :)

I agree with you that over analysis and understanding can defeat the joy of music. What it can do though, is breakdown practical barriers. I’d like a music recommendation service which could say “don’t bother Francis with Wagner, basically nobody with your low volume range of hearing ever ends up liking it particularly”.

For people who are good at music, and/or who have fallen deeply into one genre pool they can’t see out, these barriers are as fleas to a giant. To those in old people’s homes, or whose voices have just broken, or even who are deaf, and have had music torn for them often unknowingly… They are so important!

To slightly shift subject, I just got back from Bearded Theory. Three relevant musical observations from it:

  • To our surprise, we loved the ambient tent, at the right moments. Not being about love or sex was such a relief, the wilful suspension of the primate social, abandoned for rhythm, the raw dance. e.g. The Orb.
  • Revived acts, from The Stranglers to UB40, were just irritating. They had the odd song you knew, but they weren’t the same as when they were young, and if you didn’t like them already, you weren’t going to by seeing them live. This alone makes it worth supporting new acts, despite the cornucopia of amazing historic music we have at a click now. (Ironic, that contradicted by me liking for the first time ancient The Orb above!).
  • It’s fun playing the Ukelele and/or singing (or Kazooing along). Beardy Keef did a jam, managing to get half the famous musicians on site to turn up too. My strumming sucked, and I couldn’t instantly remember chord patterns after the first verse (they were unlabelled on the second)… But still, that Uke, it brings down barriers. Easier than a recorder or a piano to learn to that important stage of “have fun with” by far.
  • The Monster Ceilidh Band are great.

So yeah, I don’t need sophisticated analysis of music. (Although the part of me that wants to understand consciousness, and suspects music is a vital hack on our brains that will reveal a lot about them, is curious.)

Instead, I want analysis so people can have fun, without being put off by usability barriers that there are gorgeous ways round.

But there is a danger that we become distracted by such intellectual diversions in a similar way that one might become fixated by the form of a Sonnet while missing its meaning

It works both ways. To return to Dr LJ’s Tweet… Is everyone, even just in England, actually hearing Beethoven’s 9th? What’s the most efficient way to make that possible, in the cases where they would like it but just don’t have a way of getting to it?

Coincidentally I was at Bearded Theory with a music therapist (there are very relevant links to papers and things on the News and Downloads page!). Singing war solidarity songs to people with dementia… Makes sense to me.

And alas you need research, like in the paper Dr LJ linked to, to stand a chance at knowing how much to spend on nursing and how much on music.

Best wishes,


2 thoughts on “An email to Nicholas

  1. I basically don’t really get most classical music despite having worked my way through a Grade 8 piano. I’ve played and studied a reasonable amount of classical, and whilst I’m a passionate rock and pop improvisor/accompanist I just don’t find the magic in the classical repertoire.

    Bach has a mathematical purity that appeals and is the, and I’d submit Minuet in G, as the greatest classic composition ever for combining simplicity with beauty.

    For me, Silent Noon is a bunch of excessive metaphors set to a dull improvisation on the chord of Eb. After four lines it’s obvious he’s got no good ideas so he switches to G, two lines later it’s clear there’s still no good ideas so now we’re off for a further sequence of pointless key changes. On the upside at least he didn’t go for pointless ridiculous difficulty (I’m looking at Lizst / Rachmaninov) for no reason.

  2. “The voice was irritating, overly oscillating such that I couldn’t pick out the words”. That’s how the human voice is when it’s trained towards its potential as an instrument (rather than crooning into a microphone). There’s an interesting parallel here with the problems you had with the text, where a stuffy retort might be that you need to be educated to appreciate it.

    Is this music, are these words, better than something you can “understand”? Not necessarily. Vaughan Williams (double non-barrelled surname!) is not the greatest composer, nor Rossetti (first time for diambiguation!) the greatest lyricist, though they’re not half bad. Dismissing them as beset with “usability barriers” would be utterly to miss the point, however. Even the slickest web site needs some purely aesthetic content to win us over, and in art the aesthetic often predominates over the utilitarian. I’d suggest (and thanks for making me think this through) that while great art certainly can be instantly accessible, it’s much rarer than great art that relies on the audience’s education. (Of course, the really good stuff can work AT BOTH LEVELS.) I won’t try to acadisplain why “Silent Noon” works for me; in fact, my appreciation, I suspect, comes largely from being a practitioner (mostly as a singer, but also as lyricist and composer). The pared-down music beautifully conveys to me the physical hush and emotional intensity of the image-packed text; I’m interested you found it “full of metaphors” as other than in a purely technical sense I found none until the last four lines. But this is where I live, so of course I’d expect to get something from it.

    Another comparison, this time of two things almost alike, from your point of view, may help: Schubert is widely acknowledged to be the past master of art song. Understandably, he mostly set German lyrics, which I find considerably harder work than English; and yet he draws me in, gets me to do the work, and the result beats Vaughan Williams hands down (as, in “Winterreise”, Wilhelm Müller does Rossetti).

    So for me the key to your problem is “that [you]’d have to force myself to read it as whipped homework to get anywhere further with it at all.” In other words, something went badly wrong with your education in the arts. Which is very sad, because even in my small corner there’s a lot of unspeakably great stuff (besides art song, I think of the aching passions of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s polyphony, the polyphonic ferocity of Bach’s Passions) that I have very little idea how to ever share with you.

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