Monday, November 7, 2011

Jamie Parker at St. Cecelia

We have water in the basement again.  I inherited a rented water heater when I moved to Regina in 1990, and was told it was a good idea:  that our hard water was hard on water heaters.  It had begun to look alarmingly rusty about a year ago, and I talked to the company about this, but they told me that as long as they continued to service it, it would be fine.  Skeptical, but also wanting a more energy-efficient furnace and water heater, I decided about six weeks ago to go through the environmental audit in preparation for new ones.  I will get a new furnace and water heater tomorrow.  Which is, of course, why the old water heater started leaking yesterday.  We had quite a mess before we even discovered it, and spent yesterday (and last night, taking it in turns) emptying every hour the only thing that would fit under the water heater and catch the drips:  a 9 X 13 baking pan.

Which is why we threw caution to the winds last night and went to hear pianist Jamie Parker, who was playing in the new St. Cecelia series.  We came back to a small lake, but it was worth it.

As you have doubtless figured out, I have some strange habits.  One is to go to concerts of course for the music, but also to people watch.  I'm curious about what people take away from concerts.  These concerts are scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sunday night, which is perhaps one of the reason there were so many relatively young kids there, as well as quite a few adolescents.  It was charming to listen to young beefy men and willowy girls with their long hair on top of their head talk about the repertoire they were working on, and how close they were getting to nailing it  It was moving to watch the five-year-olds melt into their mothers' arms and listen sleepily, or even stand up and move in time to Parker's wilder choices.  But mostly I'm simply curious about how we respond to something as mathematically abstract as the 12 notes of our octave.  I blame Diane Ackerman for this.  Thinking about whale song in her gorgeous essay "Moon by Whale Light," she considered the mystery of whales' need to sing in a rather metaphysical way.  Whales have huge brains, and brains take a lot of energy, so what are they doing with them? Here's my favourite quotation about consciousness:

"After all, mind is such an odd predicament for matter to get into.  I often marvel how something like hydrogen, the simplest atom, forged in some early chaos of the universe, could lead to us and the gorgeous fever we call consciousness.  If a mind is just a few pounds of blood, dream, and electric, how does it manage to contemplate itself, worry about its soul, do time-and-motion studies, admire the shy hooves of a goat, know that it will die, enjoy all the grand and lesser mayhems of the heart?  What is mind, that one can be out of one's?  How can a neuron feel compassion?  What is a self?  Why did automatic, hand-me-down mammals like our ancestors somehow evolve brains with the ability to consider, imagine, project, compare, abstract, think of the future?  If our experience of mind is really just the simmering of an easily alterable chemical stew, then what does it mean to know something, to want something, to be?  How do you begin with hydrogen and end up with prom dresses, jealousy, chamber music?  What is music that it can satisfy such a mind, and even perhaps function as a language?"

Our love of music is physical.  When I was at Banff, working on that grand piano, I remembered the physical pleasure of  playing relatively simple things on a wonderful instrument.  (I need to get my own piano tuned.)  What I love about the guitar is holding it up against my body, so the sound resonates throughout me, as well as in the air around me.  But there are still a couple of mysteries.  Why does Brahms speak to my body, while Bill Evans or U2 speak to yours?  How are these languages our bodies and minds translate?  I'm sure some of it is almost universal.  Give a piece of music a driving beat, whether it's the line of a bass guitar or octaves in a classical pianist's left hand, and we all have the same urge to move.  Some of it is surely cultural.  You know that it's way more hip to listen to Lady Gaga than to Debussy; to some degree your taste is shaped by the musical culture around you.  Yet how can I, the classical nerd par excellence, know that a song by Arcade Fire or Moonalice is fabulous?

Jamie Parker confessed to being a night owl.  He usually practices, he told us, between 9 p.m., when he puts the kids to bed, and 3 a.m.  Then he takes the dogs for a walk.  So appropriately he'd given us a program of music associated with the night:  from Schubert's Traumerei or "Dreams" to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, whose presto he played at breakneck speed--letting the dogs out, he called it.  This thematic approach allowed him to play some things we wouldn't hear on the standard "two sonatas" program, including some I can actually play, like the Brahms Opus 118 "Intermezzo."  So he clearly wasn't going for a program that would impress us, but rather one that allowed us varied occasions for reflection, thought, and daydreaming of our own.  He played each piece as if it was a gem that deserved all of his musical, thoughtful attention and every tonal colour the piano could provide.   His informal program notes were in turns informative, touching, and playful.  At one point, he even made the sound of a Hungarian frog Bartok refers to in his "The Night's Music" from his "Out of Doors Suite."  There was lots of solid information about how the music worked, but also confessions about how the music had moved him.  It was worth the lake when we got home, and gave us a much needed balm, a reminder of the way beauty and art can sustain us and are really more important and much more enduring than relatively unimportant inconveniences (in the grand scheme of things) like water in the basement.

So I'm thinking about Ackerman's whales again.  Somehow scientists have concluded that there's information in whalesong, though we haven't been able to decode it.  Perhaps the whales are more interested, though, in soothing or expressing; maybe this is a whale's version of a purr of satisfaction over tasty plankton or a slipstream of water that strokes them in a pleasurable way.  Maybe they're waiting for the water cooler to arrive.

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