Gretna Music's Blog

About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

September 14, 2020

The Universal Language of Mankind?

 Is music part of the "human nature" of Homo sapiens? 

More precisely, is music "an evolutionary adaptation embedded in our biology?" Or is it just a pleasurable but useless leisure activity like some of us consider golfing, or in Steven Pinker's immortal words, "auditory cheesecake?" 

In Theme and Variations, I argue for the human-nature concept along with other scientists who, with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, claim that "music is the universal language of mankind." Now we have more evidence to support our argument.

Other behavioral patterns we might call human nature include language, religion, mate preference, kinship systems, social relationships, morality, political and economic beliefs, and alas, violence and war.

In a recent issue of Science, 19 scientists report on a large collaborative study from a dozen prestigious institutions around the world (three where I have been: Eastman School of Music, Washington University, Penn State). Those authors include Steven Pinker. 

The group systematically analyzed a huge body of data – "conducted a natural history of song" – about the features of vocal music accumulated over almost 100 years from 315 small societies around the globe, including native the American Hopi, Blackfoot, and Iroquois and distant others like Kurds, Tajik, and Turkmen. They studied, 1) ethnographic texts on musical behavior, i.e., writings about the circumstances where music is played and heard, and 2) audio field recordings of four kinds of songs, those for dance, healing, love, and lullaby. They applied "tools of computational social science" . . . to answer six questions, including, "Does music appear universally?" i.e., does every human society on the planet play and listen to music?

Conclusions, amply illustrated by charts, pictures, and diagrams, are: "Music 1) is, in fact, universal: It exists in every society . . . , 2) regularly supports certain types of behavior, and 3) has acoustic features that are systematically related to the goals and responses of singers and listeners . . . . 4) It is produced worldwide in diverse behavioral contexts that vary in formality, arousal, and religiosity. 5) Music does appear to be tied to specific perceptual, cognitive, and affective faculties, including language (all societies put words to their songs), motor control (people in all societies dance), auditory analysis, and 6) all musical systems have signatures of tonality . . . ."

December 26, 2018

This Blog Continues on my Website after December 2018

by Carl Ellenberger MD That's my personal website for Theme and Variations: Musical Notes by a Neurologist. I'm not leaving Gretna Music. Please visit and read this blog there and what readers have said about my book. Like ". . .the most important book on music to appear in years."

December 10, 2018

Sexual Assault in Classical Music: Framing the Problem

About 20 years ago during a morning rehearsal, the solo violinist stopped playing during the Dvorak Romance, Op.11. "Anyone with half the brain of a mouse would know better [than to make that mistake]," he declared. The conductor was embarrassed and a violist burst into tears. I think the soloist was referring to my brain, then in the flute section and a little foggy after an after-concert party the night before. I am still not aware of what the mistake was. 

Just recently, that violinist lost his concertmaster's position in a major orchestra because of well-founded evidence of sexual assaults. Having known him and his family for years, I decided to learn more about the problem.

Sexual assault in the classical music world is a specific example of a larger problem, in part because of the way students and teachers interact. The music studio is one of a few situations in contemporary life where an older and more powerful mentor is regularly cocooned alone with a younger and less powerful mentee whose future career depends heavily on the mentor. Regular encounters are not in a classroom, but in an enclosed, isolated space, one on one. 

The teaching studio at The Eastman School where I spent about 140 hours over four years alone with my teacher was a large sound-proof room with a cork-tiled floor, two windows facing a building next door, and a high ceiling. It was at the end of a short hall that also led to the horn and oboe studios. The doors were made of thick, heavy wood. Each had a small window of glass at eye level through which an outsider could see only a segment of the room. The flute's high register could penetrate the door but voices could not. Each student awaited their lesson on a bench in the hall. When the door opened, a student came out and another went in. Only recently have I begun to imagine that for some students studying with a potential predator, sitting in a hall like that could arouse the same terror as waiting to enter an extreme fighting cage. 

My flute class numbered about 25, most of them women. It never occurred to me then that anything might happen in that studio, beyond music lessons. That assumption still seems correct. Joseph Mariano had taught at Eastman for decades and had an untarnished reputation, free of even the slightest suspicion. I learned that a teacher-student relationship can change, becoming more informal or casual and more equal as a student improves. Often it blossoms into a lifelong friendship. Romance has also been known to bloom, and as it does, the concept of consent may also blur. I learned of marriages between students, mostly female, and their older teachers. I have wondered, especially because of age differences, whether friendship might have been the better option, at least in some cases. 

Sexual assault has little to do with romance or love. The act is a power transaction requiring non-consensual submission of the weaker to the strongerfinancially, physically, professionally, etc.of a pair.  The act causes an abrupt change in the nature of the relationship, not usually in the direction it often did in old moviesleading to marriage and happiness ever after.

Again, in the classical-music world, there is another specific difference. We have, belatedly, learned, acknowledged, and accepted that the act can cause a drastic alteration of the life of a non-consenting victim, usually for the worse, even to leading to a lifelong impairment. Less acknowledged, so far, have been the effects of sexual assault on the assailant and on our culture at large. It can remove from the world stage a celebrated concertmaster, conductor, or soloist; deny a generation of students access to an eminent teacher; and terminate careers that have been the products of years of arduous study and practice. The size of instrumental classes at universities and conservatories depends largely on the reputation of the teachers of each instrument. Abrupt departures of teachers can suddenly disrupt career plans and music departments. In this case under discussion, the effects on three generations of a large family of accomplished musicians and teachers will be incalculable.

What would have been the consequence, for example, if the 21-year-old Robert Schumann's affections toward the 13-year-old Clara not been returned? I am not asserting that sexual assault did happen, but you should get my point. In the great arc of human history, one less linebacker or quarterback in the NFL (or early retirement of a CEO) is one thing; erasing a contemporary Robert Schumann or Beethoven (who made more than one clumsy sexual advances) from history at the peak of their productive years would be another. Or contemplate how different our nation's history might have been if we convicted Thomas Jefferson for his affair with Sally Hemmings, a juvenile 30 years younger. 

Perhaps if we better understood this problem we might eventually develop better ways of dealing with it. Sexual assault is unquestionably a criminal act. The repetitive behavior of most assailants testifies to the reality that shame alone may not be a sufficient deterrent or punishment. But imprisonment, or ruination of lives by the loss of a position achieved through talent and extraordinary effort, could be also be considered an impoverished response, especially when an assailant has already, and could again, contribute to society. We have no way of knowing how many assaults have been deterred by the threat of severe penalties, the possibility of which is only a recent development. I understand those who insist that all criminals should stand accountable, but I also acknowledge that we all have fallibilities and perhaps some assailants, not to mention society at large, would appreciate some help in overcoming them. If more creative rehabilitative responses exist, I am not familiar with them, perhaps because the problem has been in the spotlight only for a few years. I am only trying to frame the problem here. We may eventually learn how will this assailant's family responds.

What prevents any older man, me for example, from acting on primal impulses when he sees an attractive, even possibly provocative, younger woman? The best answer may be what we call cultural mores. They provide structure, or informal rules, guiding the determination of the differences between right and wrong behavior. These are more than folkways and become increasingly important and expected the more a culture develops. Like honesty, ethical behavior, and courtesy, they govern behavior in developed societies. They differentiate more from less developed cultures, those like tribal Afghanistan where old men marry pre-pubescent girls. Some, like speed limits through a dense neighborhood, become encoded into laws. But others are learned, taught, and embedded in a culture. That the slogan, "Lock her up!" became a mantra in our recent Presidential campaign is only one recent indication that our culture may be backsliding from civilized development.
It is tempting to consider the loss of behavioral control by sexual assailants as a medical or mental health problem, similar to drug and alcohol addiction. Though addiction initially may be a moral failure of control (though not when an opioid is prescribed first), because of the conscious decision to take the first dose, addiction can transition into a biological need beyond the control of the addict. Medical and pharmacological therapy may succeed. Science continues to advance our understanding of biologic causes, genetic as well as environmental, for other biologically-based conditions that affect behavior, like schizophrenia or bipolar disease. The same may happen with developmental problems like autism, dyslexia, and attention/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

For understanding the problem of sexual assault now, however, it seems reasonable to relegate it to the large and messy category of conditions labeled as "personality disorders." In the 19thcentury, these disorders were lumped together under terms like "moral insanity," or "psychopathic personality," then eventually broadened to include cases who actually "suffer from their abnormality." After more decades of observations and psychological studies, and as a way to try to understand them by finding order and relationships among them, we now separate them into ten personality disorders, (PD). To be clear, this is just a concept that enables us to think about a broad problem, not a discovery based upon any biologic causes–though evidence of a genetic vulnerability may be may be forthcoming.

Every human has a personality that can be generally characterized by combining a limited set of basic descriptive terms. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) lists a total of ten disorders of personality: paranoid, schizoid, narcissistic, anxious, avoidance, dependence, obsessive-compulsive, borderline, antisocial, and schizotypal. Those are names of categories each requiring a longer description to fully characterize (see below for examples). Most of us exhibit a trace (or more) of a mixture of these qualities, or traits, that characterize our personality. There is wide variability and some blur into others. Those that predominate may determine how close friends and family would describe each of us to others. 

These ten qualities tend to cluster together in three basic clusters. (A living catalog of cluster Bantisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissisticcurrently occupies the White House). Originally, all of the traits were clustered together in a large "antisocial" category, but after the more recent parsing, the antisocial category has become more specific. It remains the one most likely to lead to criminal activity. When one or more of these qualities predominates far above the others, becomes a signature behavior recognized by others, causes suffering of the victim, and determines the direction of a life, it crosses the border into a disorder. Likewise, when one category, usually the antisocial one, leads to criminal acts, it becomes definitely a personality disorder. 

In contrast to an increasing number of mental disorders, like bipolar and schizophrenic diseases, personality disorders are very difficult to treat. Once established before adulthood, personalities, as you might expect, are virtually hardwired and resistant to change. (Increasingly so as we age as Paul Krugman writes, "when we get older, we become more like ourselves.")

Two types of personality disorders (PD) stand out for discussion here. Personalities in the antisocial group, quoting Neel Burton, MD, are". . . much more common[ly] . . . men than . . . women," and are ". . . characterized by a callous unconcern for the feelings of others. The person disregards social rules and obligations, is irritable and aggressive, acts impulsively, lacks guiltand fails to learn from experience. In many cases, he has no difficulty finding relationships — and can even appear superficially charming (the so-called "charming psychopath") — but these relationships are usually fiery, turbulent, and short-lived. . . . antisocial PD is the mental disorder most closely correlated with crime. . . . ." 

That, of course, describes the full-blown picture of antisocial personality disorder. Most people with antisocial PD have only parts of the full picture. They, friends, and casual acquaintances may be oblivious, at least most of the time, to their problem.—until an assault or some other striking manifestation. 

Antisocial PD seems to be particularly endemic among orchestra conductors, perhaps because they command more power than the average player. Among several imperious ones within that species, the great George Szell comes to mind. Though highly respected, he was feared and reviled by almost all of his players in the Cleveland Orchestra for his tendency to humiliate or shame them and even fire them on the spot. (Such impulse firing has largely become illegal in our era.) The medical community in Cleveland learned to expect a surge of anxious orchestra patients before each orchestra tour. I am not aware that Szell ever assaulted a player (all but one of them were men) though many dreamed of assaulting him.

The other type pertinent to this discussion is "Borderline" PD. The word "borderline" means not what you might expect, that the personality barely functions. Instead, the classification straddles the boundary between neurosis (like anxiety) and psychosis (disorders like schizophrenia with hallucinations and delusions). The reason I include this PD here is inherent in this description, again by Neel Burton: "In borderline PD (or emotionally unstable PD), the person essentially lacks a sense of self and, as a result, experiences feelings of emptiness and fears of abandonment. There is a pattern of intense but unstable relationships, emotional instability, outbursts of anger and violence (especially in response to criticism), and impulsive behavior. Suicidal threats and acts of self-harm are common, for which reason many people with borderline PD frequently come to medical attention. . . . It has been suggested that borderline personality disorder often results from childhood sexual abuse and that it is more common in women, in part because women are more likely to suffer sexual abuse." (Italics mine)

That description provides an important clue to the origin of all PD's: the idea that certain childhood experiences can influence or determine our ultimate personality. Nurture(child-raising), thus, is at least as critical as a determining factor in this group of disorders as Nature (transmitted by the genome). The reverse seems to be true in many other mental disorders, like schizophrenia and bipolar disease, where biologic causes transmitted in the genome are becoming increasingly apparent. Unfortunately, after the "critical period" of childhood (when the brain is most receptive to such influences because its plasticity is greatest), and its nurturing process, the personality becomes increasingly hardwired in adults and resistant to change. By then, we are what we are and little medicine or therapy can change us. Thus, a balanced personality seems to depend on the nurturing process.

Musicians are nurtured in special ways. Almost all great artists will tell you that they began to play an instrument by the age of five, if not earlier. They will almost universally report that they logged 10,000 hours of guided and serious practice before the reached the age of 18-20. That fact, a result of extensive studies by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues, roughly translates to a necessary four hours of daily practice, playing, and lessons. Such a time requires the sacrifice of other normal childhood activities and play. When most children are riding bikes and playing ball, music students may be alone in their practice rooms. Musicians who have logged less than 10,000 hours rarely become soloists. They are more likely in the sections of orchestras, working as teachers, or playing the piano for relaxation and enjoyment, in relative proportion to the length of their practice during schooling. I am not aware of studies that show that these musicians have personalities that are better balanced because they used their some of their 10,000 hours to learn better interpersonal skills. However, evidence does show, as I argue in my recent book, Theme and Variations: Musical Notes by a Neurologistthat adults who have studied any music in early school years, in general, do better in later education and in careers in any field.

So, in the Nature vs. Nurture spectrum, personality disorders, including sexual assault, a crime, but also exposure and other inappropriate behavior, would seem to occupy a place near the Nurture end. That places responsibility upon parents and educators during the first two decades of a developing musician's life to ensure that, despite the necessity to devote long hours to music practice, to also create experiences that teach children to live with others in an increasingly complex world. At the end of the development period, universities and conservatories may have the last chance to reinforce and modify emerging problems and should by mindful of those opportunities.  By adulthood, personalities are set for life, mores instilled and resistant to change, leaving punitive measures as the only recourse. The latter, however, are equivalent to closing the proverbial barn door, can wound and deprive a developed society of some of its most illustrious individuals including its greatest artists.

November 7, 2018

Youth; a Critical Period in Brain Development

by Carl Ellenberger

By playing in the school band kids can learn teamwork, confidence, how practice improves skills, how to compete, and, when their brains are most receptive to learning and developing, build brain capacity for later use in any field in college, graduate, and professional education.

By playing on the football team, kids can learn teamwork, confidence, how practice improves skills, how to compete, and, when their brains are most receptive to learning and most vulnerable to trauma, subject them, on any field, to a serious risk of interruption of critical phases of brain development.

More at 

June 16, 2018

Susanna Phillips, Gretna Music, July 8; Program Notes

by Carl Ellenberger

Samuel BarberHermit Songs

We don't know whether Samuel Barber, born in nearby West Chester in 1910, ever made it to the Mt. Gretna Jigger Shop in a summer of his youth, or heard the Flonzaley String Quartet when they played in the Playhouse early in the last century. His father was a physician and his mother a pianist whose family had lived in the US since the Revolutionary War. His aunt was a Met contralto, Louise Homer. 

At the age of nine, he wrote to his mother, “I was meant to be a composer. . . Don’t ask me to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this unpleasant thing so much that it makes me mad (not very).” He began composing seriously during his teenage years and at the Curtis Institute was a triple prodigy in composition, voice, and piano. He met his life partner there, composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Both are among the most celebrated composers of the Twentieth Century, Barber especially, writing in a lyrical, romantic style while others wrote with angularity and dissonance. Adagio for Strings from Barber's string quartet has become the default music for sad occasions in America.

Barber composed Hermit Songs, a cycle of ten songs for voice and piano, in 1953. He based it on a collection of anonymous poems written by Irish monks and scholars from the 8th to the 13thcenturies translated by W. H. Auden, Seán Ó Faoláin, and others. They were, as other Barber songs, premiered by the great Leontyne Price with Barber himself on the piano at the Library of Congress. In Barber's words (I think):

These songs are small poems, thoughts or observations, some very short, and speak in straightforward, witty, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life they led - close to nature, their animals and to God. Some are literal translations and others were translated (where existing translations seemed inadequate). Robin Flower wrote in The Irish Tradition: “It was not only that these scribes and anchorites lived by the destiny of their dedication in an environment of wood and sea; it was because they brought into that environment an eye washed miraculously clear by a continual spiritual exercise that they had that strange vision of natural things in an almost unnatural purity.”


Robert SchumannFrauenliebe und Leben

Like Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann stands out as a historical figure by reason of his eminence in two domains, composition and writing. He "encouraged his readers to look for more than sensory stimulation in music, but rather seek in it the same mental and spiritual delight they sought in literature. In this, he swam distinctly not only against the tide of the Enlightenment, which had relegated music (in the words of Kant) to the category of 'enjoyment more than culture' but rather that it has a complexity of meaning, an 'intellectual substance.'" (Taruskin) That substance was not in the sense that music has a literary plot line or 'program.'

He most clearly and convincingly aimed at this complexity in his character pieces for piano and his songs, the private genres in which Franz Schubert had set the standard. Schumann was very conscious of Schubert as a forebear – "exceptionally so for the time when most German composers sought preceptors chiefly in Beethoven and Bach," according to Taruskin. "At the outset of his career. . . he was among the few who found special inspiration in Schubert, in whom he saw a sort of musical novelist." Schumann wrote, "What a diary is to others, in which they set down their momentary feelings, etc., music paper really was to Schubert, to which he entrusted his every mood, and his whole soul, musical through-and-through, wrote notes where others use words." Taruskin continues, "prompted by Schubert's example, Schumann went further and became the master of the unconsummated harmonic gesture, one of the most potent of all romantic 'musico-literary' effects." 

Not surprisingly, love permeated most of his songs. According to Ian Bostridge, "it's probably true to say that all Schumann's most famous songs were written in one emotionally momentous year, that of his marriage, 1840." The 9-year romance of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck has become legendary, on a level with anything that Shakespeare might have imagined. As the wedding day approached (when Clara would turn 21), Robert's love intensified; he wrote no fewer than 138 songs, most of them masterpieces. "Ah, Clara, the bliss of writing songs!" he wrote. Having found a place to begin their married life and paid the first rent installment, he turned his attention to his most "domestic" cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben ("A woman's love and life"). It is his only true cycle, the only song collection to begin and end with the same melody. Its cyclical form expresses the symbolic eternity of their love that is the subject of the work's most famous song, Du Ring an meinem Finger.

Words are by Chamisso, a Frenchman, who at the age of nine fled the Revolution to live in Prussia. When he wrote these poems, he had just married a girl many years his junior. The cycle allowed ordinary women to articulate their most intimate feelings. Four of the eight songs are marked innig, to denote something akin to "fervently and tenderly."


Hugo Wolf, Mignon Lieder, from Goethe Lieder

Another composer-critic like Robert Schumann, the Slovenian-born Austrian, Hugo Wolf, wrote primarily vocal music, mostly songs for one voice. You may never have heard of him because he wrote hardly any orchestral works and only a smattering of chamber music, including a string quartet that has been played here several times during our 44 years. The fact that his songs have been recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, Evelyn Lear, Hans Hotter,  Ian Bostridge, Dawn Upshaw – and Barbra Streisand! – is evidence that, despite a relatively sparse output, he is a composer to be reckoned with. In the words of Ian Bostridge (2006),

"It is hard to believe, but Hugo Wolf is still an underrated composer. Known for his songs, he is seen as the province of the aficionado, a minority taste, a footnote to late Romanticism. . . .  He didn't write successfully on a grand scale, or without words. Yet, in the lieder repertoire, he is every bit the equal of his great predecessors, Schubert and Schumann. The self-conscious mastery of a miniaturist form - in the age of Japonisme or of Chekhov's short stories - may well have been a response to Wagnerian gigantism. As Nietzsche put it, while recovering from his intoxication with Wagner: "What can be done well today, what can be masterly, is only what is small. . . his motto was encapsulated in the first song of the Italian Songbook - Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken (Even Small Things Can Delight Us)."

Combining the eroticism of Wagner and genius of Schumann, Hugo Wolf's lieder are mini-masterpieces. He wrote 51 Goethe songs in 1875 and we will hear the four called The Mignon Songs

Mignon (old Fr. def: small, pretty, dainty) was a character in Goethe's 1795 romantic Bildungsroman (a novel about its author growing up), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. (Lehrjahre translates roughly as "apprenticeship.") With our modern insight, we can suspect Mignon to have been a victim of early abduction and abuse. Goethe's character fascinated and inspired dozens of writers and composers, including Schubert and Schumann. About Wilhelm, Goethe writes:
". . . he was going upstairs to his room when a young creature jumped out at him and immediately attracted his attention. The child was neatly dressed in a short silk bodice with slashed Spanish sleeves and puffed-out long, slim trousers. Its long black hair was curled and wound in locks and braids on its head. He looked at the figure with amazement, uncertain whether it was a boy or a girl. . .  
Wilhelm could not take his eyes off her; her whole appearance and the mystery that surrounded her completely absorbed his mind and feelings. He thought she was probably twelve or thirteen years old. She was well-built, but her limbs suggested further development was to come, which possibly had been arrested. Her features were not regular, but striking: her forehead seemed to veil some secret, her nose was unusually beautiful, her mouth, though too tight-lipped for her age and inclined to twitch at times on one side, had a certain winsome charm about it.

. . . Mignon attracted him more and more. There was something strange about everything she did. She never walked up or down stairs, she always ran. She climbed up on to banisters, and before one knew it, there she was on top of a closet, sitting quite still. Wilhelm also noticed that she had a different greeting for everybody. For some time now she had been greeting him with arms folded on her breast. Some days she would be completely silent; on others she would answer certain questions, but always strangely so that it was difficult to decide whether it was a joke or her German mixed with French and Italian was intentional or the result of an imperfect knowledge of German. She was tireless in Wilhelm’s service, getting up at sunrise but retiring early to rest on the bare floor of one of the rooms. Nothing could persuade her to sleep in a bed or on a straw mattress.

She wept with such tears as no tongue can describe. Her long hair hung loosely around her as she wept, and her whole body seemed to be dissolving into a steady flood of tears. Her rigid limbs unfroze, her whole inner self poured itself out, and in the confusion of the moment Wilhelm feared that she might melt away in his arms so that nothing of her would remain. He grasped her more and more firmly to himself. “My child!” he cried, “My child! You are mine. Let that console you. You are mine! I will keep you. I will never leave you!” Her tears continued.
Finally she raised her head, and a gentle serenity lit up her face. -“My father!” she cried. “You will never leave me! You will be my father! - and I am your child!” . . . holding his child ever close in his arms, [Wilhelm] experienced a feeling of the most perfect, indescribable bliss.
 The next day Mignon sings her first of four songs to Wilhelm. Dozens of composers have imagined the music to the four Goethe poems about the land from which she has been stolen:  Bid me not speak, Only he who knows longing, So let me seem, and Do you know the land? 

Compared with Schubert's more than 600 songs, Wolf wrote only about 300 before he died in an asylum in Vienna in 1903 at the age of 42 (as did Schumann at age 46).

"If you go back and listen to the early recordings of Wolf from the 1930s, put out by the Hugo Wolf Society and bought by music-lovers on subscription, the first sensation is of an old world, of something unfamiliar. Then you start to hear the sheer variety of vocal styles among the various singers and the sense of freedom. That's what one strives for in singing this music today: an interpretative freedom which can draw inspiration, if not technique, as much from popular vocalists such as Billie Holiday or Bob Dylan as from the operatic tradition. Wolf's songs are about modulating music with words, and vice versa, something that great popular vocalists are masters of. Classical singers have a lot to learn from the best of them." (Bostridge)


Libby Larsen, Try Me Good King – Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII

I am pleased to say that tonight's performance will not be the first work of Libby (Elizabeth Brown) Larson to be heard at Gretna Music. Women composers are beginning to be heard (and conductors to conduct). Although one of the first composers in modern Western culture was the Greek, Sappho, her tradition in about 600 BCE failed to continue. So we don't know whether Clara Schumann could have composed at the level of her husband Robert because composition then was 'not expected' of women – and because Clara was busy raising the couple's 8 Children, caring for the increasingly ill Robert, and putting food on their table by endless concert tours as a pianist. We have, of course, performed in Gretna the works of many women, including Clara Schumann (excepting Sappho), and you can find more than a few women among our 2018 artists and composers.

Like Barber, Libby Larsen is another "locally-born" composer -- in 1950 in Wilmington DE. She is one of America’s most performed living composers, having created a catalog of over 500 works spanning virtually every genre from intimate vocal and chamber music to massive orchestral works and over 15 operas. Her works have been widely recorded and among over 50 CD’s, several have won Grammy Awards. As a vigorous, articulate advocate for the music and musicians of our time, in 1973 Larsen co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, now the American Composer’s Forum, which has become an invaluable aid for composers in a transitional time for American arts.  A former holder of the Papamarkou Chair at John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, Larsen has also held residencies with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony, and the Colorado Symphony.

Though history is said to repeat itself, it probably is fruitless to recap the 16th-Century story of Henry and his six wives. Larsen wrote Try Me Good King on a commission from the Marilyn Horn Foundation and it was premiered in 2001 by the soprano, Meagan Miller at the Juilliard Theater in New York. The composer writes:
"Divorce, behead, die, divorce, behead, die. This grade school memory game is how I first came to know about the six wives of Henry the VIII, King of England from 1509 to 1547. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the personal consequences of power that befell the Tudor family and the circle of political intrigue of both church and state which caused such a wrenching in the private lives of the seven people—Henry and his six wives. 
Try Me, Good King is a group of five songs drawn from the final letters and gallows speeches of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Howard. Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, outlived him and brought some domestic and spiritual peace into Henry’s immediate family. Although her written devotions are numerous, and her role in the story of the six wives of Henry VIII is that of a peaceful catalyst. In these songs, I chose to focus on the intimate crises of the heart that affected the first five of the six wives. In a sense, this group is a monodrama of anguish and power. 
I’ve interwoven a lute song into each song, including John Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell (Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Howard), Dowland’s If My Complaints (Anne Boleyn), Praetorius’ Lo, how a Rose E’er Blooming (Jane Seymour), and Thomas Campion’s I Care Not for these Ladies (Anne of Cleves). These songs were composed during the reign of Elizabeth I, and while they are cast as some of the finest examples of the golden age, they also create a tapestry of unsung words which comment on the real situation of each doomed queen.
Two other musical gestures unify the songs, firstly, the repeated note, which recalls the lute and creates psychological tension. The second device I created is abstract bell-tolling, which punctuates each song and releases the spiritual meaning of the words."

June 5, 2018

Interlochen Arts Academy; 56th Commencement

by Carl Ellenberger
I just attended my first graduation at the Interlochen Arts Academy (IAA). The 207 graduates of the class of 2018 put on a 3-day extravaganza of visual arts, filmmaking, creative writing, chamber music, orchestral music, composition, singer-songwriting, opera, theater, choirs, jazz, piano recitals, dance, musical theater, and comparative arts. And, in the case of the eloquent and moving student commencement speaker chosen by audition, "Becca," from California, public speaking. In the post-ceremony clamor, I heard scattered remarks like, " ride to Juilliard" for Joshua McClendon, an African American cellist whose mother from Detroit was beaming with pride.  
Knowing accomplishments of the graduates from the previous 55 years of the IAA and the quality of the 150 faculty and staff members, I wasn't surprised by the high level of performance. What did surprise – even astounded  me, was the diversity of the graduates. Teenagers from most, if not all, states and dozens of countries come together (marooned under 14 feet of snow as they like to remind us) for 9 months of as many as four years. Among 44 international students were those from Peru, United Arab Emirates, Poland, Cuba, Denmark, Mexico, China, Turkey, Venezuela. 
Among nine piano majors, all but one African-American from Florida and one South Korean student, came from China. All were so ferociously good that many Americans, as I was, starting piano lessons in the 3rd grade, will probably be left far behind. Yung-Yi Chen, from Taiwan, thundered effortlessly through a section of Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage, no doubt as well as the composer ever played it, clad in black leather, including tails, to set the atmosphere of a typical Lisztian event (or a Hell's Angel dressed for the Met Opera Gala). Alas, he had not arranged for any winsome classmates to throw intimate items of clothing onto the stage. But a strong tradition puts students in the audience who whoop and holler at the end of every performance by their peers. The class seemed oblivious to any ethnic or racial differences among them.
At the 2018 Commencement, new President Trey Devey eloquently summarized the benefits of an "Arts Education" for the graduates.
1. "Through your time at Interlochen and your training as an artist, you have developed the capacity to see deeper and more clearly than most. Use your artistic perspective to create understanding, find meaning, and reveal connections not yet revealed. 
2. Don't unnecessarily limit your limitless potential. Consider yourself more broadly and quite simply as an artist. Use your artistic perspective to see more deeply and with greater clarity to appreciate the inherent value in yourself and the inherent value in others. See beyond the superficial. Whether your path is in the arts or you use your creative capacity in a different field, your artistic perspective is what really matters.
3. Use your artistic perspective to see more deeply and with greater clarity to recognize those beautiful moments of serendipity that might take you in a different direction, one you might have never imagined. There is great opportunity in happy accidents and chance meetings. There is also great opportunity in failure. As you write your story, keep your mind open to stories yet untold that can reveal exciting new paths and opportunities."  
I can't think of any better start for a generation upon whose shoulders the destiny of our planet rests.

April 9, 2018

Mahler at the LA Phil, a Trumpian Swamp, and Miss April

I heard (and saw) Das Lied von der Erde Saturday evening. The production added ‘cinema’ made by Teatrocinema of Chile on a semi-transparent screen behind the orchestra. The singers in costumes with a few props appeared in real time and space through the landscapes and phantasmagorical scenes projected onto the screen. (You can see photos on Twitter.) The production was very creative but, for me, a person curiously rooted in the 19th Century, a bit distracting from the sublime music. Our seats faced across Disney Hall, about 10 ft in front of the podium and 20 feet above stage left. So to see the orchestra I had to look about 20 degrees down and to the right. To see the screen we had to turn about 45 degrees to the right and, to read the translations (total of 158 lines), to look up almost to the ceiling above the screen. (I should have read the translations — not in the program and passed through several languages from the original Chinese  before the performance.) 

The singers, Russell Thomas, tenor, and Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano, were wonderful but their position behind the screen and orchestra (probably near the organ pipes about 20 feet behind the percussion section) slightly diminished their 'presence,' if you know what I mean. Instead of a pit, there was an entire onstage orchestra in front of them. When Mumford sang with Denis Bouriakov, the principal flutist, the balance seemed slightly too much in favor of the flute. But I do like to hear the flute played so well and it usually is the victim of imbalance, at least in its lower registers!) 

All was conceived and directed by the MacArthur genius Fellow-in-Residence, Juval Sharon. His pre-concert (“Upbeat Live”) rapid-fire lecture beforehand was moderately illuminating — Mahler was basically ‘operatic’ and coming off several life disasters — even though the audio system failed (unusual for those polished productions). On the podium, Gustavo again proved he is the “Real Thing” so the music was exquisite, spanning a huge gamut between carefree joyfulness to utter despair, sometimes signaled by the terrifying growling of the contrabassoon. 

Will this concept of the live classical "music video" take its place alongside Beyoncé, U2, and Bruno Mars? 

As usual, I wished Mahler’s SBE (subacute bacterial endocarditis) could have received the benefit of modern diagnosis and antibiotic treatment that became possible in the 1950s. But, maybe restoration to better health might have blunted his premonition of death that he so brilliantly captured in so many of his works, especially the 9th Symphony and Das Lied. Pathology as muse, so to speak. "Mahler's idea of leave-taking at its best" that, in the life of the great Dr. Lewis Thomas, changed with his own aging into what it may be for many of us today, ". . . the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything." (Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, 1980.)

Happier thought: The road on which our tiny Interlochen cottage has rested since the 1940s bisects a large lot on Green lake around from the Interlochen Center for the Arts. The house is far closer to the lake than permitted by the current code, and the section of the lot on the other side of the road is unusually large. But that section is unusable because it is a Trumpian swamp that never dries out. There are two old shacks on it, one rotting and sinking into the swamp but the other, facing and close to the roadside, still can serve for storage. 

Or for composing music, as Mahler did in his third (and last) summer composing hut. I have debated the idea of preserving ours — as we accumulate the inevitable clutter that seems to build up in both of the other homes in our ‘real estate empire' (as Phil DeMuth calls it). So maybe I will replace the roof shingles with metal and put on a front like this. A plaque (auf Deutch) will mark it as a replica of Mahler’s hut in Dobbiaco on the Italian/German border where he wrote the 9th and Das Lied. Our hut is almost identically proportioned and will be better maintained than Mahler's has been, at least until the contrabassoon comes for us.

Our friend Amy Jo Rhine, daughter of retired Lebanon High band director, Bob Rhine and the 3rd hornist in the orchestra, was on vacation but present in spirit. She was 'Miss April’ on the concert program, as her mother called her. Too bad we didn't see her. There are great horn parts in Das Lied.

October 11, 2017

Have you Lost Your Sense of Smell?

I still can’t get my mind around the fact that a mysterious agent, whatever it is (or they are), that can cause Parkinson’s Disease (PD) probably enters the body through the nose or the mouth. It, or its evil effect, travel to the brain through the olfactory or the vagus nerves, the former from the nose, the latter from the gut! 

That initially outrageous idea reminds me of a similar drama decades ago when we all knew for sure that stomach ulcers were caused by stress and too much acid. We were shocked when courageous researchers steadfastly asserted that helicobacter pylori, a typical bacterial resident in the stomach usually minding its own business, could occasionally go berserk and dig a hole. Now we add antibiotics to our treatment regimen for ulcers!

A PD agent is probably not a bacterium, virus, or even a tiny newly-discovered prion, but it could behave like H pylori. Or like a zebra mussel, living a quiet peaceful life in lakes in another continent only to become aggressive and devour all its neighbors when introduced into the apparently nurturing environment of the American Great Lakes. (Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee just used that analogy to try to understand the behavior of some metastatic cancers in last week's New Yorker.) Perhaps certain people are destined for Parkinson's because they unknowingly provide a similar favorable environment for mysterious agents that may be ubiquitous and harmless for most other people.

A recent editorial in NEUROLOGY reminded me that although loss of the sense of smell becomes increasingly likely as we age (isn't aging a relentless wearing-out process?) a substantial (but yet unspecified) proportion of people with hyposmia (reduced) or anosmia (absent) develop Parkinson's, or some form of dementia, possibly including Alzheimer's. My father lost his smell years before symptoms of his dementia appeared in his late '80's. As I pointed out in a previous post, loss of hearing too is not necessarily a 'normal' or inevitable part of aging.

Detecting the earliest evidence of Parkinson's disease among healthy patients could help us test and develop methods to prevent or slow future progression to the typical disabling features of the condition, such as impairment of walking, moving, thinking, and speaking, and tremor, before those symptoms appear when the loss of the critical dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain is complete. According to one hypothesis (Braak), the process usually starts low in the brainstem and very slowly marches upward over years. When it reaches the cerebrum, if you are still alive, the 'late' complication of dementia may ensue 

Degeneration of the olfactory bulb (a tassel-like structure attached to the bottom of the brain just above the nasal cavity) is a common cause of impaired sense of smell and may provide the earliest clue to future PD. The bulb rests upon a thin fragile plate of bone punctured by tiny holes, the lamina cribrosa, through which wire-like nerve fibers (axons) transmit olfactory signals from 6–10 million smell receptors in the nose. 

The olfactory nerves are also called the first cranial nerve (the second transmit vision and the eighth bring sound into the brain); transmit signals gathered by the receptors from the bulb to the brain. (All cranial nerves are paired, one on each side.)

Once an odorant enters the nose, it interacts with the receptors located on the surface of the olfactory cilia and a chemical reaction generates a crescendo of action potentials (signals) in the olfactory nerve. These signals project to higher brain regions involved in conscious thought processes and the limbic system, generating the emotional, motivational, and memory context. 

Approximately 1,000 of human genes participate in recognizing odors. Thus, we can distinguish 4,000–10,000 distinct odor molecules, a scientific discovery that earned a Nobel Prize in 2004. 

Olfactory dysfunction impairs the satisfaction gained from foods and inhibits the detection of environmental hazards (e.g., toxins, fire, spoiled foods, and natural gas leaks). Diminished olfactory inputs also dampen the initial phase of digestion responsible for stimulating exocrine secretions in the mouth, stomach, the secretions that facilitate the absorption and assimilation of micronutrients and fatty acids and contribute to the nature of the microbiome in the host by governing the gut pH.

The prevalence of all-cause hyposmia in the US adult population is discouragingly high: between 13.5% and 24.5%, and increases incrementally with age (17.3% of 60- to 69-year-olds, 29.2% of 70- to 79-year-olds, and 62.5% of 80- to 97-year-olds). Men and African Americans have the highest prevalence of hyposmia. Only 9% of adults actually report a loss in their sense of smell, an observation that suggests a substantial number of cases go undetected (and that a substantial number of people old enough to afford wine judge its quality only by the price of the bottle).

Ninety percent of people with sporadic (not familial) PD, have olfactory dysfunction. In addition, 4 prospective studies have shown that olfactory dysfunction is a risk factor for PD, but the conclusions drawn are almost exclusively from white and Asian populations with less than 5 years of follow-up. It turns out that African Americans have a higher rate of olfactory dysfunction but a lower risk that it will cause PD.

One underlying mechanism behind olfactory dysfunction in PD is the spreading and accumulation of Lewy bodies, enriched with intracytoplasmic inclusions of α-synuclein that arise from peripheral inputs at the olfactory epithelium or the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve emerging from the stomach.

If you read this and know, or discover, or suspect, that you have impaired sense of smell, don't panic. Among those percentage ranges above, the data does not allow us to separate those with a risk of any neurologic disease, though one can suspect that  the risk is greater if you fall into one of the younger age groups. It is important to be aware of the problem, in case preventive therapy emerges, and to rule out common non-neurologic causes, such as a lifetime of repeated or chronic upper respiratory infections. 

Most doctors, even neurologists, don't test for hyp- or anosmia and that's a shame. The first step in a test would be to ask a simple question: "How is your sense of smell?" If the answer is not "great," then simple office tests, like The Brief Smell Identification Test (BSIT), can quickly and accurately detect and roughly quantitate the degree, just as an audiogram or vision test does.

As of today, we don't have any treatment that will prevent Parkinson's but it is only a matter of time until we do. That might prove to be an active therapy or strict avoidance of a possible multitude of agents -- in the air or food -- that may be a cause. Scott Pruitt and his EPA are now probably going to provide us with more cases for study.

April 20, 2017

"Coachella is Certainly a Place to See Live Music...."

I try to hard understand the enormous changes in music taking place during my lifetime. As an child, I loved hearing the Cleveland Orchestra in my hometown, but the music that orchestra makes today, though by some measures at an even higher level, is no longer what most people mean when they play or speak of “music.” 

Performing arts organizations of all sizes, from small Music at Gretna to the massive Metropolitan Opera are scrambling to retain audiences to support their missions without having to drain dry the wells of patronage. For too many people our music tends to be “classical” in the worst sense of that term: old music outmoded and forgotten. I find myself a little sheepish when I respond to the question: ”What kind of music do you play?” The response is usually a conversation-stopping, “Oh.”

That all came up again this week in my winter hometown, Palm Springs California. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival ("Coachella") came to Indio. Though that is 22 miles away, many of the expected 200,000 "fans" paying at least $400 for general admission, some arriving in VW vans, some on commercial flights, some in private planes from LA or Bermuda, spilled out into the restaurants and hundreds of hotels in Palm Springs. The promoters expect to "gross" way over $100 million and pay headliners each $3-4 mil to perform. The 345 restrooms and 6 stages inside huge tents on 700 acres of desert are astounding. The event presents "a whirlpool of commercial potential" according to The New Yorker.

Read more by John Seabrook and Carrie Battan