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

April 16, 2013


by Carl Ellenberger, MD

I talked with a teenager about music. Not a typical teenager but one in a third generation of a musical family: grandfather an orchestra conductor, father on the board of the local symphony. 

Soon to be a high school grad, teenager had passed the "magic age" at which musical taste is determined according to musical psychologist Daniel Levitin:
Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes. You’re in the ninth grade, confronting the tyrannies of sex and adulthood, struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool — the capital of young life. Musical tastes become a badge of identity in social contexts framed by pop culture.
(That observation held true for me: I invaded my father's collection of 12-inch 78-rpm records at about that age.)
Teenager intends to become an audio engineer, so he got an earful about loud music. (See "Treasure Your Hearing, October 8) Teenager sagely responded: "Your generation" is accustomed to music in small spaces (the drawing room?) played (by historical necessity) on 'acoustic' (old) instruments. Music of his generation has evolved with modern technology (read electrical amplification) into a 'greater dynamic range' (read loud), all intending to mean, I assume, more advanced and better suited for our time.

My brain whirred: what about intimacy, silence, and (horrors!) pianissimo? But I soon decided I couldn't begin to summon the eloquence of AndrĂ© Aciman:
Chamber music makes you just as you are and with whatever you’ve got the center of everything. It reminds you of yourself. In fact, it makes you not think of yourself, because the act of thinking about something, even if it’s about yourself, distracts you from being with yourself. Chamber music brings you into a state of perfect congruence with yourself of harmony, where, if there’s a thought, it’s not how beautiful this is, but something like perfect gratitude. It is after all what we feel when a miracle happens: we don’t sit and ponder how miracles happen; we are simply grateful that they do. And with that gratitude comes love. Saint Augustine’s definition of love is the most beautiful: I am grateful that you exist. That’s good enough. Chamber music is intimate not just because it takes place in small spaces with few players. It is intimate because it is direct. It is intimate because there is absolutely nothing, save standing in a holy place, where you can be closer to those things that are timeless, to God, to yourself.   
I re-discovered Saturday night that also applies to a large degree to a concert in Walt Disney Hall by the exquisite LA Philharmonic. It certainly does to our concerts (at least the 'acoustic' ones) that will resume in July in the Mt. Gretna Playhouse.

Obviously, this is not just generational.

April 1, 2013

Remembering Jerry

Carl Ellenberger, MD

Audience members of a certain age may remember Jerry Bramblett during our first 10 years. I met Jerry at the Interlochen Center for the Arts (then “National Music Camp”) because in high school he was a flutist as well as a pianist. We competed against each other in weekly “tryouts and challenges” for top seats in the orchestra. In his senior year he won the concerto competition playing the Flute Concerto by Jacques Ibert. A year later I won too playing the same piece because he coached me and accompanied me in the audition. (He had prepared for his audition by playing with a piano accompaniment he recorded himself.)

Jerry left Yale just as I arrived for medical school. He went to Columbia to get a Ph.D. in Statistics, but mainly to study the piano--in secret because his scholarship said “statistics.” We played flute and piano music every third weekend in his aunt’s studio apartment over the Cliffmore Bar on Second Avenue, dined at a restaurant recommended in New York on $5 a Day, and then repaired to an off-Broadway play.

Between and after my visits to New York we corresponded. Some would call Jerry a “polymath” who excelled in a variety of pursuits, actually just about any he put his mind to, including languages, statistics, cooking--a fusion of his mother’s southern style and French--and music. I still read his letters. 

Russian class at Columbia
Ah, the delights of fluency in the foreign tongues! I now have six cases at my disposal and 30 or so exciting verbs to boot. I am still bothered a bit about the niceties of the language, as when, the other day, I missed the endings of four consecutive adjectives and left poor Mrs. Berryman in tears, but am trying to develop an ambiguous grunt which will pass for any ending. My efforts at the blackboard are thoroughly professional, however, and I am beginning to receive threatening notes from the less gifted members of the class. I am worried about Mrs. Berryman; she is ill nowadays. Yesterday, as I was struggling erroneously through “That fine summer day I took a walk in the woods with my beloved dog” she got dizzy and had to sit down.

Apartment on West End Avenue
I am sitting on the floor of my new pad. The kitchen alone sleeps four. 
Visit to apartment by a former professor at Yale
We brought the festivities to a close the next morning with breakfast and a reading (complete) of the Handel flute sonatas. The latter was a trifle bizarre, insofar as the harpsichord had not been tuned for 2 weeks, Janet had never been exposed to the treacheries of said instrument, and I had not touched the flute since Interlochen, but it was fun, and I noticed afterwards that I had no hangover and have not made any errors in propositional case endings since. 
Visit to a friend
We stopped by the medical school to visit a friend of David’s who is in the psychiatric institute there. A tragic, but rather romantic case: the son of one of David’s teachers at Harvard Med School who flunked out of Harvard his freshman year and promptly went mad. I explained probability theory to him. 
My girl friend spoke of entering a convent 
As for her convent-ional leanings, I think a well fashioned julep (made from the small, darker leaves) to be the handiest and most pleasant of disuaders. 
Anticipation of fine meal
I must away and prepare a sauce duxelles aux champignons for supper. If it is any good, I will put some in an envelope and send it to you.  
It is essential that the champagne be cold, and I recoil at the embarrassment and risk of nursing decanters of chilled spirits aboard the New Haven coaches.
Curbside consultation
When you get a chance, please send me the musical remedies for the following: (1) blister on palm from hanging curtains, (2) sunburn on left shoulder blade from asymmetric exposure, (3) small pimple under navel, source unknown, (4) hangover, from next Sunday’s picnic. 
New job
My first real challenge as a professor of Statistics comes this Sunday, when I shall play host to the statisticians barbecue and beer-blast. Fortunately, this will require no greater efforts than preparing the fields for softball and volleyball, and gathering a few tomatoes and apples, in which activities I will have the assistance of David, who is coming up for the weekend, so I will be able to establish myself as the perfect host. How well I shall do the next morning at my first lecture I shall not venture to guess.
Review of his own concert
No doubt I played badly, but I think, with occasional inspiration. The audience was large and vapid, but happily sprinkled with wine beforehand and during and kept its distance, more or less. 
His piano
I especially envy your perfectly tempered Steinway. Mine, alas, as a result of a recent tuning by Rockville, Conn.’s most distinguished tuner, a complete nut, has developed a rather evil temper, refusing to enter the keys of A-flat and E major, to which I occasionally have recourse.
On pets
I appreciate your offer of a kitten, but my enthusiasm for animal companionship has dimmed somewhat since I kept a colleague’s part-beagle for a few days while he was at a convention. The beast was advertised to be newspaper trained but sadly did not seem able to distinguish between the New York Times and a scatter rug, much less between a Steinway leg and a fireplug. I was a wreck before the week was out. Recently I had been eyeing as a possible pet a rather pleasant-looking green snake named Freddy, but accidentally ran over him with the power mower last Monday. And I can’t work up to much enthusiasm for the two rabbits in the yard, since I suspect that they are the ones who have been getting into the basil.
Jerry passed away in 1995 leaving a small delegation of devoted friends and piano students who studied with him at Mansfield University and the University of Wisconsin. (He had remained a statistics prof at the University of Connecticut for only three years -- while he got a degree in Music.) Any of them out there?