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

June 28, 2013

Syrinx and old goats playing flutes

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Notes for our Baltimore Winds concert Sunday, July 7:

Jupiter disguised his mistress, Io, as a heifer to hide her from his wife Juno. Juno saw through the disguise and demanded the heifer as a gift from her husband. Determined to keep Io as a heifer Juno enlisted Argus, who had 100 eyes and never went to sleep with more than two eyes at a time, to guard the heifer.

Commanded by Jupiter, Mercury put on his winged slippers and his cap on his head, grabbed his sleep-producing wand, and leaped down from the heavenly towers to the earth, presenting himself as a shepherd driving his flock. As he strolled, he blew upon his pipes, called the Syrinx or Pandean pipes. Argus listened to the pipes with wonder, having never heard them before. Hoping to lull all 100 eyes to sleep, Mercury played the most soothing strains and told Argus the story of how the instrument came to be:
“There was a certain nymph, whose name was Syrinx who was much beloved by the satyrs and spirits of the wood; but she would have none of them, but she was a faithful worshipper of Diana, and followed the chase. You would have thought it was Diana herself, had you seen her in her hunting dress, only that her bow was of horn and Diana’s of silver. One day as she was returning from the chase, Pan [a demi-god: half man, half goat] approached her.... She ran away, without stopping to hear his compliments, and he pursued till she came to the bank of the river, where he overtook her, and she had only time to call for help on her friends the water nymphs. They heard and consented. Pan threw his arms around what he supposed to be the form of the nymph, and found he embraced only a tuft of reeds! As he breathed a sigh, the air sounded through the reeds, and produced a plaintive melody. The god, charmed with the novelty and with the sweetness of the music, said, ‘Thus then, at least, you shall be mine.’ And he took some of the reeds, and placing them together, of unequal lengths, side by side, made an instrument which he called Syrinx, in honour of the nymph.”
--from Bulfinch’s Mythology

Before Mercury had finished the story he saw Argus’s eyes all asleep. As his head nodded forward on his breast, Mercury with one stroke cut his neck through, and tumbled his head down the rocks. 

Pan, of course, inspired the entire industry of woodwind instruments: the oboe, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon, as well as their larger and smaller relatives all produce sound with a vibrating reed. Paradoxically, the flute has no reed, its sound comes from air alone passing over the mouth hole of a reed-like pipe, either across the open end of a pipe closed at the other end or at a hole in the side of a pipe near one closed end. Finger holes in effect lengthen or shorten the pipe so you don't need a handful of different pipes. The technical simplicity of the flute may explain why it is probably the oldest wind instrument; bone flutes, obviously longer-lasting than reed flutes date back to 35,000 B.C.E. 

In French "flûtiste” means flutist, as does "flautista” in Italian--to answer your next question. My teacher answered it by saying, "depends on what the job pays."

Why Debussy wrote Syrinx in 1912 to accompany the death of Pan in a play Psyche by Gabriel Mournay is not clear to me. Pan is usually not in the cast of characters of that fable, at least the mythological one (Cupid and Psyche). In performance the flutist remains hidden, as did the musicians who provided dinner music for Psyche’s first night in heaven at the magnificent palace--before Cupid visited her in bed. Perhaps Mournay intended the flutist to be Pan and that he died of sorrow at the end of his song.

With its ambiguous harmonies and free rhythm, Syrinx sounds like the kind of music Debussy was thinking of when he wrote, “my favorite music is those few notes an Egyptian shepherd plays on his flute: he is a part of the landscape around him, and he knows harmonies that aren’t in our books.” The piece is loaded with whole-tone scales that contain no fifths and no half steps, making traditional cadences impossible and eliminating tonic-dominant polarity. Debussy used whole-tone scales often as a way to confound his listeners’ tonal expectations and to explore new harmonic possibilities. 

Debussy’s rhythms also confound. They can be based on length rather than on stress, on long-short rather than strong-weak. Some liken them to the rhythmic principles of French speech, which is differentiated by syllable length rather than syllable stress.

Last known location of the nymph, Syrinx, ~6,000 B.C.E.

Leaving us not only the reeds, Syrinx also left her name to be applied to the syringe as well as the condition called syringomyelia in which the spinal cord has the shape of a hollow reed. Psyche, of course, meaning both butterfly and soul in Greek, gave her name to the modern disciplines of psychology and psychiatry and their practitioners. As for old goats, they occasionally continue to play flutes.

It has taken far longer for you to read this than the duration of Debussy's Syrinx itself. Generations of flutists have played it because it is one of a very few works that a flutist can play alone. It lends itself to infinite interpretations.

June 13, 2013

Medical Bulletin

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

...from the British Medical Journal, 2009. How did I ever overlook this gem?

"This article by Sarah Bache and Frank Edenborough in our Christmas issue 2008 referred to cello scrotum. It has now emerged that the reference that they provided for the first description of this condition (a letter published in the BMJ in 1974) was a hoax. The author of the 1974 letter (a non-doctor) and his then wife (a doctor who was involved in writing the letter) confessed to the hoax in a rapid response posted on bmj.com in December 2008 and published as a letter in January 2009.  We have not yet been able to verify whether they are right to conclude that the letter describing guitar nipple (Curtis P. Guitar nipple. BMJ 1974;2:226), which prompted their letter on cello scrotum, was also a hoax."

June 8, 2013

How (and Why) to Visit Mt. Gretna

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Let's say you saw a concert or an artist you might like to hear on our 2013 summer schedule, violinist Sarah Chang (July 3) or The New Black Eagle Jazz Band, Elliott Carter's Woodwind Quintet (yo! chamber music snobs), Miñas, The Tamburitzans or The Capitol Steps -- or Stephanie Blythe with Les Violons du Roy and Bernard Labadie in Elizabethtown on October 14, only a short drive away.

But you live in Baltimore or Philadelphia, or even Shrewsbury. What do you do? Well, here's what I might do if I didn't live right in Gretna.

First I would decide how much time I have, in particular, whether I would I like to rent a cottage and stay for a week, or just visit for a day or two. Both choices are quite reasonable. Trips from Baltimore or Philly are easy, about 90 minutes on scenic routes. Concerts end before 10 pm in plenty of time to drive home. To choose a date for your visit look here and here.

Advantages of renting a cottage for a week: they are cheap; they put you right in the middle of the place where you can walk anywhere, and you can cook. Activities go on all day. Disadvantages: cottages are not as numerous as those at the 'other' Chautauqua in New York State, or as easy to find, and they may be booked during popular times, such as "Art Show Weekend," the third weekend in August. A few cottage owners remain in the 19th century and require your own linen. Rentals are typically from Saturday to Saturday, but most owners are adaptable. Or you could stay in Hershey and take your kids to Hershey Park or in Lancaster and take them to the Strasburg Railroad and Central Market, all about 30 minutes from Gretna.

To find a cottage I assume you can Google but you could start hereAnd now there's Yelp*. The old-fashioned way is to call: Emi Snavely, doyenne of the Annual Gretna Tour of Homes (August 3), 717.270.1515, or Penn Realty, 717.964.3800.

What if you just have a day or weekend? Pack a bathing suit, set your GPS for 17064 (or see a map at gretnamusic.organd park in the lot along the road between the post office and the famous Jigger Shop Ice Cream Parlor. The Visitor Center is the tiny fairy building (not to be confused with the nearby 'fairy garden' Gretna's most popular attraction) just a few feet from the Jigger. They have maps, schedules, and lists, either for a human to hand you or in racks on the porch. Three lunch possibilities are visible within 50 yards, as is the Historical Society in a refurbished cottage next to the Playhouse. In the Playhouse you could possibly catch an open rehearsal (Sunday afternoons), a sound check, or even a matinee theater production. 

But the most interesting activity is to put on walking shoes and stroll around the winding streets and paths, and chat with denizens watching you do that from their porches. You will see ancient Chautauqua buildings like the 'Hall of Philosophy,' 'Scientific and Literary Circle', and the Playhouse, only the latter a modern (well, slightly) replica necessary after the original collapsed like a soufflé in 1994 under snow and ice. There is also the Campmeeting Tabernacle, a slightly smaller version of the Playhouse built in the 1890's (by a different sect employing the same builder) and recently elevated to the National Register of Historic Places. It "still looks almost exactly as it did 100 years ago." Equally as interesting are the cottages, some unchanged for over 100 years, others remodeled to serve as year-round homes, and a few McMansions. I bought a modest winterized cottage in 1973 when living on an assistant professor's salary. On your walk you can rest at playgrounds or picnic areas.

You can walk to the lake but the entrance to the swimming area is on its far side, so to swim or sunbathe it might be best to transfer your car to that parking lot. The other reason to get back into your car is to travel to the Timbers for dinner (taking you through the newer sections of Gretna) but it is closed on Sundays as are some of the restaurants in this region on the outskirts of Amish buggyland. Check out Sunday and other dining possibilities here and on Yelp.

For lodging for a night or two -- Yelp, again. But start with the elegant Mt. Gretna Inn. Because Hershey and Lancaster are both tourist meccas you can find innumerable lodgings and other attractions there and along the roads to them, both 20-30 minutes away.

Anyone who answers 717.361.1508 will be more than happy to guide you and answer questions.