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

June 29, 2014

Welcome to our 2014 Festival of Russian Music, pt 1

Добро пожаловать на наш фестиваль русской музыки! 

My first Russian experience came in college when I helped my roommate, Bob Horick, put on a “Russian Arts Festival” a few years after the launch of the world’s first satellite the Russians called Sputnik (спутник). Among other effects, that caused a spike in enrollment in Russian courses. Our music headliners were The Yale Russian Chorus, a group that imitated the Red Army Choir, undoubtedly penned up in Russia at that time (1960). We also screened Serge Eisenstein’s classic 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky, to which Prokofiev contributed his brilliant first film score that was part of the drama, not background accompaniment. A bassoonist then, Bob went on to earn a Ph. D. in Russian and study at Moscow University.

As our Russian theme began to materialize for this summer, curiosity led me to ask Bob, “Why is Russian Orthodox church music a cappella?” (without instrumental accompaniment, as you will hear in the performance of the Rachmaninov Vespers, Sept 7) Another Russian scholar, the great Richard Taruskin who wrote the entire five-volume Oxford History of Western Music, asserts that the last verse of Psalm 150 forbids using musical instruments in worship: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!  That seemed to me ambiguous because the preceding verses (promptly recited to me by Emi) call for praise with trumpets, harps, flutes and every other instrument you can think of. 

Bob’s answer: “A single word, “Tradition,” as Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof. Orthodox writers on music in the church trace back to ancient times the fact that "singing" was how Christians worshipped from the very beginning. In particular the Orthodox Liturgy (primarily the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) probably travelled from Byzantium via Bulgaria to Russia as singing. In fact, there is nothing spoken in it: everything is chant or penie (pesnopenie): ie, "singing" (song-singing).” In the words of Joseph Kerman: Throughout human history, “heightening by singing has provided words with special emphasis, force, mystery, even magic.” (I think Schubert; others think Billy Joel.)

Bob continues: “When the subject of what we would call music comes up in the Orthodox world, it is "singing." The word "music" (музыки) is a foreign word in Russian (like the French word “ballet” in English). Instrumental music did exist in eastern Slavic lands since ancient times, of course, but it is associated with dissolute behavior, especially dancing, drunkenness, sex, etc.  After old Rus' was Christianized in 988 the priests engaged in relentless purges of all native religious beliefs and especially of the wandering bands of musicians called skomorokhi.  

Skomorokhi were medieval East Slavic harlequins, actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances. They appeared in Kievan Rus before the mid-11th century, appealing to the common people and usually opposing the ruling groups, the feudalists, and the clergy, and reached their peak in the 15th–17th centuries. They sang mocking songs, dramatic and satirical sketches called glumy (глумы), performed in masks and skomorokhi dresses to the sounds of domra, balalaika, gudok, bagpipes or buben (a kind of tambourine). Usually the main character was a fun-loving saucy muzhik (мужик = peasant) of comic simplicity. Skomorokhi performed in the streets and city squares engaging with the spectators to draw them into their play. They would sometimes combine their efforts and perform in a vataga (big crowd) numbering 70 to 100 people. 

Skomorokhi were persecuted in the years of the Mongol yoke when the church strenuously propagated ascetic living. A monk chronicler denounced the skomorokhi as devil servants. The Orthodox Church railed against the skomorokhi and other elements of popular culture as being irreverent, detracting from the worship of God, or even downright diabolical. 

In the 18th century the skomorokh art gradually died away; passing on some of its traditions to the balagan (a scene of chaos or fiasco, as in the opening scene of Stravinsky’s Petrushka) and rayok (“small paradise,” a fairground peep show accompanied by lewd rhymed jokes viewed through a magnifying glass.) Shostakovich wrote an “Antiformalistic Rayok” mocking Stalin (see below).

“So,” continues Bob, “you can see that instrumental music had a very bad reputation among the dominant classes, who were obliged to support the Church's policies.” Because of the resistance by the Orthodox church against secular music Russia was a late starter in developing a native tradition of secular 'classical music.' The country, says Taruskin, “emerged as a musical power at about the same point in its history as its emergence as a political and diplomatic power.” Beginning in the reign of Ivan IV, the Imperial Court invited Western composers and musicians to fill this void and by the time of Peter I, these artists were a regular fixture at Court. While not personally inclined toward music, Peter saw European music as a mark of civilization and a way of Westernizing the country; his establishment of the Western-style city of Saint Petersburg helped foster its spread to the rest of the upper classes. A craze for Italian opera at Court during the reigns of Empresses Elisabeth and Catherine also helped spread interest in Western music among the aristocracy. Giovanni Paisiello (Aug 3) was among the many long-term musical visitors to Catherine’s court. His opera, The Barber of Seville (based on the play by Beaumarchais), premiered in St. Petersburg in 1782, 34 years before Rossini’s opera based on the same play, is one of Paisiello’s more than 80(!) operas.

Stay tuned for pt. II.

June 13, 2014

Eye Music

On Sunday July 20 at Ware Center in Lancaster we will hear two great classical ballets, but without the dancers. You might wonder if maybe that's like listening to the Met Opera on a kitchen-table radio, or MTV without the picture. No "visuals," the kids would say. But I assure you that Claire Huangci, the pianist, though a small person, will more than make up for a full orchestra in a pit. And the music is so good you could enjoy it on a bandoneon.

Rough estimates hold that at least 40% of the neural machinery of our brain participates in the processing of visual images focused on the retinas of the eyes. Evolution has adapted these vision-related regions, many of them in the posterior parts (back half) of the cerebrum, to receive the visual information and integrate it with other sensory information (touch, hearing, etc) and other functions of the brain--language, emotions, a wide range of spatial functions, memory, and "theory of mind" (look it up on Wikipedia). Years of normal seeing during an average human life enhance these abilities and connections because of the brain's "plasticity." 
But sight is not necessary for many of our abilities. Take for example language or music. Congenitally blind persons can speak languages and also play and sing music, substituting their ability to reproduce what they hear for their inability to read words or notes. Blind pianists substitute non-visual sensory cues to depress the right keys for their inability to actually see the keys. “Substitute” is a key word.

You might wonder whether a blind person's previously idle visual machinery is especially receptive to getting a job and 'welcomed' the input. Just as you might wonder whether Ray Charles called upon parts of his idle brain visual mechanism to enhance his music.
A group of researchers* has used a “sensory substitution device” (SSD) to help people blind from birth, or blinded later in life. They call it “EyeMusic.” Their work is based on the principle that when information is delivered to the visual machinery of the brain, that mechanism may utilize it as if it were visual information. But instead of visual images they delivered musical sounds, produced by natural instruments. It is astonishing how quickly blind people could begin to describe a visual scene or object or movement and even color, after they have learned that certain musical sounds have been designated as codes for certain visual characteristics. A translation, if you will.

This ‘translation’ could prove in some ways like learning a second language. At first we translate word by word from English to French, for example, but eventually (say, if we move to France) the English recedes and the French prevails and we not only speak but think in French. Music, a very complex language with many variables -- rhythm, tempo, pitch, harmony, timbre, intensity, volume, etc -- is the type of sensory stimulus that comes close to the complexity of a visual image, even closer perhaps than spoken language (at least as used by an average non-poet or novelist). While these changes, examples of brain "plasticity," take place, modern imaging techniques (like fMRI) can show them in progress by displaying the changes in the regions of the brain that are active.

You may think of this when you listen to Claire Huangci play 'scenes' from two famous ballets d'action, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, on the piano at Ware Center, July 20. A fuller experience of  the ballets may depend on your imagination residing at least in part in your extrastriate and other nearby areas of visual cortex. Or you might contend that the music, some of the best by both composers, 'speaks' for itself.

*Amir Amedi

June 3, 2014


When commenting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as Under Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan said: 
“He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” 
So, education is for producing a "competitive workforce?" 

How sad.

Though others might, I'm sure neither President Obama nor Secretary Duncan believe that education is only for getting a job. That attitude could herald another "Great Leap Forward" or a surge in enrollment in classes on diesel mechanics at community colleges! 

Many current college grads don't find jobs, anyway.

I (now an old fossil) would start again by heading for a modern version of a medieval university to study the trivium: logic, rhetoric, and grammar (how to think, speak, and write) then the Quadrivium outlined by Plato in The Republic: arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, the four "sciences" comprising the liberal arts. 

That "Liberal" has nothing to do
 "with those designer labels 'liberal' and 'conservative' that some so lovingly stitch on to every idea they pull off, or put on, the rack."
And, as Bart Giamatti also noted, "liberal" modifying arts, is not necessarily the same "liberal" that can modify education,
"unless one studies . . . in a spirit which. . . seeks no immediate sequel, which is independent of a profession's advantage. If you pursue the study of anything not for the intrinsic rewards of exercising and develop the power of the mind but because you press toward a professional goal, then you are not pursuing a liberal education but rather something else." 
Burdened by heavy reality in American life -- to have any value at all anything must have a price tag -- Secretary Duncan spoke almost three decades after Bart's extraordinary Presidential address to incoming students at Yale College. 
"A liberal education is defined by the attitude of the mind toward the knowledge the mind explores and creates. Such education occurs when you pursue knowledge because you are motivated to experience and absorb what comes of thinking."
When I offered this view of college at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Medical Society to evaluate the "pre-med" curriculum, I was quickly marked as wacko: "there's too much information to stuff doctors' heads with, you dummy." (That was before Google. Medical education may be changing.) 

But you too may ponder Bart's rhetorical question:
"That is very touching . . . but how does someone make a living with this joy of learning and the pleasure in the pursuit of learning? What is the earthly use of all this kind of education later on, in the practical real world?" 
A recent answer inspired these thoughts: last week's 2014 Commencement address by Fareed Zakaria at Sarah Lawrence. I have collected earlier answers, by Bart Giamatti, William Cronon, and Stanley Fish (pdf's in my Dropbox). And just for completeness: liberalism as a political philosophy has two chief ideals, liberty and equality. In a liberal democracy, all citizens have equal power because all are possessed of reason and have the liberty to employ it in expression.

See also the exquisite Joyce DiDonato's Juilliard commencement address, an extraordinary artistic variation on Bart's passion.

Meanwhile, I'll be reading Bart's The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. So far as I know, Bart was the only Commissioner of Baseball (he finally got a job) to write about the Renaissance.