Will you buy any cake?

I celebrated the three year anniversary of the start of this blog by attending a piano recital that included music by the man who convinced me to start this blog, the late Mark Sutton-Smith.  This was nearby on the Columbia campus, and, by coincidence, both Mark and I graduated from Columbia, although we were a tad too many years apart to know each other.

So that reminds me of a story about Columbia.  For a hundred years or so, it’s had what’s called a core curriculum.  This means a set of courses that everybody who goes through the college, no matter their major, must take and pass.  One is a year-long philosophy survey course.  Another takes a year with the foundations of western literature.  There’s a term of art appreciation.  And then there’s Music Humanities, popularly referred to as Music Hummmmmmm…

At the time, I thought Music Hum a waste of time, something they should have placed me out of.  I felt I knew a lot about music, especially compared to the chemistry majors.  (Chemistry?  Yeah: chemistry.)  The rest of the core I knew I needed.  The professor, Doug Anderson, had one memorable assignment: “Go to a classical concert and write down what you hear.”

This, too, seemed like a waste of time to the hubristic kid I was back then.  Did he want me to transcribe what I heard?  No, just jot down as much description as possible.  An unsophisticated student might say “I hear an orchestra.  It’s loud now, then soft, then loud again.  Now just strings are playing.  Here come low horns.”

Over the years, I came to the view that this is a terrific exercise, and certainly took into account the vastly different levels of experience with music we college kids must have had.  In writing this blog, I’m sometimes flummoxed by the varying degrees of familiarity with musicals and music theory various readers may have.  I’m nowhere near as clever as that old college professor.

Earlier this year, for instance, I did a two part entry on compositional techniques.  You’ll find it here and here.  But your eyes could glaze over because you find it numbingly simple.  Or, perhaps, jaw-droppingly complex.

Back to the present. The pianist starts the concert with a Beethoven sonata. And I notice it frequently shifts tempos, “feels” or grooves; the ear never settles. When the right hand’s got a theme on long notes, the left hand had something busy, an interesting figure on quick notes. Repetition is used to lead the listener down the garden path.

  • A little fanfare in the treble.
  • After a little pause, the same fanfare in the bass.
  • Then a treble fanfare.
  • And the bass responds with the same fanfare, but, after a few notes, it veers off into something different, a new harmonic place.

Beethoven sets up an expectation that we’ll hear an exact iteration on low notes, then plays with us, denying the expectation. Don’t take anything for granted. Listen to this.

The Mark Sutton-Smith sonata would have reminded anyone of Gershwin. It had the same gutsy, energetic synthesis of jazz and classical. Instantly likable. To my surprise and delight, it frequently shifted grooves; the ear never settles. When the right hand had a theme on long notes, the left hand had something busy, an interesting figure on quick notes. And Sutton-Smith, like Beethoven, set up an expectation that we’ll hear an exact iteration on low notes, then playfully denied the expectation.

Attending this premiere was the ideal way to celebrate three years of this blog because that’s what this blog does, week after week. Details, tricks, methods, devices. The hope here is that you get in the habit of observing more, maybe enjoying more. It’s long been said that the best observers make the best writers. That usually refers to the world around us. The more attention you pay to the inner workings of musicals – what makes them go, what makes them good – I believe, the better your musicals are bound to be.

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