Sights and Sounds

In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey observed that most people make the mistake of assuming that humans are merely passive to the effects of music. It is not simply the music acting upon the ear that makes it pleasurable; “it is by the reaction of the mind upon the notices of the ear (the matter coming by the senses, the form from the mind) that the pleasure is constructed, and therefore it is that people of equally good ear differ so much in this point from one another.”

Virginia Woolf’s The String Quartet provides a fascinating example of the mind reacting the the sensations produced by music. In her classic stream of consciousness style, Woolf shows us all of the mental impressions inspired by a piece of music by Mozart: “Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet; drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where–it’s difficult this–conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping, splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round–free now, rushing downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spirals into the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane, up and up….How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world! Also in jolly old fishwives, squatted under arches, obscene old women, how deeply they laugh and shake and rollick, when they walk, from side to side, hum, hah!”

It is clear that these images are primarily the product of the listener’s own mind. It is true that composers often have specific imagery in mind themselves (Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov and the storm section of Rossini’s William Tell Overture come to mind,) but it is all but inconceivable Mozart wrote Woolf’s detailed scene into his music. As sublime as the music is, it is Woolf’s own mind that constructed the pleasure.

And because the processes of the listener’s mind are at the center of the how pleasurable music is, it is little wonder that mind-altering substances and music go together so often. As far as I know, Woolf did not drink, but De Quincey used to get high on laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) and buy cheap seats to the opera. And there is reason that Grateful Dead concerts smell the way they do.

So have a beer (or more) and see if it doesn’t make music a bit more enjoyable.

Beer of the week: Flying Fish Abbey Dubbel – This Belgian-style ale from New Jersey is alright. The aroma is is sweet and yeasty, with notes of dark cherry and red wine. But the flavor does not quite deliver the same punch as the smell. I would very much like this beer to have a bit more spice, or sweetness, or something in the finish.

Reading of the week: The String Quartet by Virginia Woolf – The excerpt above describes only the first movement of the performance. The rest of the music evokes a sinking boat, a sword fight, and much more.

Question for the week: Have you ever, like Woolf, had vivid images elicited by live music?


An Excellent Piper

Can you sprint through the first several levels of Super Mario Bros.? Can you throw a ping pong ball behind your back and into a cup at the far end of a table? Can you play “Tom Sawyer” on Rock Band without looking at the screen? Can you… play a real musical instrument?

Some skills that require a significant amount of practice seem pretty worthless in the long-run. Some of them may be even worse than worthless since every hour spent playing video games or sports or music is an hour not spent on something more valuable.

“He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.” What Plutarch means is that we have a duty to ourselves to direct our energy toward those activities that are truly improving.

It is important, however, not to be too dismissive. Plutarch suggests that the dedicated study of music, for example, is frivolous. He tells us that an excellent pipe player must be “but a wretched human being, otherwise he would not have been an excellent piper.” I disagree.

Music is a valuable and even essential component of a well-rounded education. And beyond a casual acquaintance with the principles of music and a passing familiarity with some of the greatest composers, the actual playing of music does a great deal of good. Practicing music improves discipline, requires focus and determination, and helps instill an appreciation for order and harmony that transcends music itself. It is true that an excellent piper may be a wretched human being, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

Less obviously, other seemingly frivolous pursuits may likewise have value beyond their evident scope. Video games improve coordination and problem solving skills. Sports improve physical health and social relations. The key, it seems, is not to disregard these pursuits entirely, but to remember always that they are not undertaken for their own sake. Everything we do should be done with an eye toward self-improvement. And if we are improved by something that we enjoy, all the better.

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Beer of the Week: Bernard Černý – Becoming an excellent brewer, for example, is clearly not a “mean occupation”. Bernard is a family-owned Czech brewery. Their dark lager has an exceptionally full flavor. The dark roasted malt gives this beer hints of chocolate covered espresso beans. The smooth brew ends with a pleasant bitterness that really rounds out the flavor nicely. This is one of the best Czech beers I have had.

Reading for the Week: The Life of Pericles by Plutarch – Plutarch starts this book with a story about Caesar rebuking people for fawning over puppies and baby monkeys. It would be much better if that sort of affection were shown to other human beings, rather than being wasted on beasts.

Question for the Week: It is easy to spend too much time on video games or even music and neglect other improving studies. Is their any pursuit for which any time spent is too much?