March 29th, 2009

storyteller doll

Music, Minds, and Maoris

Before I get into writing about Friday night, I want to note the death of Archie Green. He was (among other things) the founder of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. That is one of the Library's resources I've used at times and I am thankful for his instigation.

Another resource I take advantage of is the programs that the Music Division puts on. The final Music and the Brain lecture for the season was Friday night. The speakers were cognitive psychologist Michael Kubovy and composer Judith Shatin, both of the University of Virginia and the lecture title was "The Mind of the Artist." They focused on the extramusical meaning of music. Kubovy started by talking about a priming experiment. People are given a list of words to read aloud and will read a word faster if the preceding word is related. For example, the word "sofa" is read faster if it is preceded by "couch" than if it is preceded by "wrench." There are experiments that show the priming effect works if music related to the word is played, instead of another word being used. He also played several examples of music and asked questions like, "is this a bird or a staircase?" All of this goes back to the overlap in the parts of the brain which process language and which process music.

Shatin attempted to illustrate this via examples of her music. I think she might have been more effective if she had actually talked about her conscious decisions instead of just playing the music. The real question I have is how much of the meaning we read into pieces of music is actually intended by the composer. It's one thing to look at program music (e.g. Vivaldi's Four Seasons) and another to take, say, some random string quarter and decide what it's about. During the Q&A, somebody asked about applying the idea to more technical music, e.g. minimalist compositions. Shatin and Kubovsky claimed you can. I think a better example to question the concept would be Satie's "musical wallpaper," since specifically intended it to be background and not really listened to.

I don't usually stay around for the concerts since that makes for two late a night for me, but I was intrigued by one of the pieces that the New Zealand String Quartet was going to play. I didn't get a ticket in advance (which requires paying Ticketmaster fees) but had no trouble getting a seat with a standby number. The first piece was Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E minor, op. 44, no. 2. This was pleasant enough, albeit not outstanding in one way or another. (Which can be said, alas, of a lot of chamber music.) The piece that I (and, I suspect, much of the audience) wanted to hear was Gillian Karawe Whitehead's "Hineputehue" for string quartet and taongo puoro (Maori instruments), for which the quartet was joined by Richard Nunns. Nunns started with an incantation in the Maori language, which had something to do with summoning the spirits. The Maori instruments created some interesting sounds and the strings were used in unusual ways to blend with them. The result was certainly evocative, but did not really suggest peacefulness to me. (Hineputehue is a Maori goddess of peace.) I'm not a fan of excessively dissonant modern compositions and this fell into that category. I'm glad I heard it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to hear more of Whitehead's compositions.

There was also a Schubert quartet on the program but I was exhausted so left at the intermission. I suspect it was considerably more conventional and easier to listen to.