On instrumental music

This evening, I went to an piano recital*, and enjoyed it very much. This is unusual, because as a rule my attention span for instrumental music lasts for approximately 3 minutes (maybe 3 1/2, if I’m really focusing). Even when I know it’s exceptional music, being played extraordinarily well, and my friends/family who know about this kind of music are swooning because of its beauty … yeah. 3 1/2 minutes, tops, then I’m thinking about something else or trying to count how many women there are in the orchestra, or something. But tonight’s recital was an hour long, and I didn’t spend the second half hour thinking “hm, can I go home how?” !

Admitting that I don’t see the beauty in pretty much any classical music is slightly embarrassing, because I would like to think of myself as an educated person (or at least on the way to becoming such) and to be unable to appreciate so many musical works is slightly annoying. However, I think that I’ve worked out why this is. When I listen to purely instrumental music (particularly classical, but also in other genres, er, pretty much every kind of music I can think of), here’s what happens in my head:

… there’s a loud bit … it’s still loud … it’s gone quiet now … there’s a twiddly bit … now a medium-loud bit … oh! now it’s both loud and twiddly! … quiet bit … hmm, I wonder how many seats there are in this venue? Let me start counting … [aaand I’m lost]

This is what I imagine goes through other people’s heads:

… ah, playing the first bit more quietly than the recording I’ve got … nice chord progression there … oh that’s interesting … yes, back on familiar territory … gosh, playing on the original instruments really makes a difference, doesn’t it, it wouldn’t sound the same on a modern one … nicely done, that’s a hard note to hit properly … ah yes this is the easier bit, lovely tone, very lyrical … a slight pause before the next phrase … and here we come to the really technically tricky stuff – hm, yes, very competently executed, well done! … now the motif from earlier, but minor this time … [etc]

I may be entirely wrong here. But I’m thinking of it in terms of morris dancing (as you do). Because, say, 5 years ago, had I watched a morris dance I would have thought:

… they’re in a line … that’s a swirly bit … now they’re in a line again … OK, now they’re in a circle … and in a line – I think this bit repeats a lot …

and now I’d think:

… interesting kit, that’s mostly traditional but I’ve not seen that kind of shoulder decoration before … good spacing, nice straight lines … sheepskin hey … and back to place for the chorus, though the set has drifted about a foot to the right … standard sticking kind of chorus … rounds – gosh, that’s very odd, in the middle of a dance … back to the chorus …

and it makes quite a big difference.

(Plus, I’m sure that classical music has a lot more interplay and subtlety than morris dancing due to the possibilities that the medium affords – there’s more you can do with an orchestra than with e.g. 8 dancers, even after you’ve given them kit and sticks and hankies!)

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this evening’s recital was that the performer stopped between each piece and said a little bit about what they were going to play, or what they’d just played, including playing tiny extracts to show what they meant. And a combination of the breaks helping me to refocus, plus interesting facts (both musical and historical), plus some bloody good playing (at a certain level you stop having to know about music and can start just going “gosh that’s a LOT of keys being played VERY FAST”) made it by far the most enjoyable instrumental performance I’ve listened to in a very, very, very long time. I am hopeful that in future, as I slowly pick up more about various music-related things (through folk dancing, or singing, or just being around other enthusiastic people occasionally) I will find I am more able to see and understand the interplay and structure of instrumental music :).

*readers will forgive me for being vague; I don’t wish to disclose that I am at least in reasonable travelling distance of such-and-such a place – and it’s not really relevant to what I’m trying to say here anyway

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