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Guy Noble’s Soapbox: Music – A Thinking Person’s Guide

Guy Noble
Guy Noble
| July 18, 2017

As I peer out from stages around the country looking at audiences, I often wonder what is going through their heads. Are they enjoying themselves? Are they being moved or entertained? Were they dragged to the concert by a partner and would prefer to be at home in front of the new series of Game of Thrones?

Wouldn’t it be great to wire an entire audience up to an EEG machine and capture the brainwaves inspired by a Beethoven quartet or a symphony by Sibelius? Would the brain waves spike at the same moments, or would everyone experience the music in different peaks and troughs?

I know when I sit in a concert my mind leaps about like a Himalayan mountain goat. I start to think about my day and the myriad projects I never got to think about because I was so busy thinking about more immediate concerns. I think of things I would like to eat, of a glass of wine after the show. I start to think about how uncomfortable my bottom is in my seat and wishing that concert halls had those super-reclining lounges you find in cinemas these days, complete with a drink holder and perhaps a little tray table with some savoury nibbles.  What concert wouldn’t be improved with cheese and crackers and something to sip on as you listen to Bruckner or Brahms?

I would love to look out from a stage and see floating thought bubbles above the heads of each audience member, how the music creates images in their minds. If an orchestra was playing something river or water inspired, like Smetana’s The Moldau, I imagine you would see a fair number of liquid images, favourite creeks visited as a child, the wake left behind by a cruise liner as it passes through the steamy seas of the South Pacific. A gin and tonic in a long glass. But there might be other images – a frosted donut, or a sunset over Thredbo in July, or perhaps an unpaid credit card bill.

Then of course we must consider what on earth the musicians are thinking about. Some of my best performances as a pianist have occurred when I haven’t been thinking about the music at all. Sure, there is some reptilian part of the brain that is making all the decisions about tempo, placement of the fingers, dynamics and so on, but I know that whenever I start to actually THINK too much about the music it never goes well. (It’s a bit like sex, nothing is going to go smoothly if you catch yourself actually thinking about it.) At concerts I sometimes wonder what the musos on stage are thinking about. Are they really into the music or just pretending? Are they wondering where to have dinner after the show? How their kids are going at school? Whether they can afford a new dishwasher because the other one just leaked all over the kitchen floor? Whatever happened to that sock that disappeared after a family holiday to Bali? All these thoughts are happening whilst they negotiate the most delicate of passages of Brahms or Mozart with the fine motor skills of a brain surgeon.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are points where no one is actually thinking about the music at all, but using it as a jumping-off point for meditation. You can over-think music like you can over-cook a poached egg. Some conductors want seven rehearsals to slog through Mahler Three. That’s 17 hours and 30 minutes to rehearse a piece that takes 1 hour 45 minutes. They want to control every moment, every nuance and every entry, leaving nothing to chance. Yet it is in moments of chance that greatness comes, where imagination and inspiration live. You need to rehearse enough so people are aware of the technical challenge, but not so much that everyone is sick of the piece and as stale as 15-day-old frosted donut wrapped in a credit card bill on a raft floating down the Moldau river at sunset.

* Article supplied by Limelight Magazine as part of our Classical Music Partnership.

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