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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 8 (November 1939)

Nonsensical Notes

page 52

Nonsensical Notes

Amusical Moments.

Musicians insist that it is necessary to understand music before you can understand music. In this respect it differs from all the other arts. For instance, anyone can write a book provided he is so devoid of imagination that he has no fear of the consequences. Anyone can paint a picture provided he is not so old-fashioned as to demand a subject for it; any picture is bound to look like something, even if it is only like an explosion in a pickle factory.

No experience is required to write poetry—if you are not a poet. But, of course, if you are a poet you will not write poetry because your time will be fully occupied tallying carcases in a meat-works or trying to decipher the signatures at the ends of business letters.

Only people with sufficient private means to make it impossible for them to be poets can afford the time to write poetry; and only those with so much money that they think Browning was the author of a cookery book can afford to buy it.

The difficulty with music is that those who understand it best always explain it worst; something like Mr. Pitman struggling to explain shorthand, in shorthand, to a cross-eyed Croat during a black-out.

The Power of The Piece.

We are led to believe that “good” music is descriptive of a series of events or emotions, forced into the ear by means of impressed air.

Unfortunately, many of us, otherwise carried away by music, belong to that ignorant army of educational refugees, reared in the belief that a piece of music is an understandable piece, like a piece of soap—that you can point to and say with certainty: “That is an indubitable piece of soap because I ricked my hip trying to overpower it in the bath this morning.” We, of this deplorable rabble, were reared in an age when all music was in “pieces,” aesthetically and actually.

During those musical evenings, in which all and sundry lambasted the larynx without pity for the neighbours, it was always necessary to track down the pieces of a “piece” before Sister Amnesia could give us the “Gypsy's Warning,” which today would probably be construed as an air-raid warning. And young Leonard McTonsil was always asked: “Have you brought your pieces?” And, sad to say, he never said “No.”
Carried Away By Music

Carried Away By Music

I always felt that my Uncle Henry would have been a much more successful man if he had not spent so much time hoping that Leonard would say “No.” At our schools, also, only “pieces” were sung. Sometimes they were in several pieces called roundelays or part songs. The round delays were always discernible, but the part in which they were songs was practically impossible to detect. The teacher's announcement always was: “Our piece today will be ‘Oh Ye Merry Tadpoles’”; or “Fun at the Ferry.” “Fun at the Ferry” always sounded more like tragedy at the boiler factory.

Quavers and Quivers.

But that's the way you and I were brought up. Consequently, when you attended your first concert to hear Whoopaletti's Nocturne in H2O, Opus 999.a., you expected to get something you could swallow in the piece, as it were. But, actually, it were not. Just when you imagined that the orchestra had finished tuning up and the music was about to begin you were told that it was all over. It page 53 was not the composer's fault or the orchestra's fault; it was the fault of being used to having all your music in the piece.

But this composition, instead of being in one piece, seemed to you to be a kind of orchestrated chop-suey served in a dining-car without springs by an acrobatic waiter crossed in love.

You came away feeling that the fifty-seven pieces you had heard would have been all right if someone had remembered to separate them. At the same time you were ashamed of yourself. You felt as ignorant as an author at a literary dinner; when you heard the true music lovers murmuring: “What tonal coloration in the antiseptic sequences!” “What descriptive genius in the peripatetic penultimates!”; you knew that your early conception that a piece of music was a piece of music was as erroneous as your belief that a hogget is a young pig. You hunched yourself up in your collar so that nobody could see what a gross, ignorant, common face you had. You felt as bad as the man who called a tennis racket a “bat” at Wimbledon, or the one who admitted at a meeting of the Quorn that he had once shot a fox —the cad!

Lost in the Jingle.

One of the greatest difficulties of those who have been dragged up on five-finger exercises is to get at what the composer is getting at. Take descriptive music! With the exception of Wagner, who is always so emphatic that you sometimes wish that he had taken aspirin with his aspirations, you are liable to get lost in the Jingle. With Wagner you are always safe if you guess that he is doing something with lightning and wild horses and tanks rolling down iron staircases; and, even with other composers, it is not so hard if a clue is given away with the title. A piece called “Moonlight
“Hunched up into your collar so that nobody could see what a gross, ignorant, common face you had.”

“Hunched up into your collar so that nobody could see what a gross, ignorant, common face you had.”

on the Gasworks” is quite easy to visualise. But, in the absence of a merciful title, it is fatal, after listening to a piece, to murmur: “Ah, yes. How lovely! You can positively see the waves dancing on the coral strand whilst the palms sway and bow to the tropic breeze.” As sure as you unleash such a blatant segment of boloney you find that the piece you have just heard is “Stampede of the Reindeer,” or “Ratcatcher Overture.”

It makes it difficult for a plain, ordinary citizen, whose music is almost entirely confined to the bath, and who has never actually been locked up in an insane asylum, to retain any confidence in his sanity.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem to help much even when the piece is described to you in advance. There is something wrong either with your ear or your brain—or both.

Some merciful person, noting that you have a very low brow and pickled-onion eyes, essays to give you the low-down on the composer's uplift. He describes the whole works in that goo-goo kind of voice which you expect, at any moment, to say: “… and so the king said to the beggar, ‘slay the dragon and you may wed my lovely daughter.’” He is patient with you and is probably a lover of dogs and other dumb animals, too. With the help of hip and thigh, Adam's apple, all his hands and the best part of his spine he gives you a hundred-per-cent. action story of what you are about to hear. But you don't. What he has described as the tragic love story of Aspedestra and Neurasthenia will persist in projecting itself on your dome as a picture of bulls at play in a bottle yard or stormy weather off Flushing.

You can't blame the music or the players. You may have an ear for music but what you need is a head to wear it on.

page 54