Wednesday 29 October 2008

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Musical Minds

© John Sawyer – October 2008
Another episode in
1001 Pots - Conversations overheard in pubs

You know we were talking the other day about how I can only visualise other people by thinking about old photos while other people actually “see” the people in their head? Well I’ve just realised that the same thing applies to music. You know that Beethoven was pretty deaf but still managed to compose wonderful music. Well I thought he was just incredibly gifted or something but it seems that lots of people can actually hear music in their head as if they were sitting in a concert hall. I certainly can’t do that.

I was sitting on a train in Germany with my Dad a few years ago; just after my Mum died it was. We were starting a grand railway tour of Europe and we’d just arrived at Frankfurt after a flight from Australia. We couldn’t sleep, so we decided to catch a train over to Mainz to look at the Rhine. It was just after the morning peak and there were still lots of interesting characters to observe.

You sure cop your share hey mate?

Anyway, this bloke is sitting across the aisle, facing the opposite direction. Tweedy sort of bloke with a deerstalker hat, a bit like Sherlock Holmes without the cape. I noticed him because he was sitting there conducting sort of and he had no iPod or anything. I first thought ‘Here we go; they’ve got them in Germany too.” Anyway he stops conducting and writes something on a sheet of paper, turns the paper over and starts conducting again. He does that for the rest of the trip. I look more closely and see that its music. Sometimes he smiles and ticks the margin; sometimes he frowns and writes angrily on the margin. I reckon he was a music professor or something, critiquing students’ compositions or arrangements. It made me wonder how he could look at a few notes on paper and know what the music sounded like.

Do ya reckon he could hear the music?

Well I didn’t know then but a couple of nights later we’re in Rome and I’m lying in bed reading this book: “Captain Corelli's Mandolin”. It’s about the occupation of a Greek island during the war. It’s a pretty good book really, a good study of people and the stuff they do to each other. Anyway there’s this one chapter where the captain is having a meal with the Greek family in the cottage where he’s billeted. It turns out he was a musician in civilian life, Milan Opera maybe. After a bit of wine, they warm to each other a bit and they ask Corelli to play something on the mandolin. Anyway, he starts off and just sits there nodding his head. No sound, nothing. After a while they ask him what’s going on and he gets a bit pissed off. ‘I was just counting through the score waiting for my bit. Now I’ll have to go back and start again.'

Nah – that’s bullshit.

Well mate, that was the story.

Anyway a couple of weeks ago I met up with this young bloke, friends of the family’s son, but I’d never spoken to him much before. Anyway, we’re talking about his studies and we get on to writing and music. He’s a muso as well as a trainee lawyer and composes songs and music for his band. I asked him about what he “hears” and he reckons he hears the whole arrangement in his head. His big problem is getting the beautiful sounds out of his head and getting himself and the band to actually play what he hears. The ideas are better than the applied technology I suppose.

I wish I could “hear” music. I can sort of hear the rhythm or words of a song in my head, but I’m a bit like those people who don’t read much. You know how their lips move as they’re reading the sports section in the Sun.

Hang on – lay off mate.

No, I was just saying that I’ve got to sing the song to hear it. Even then I don’t really remember my part. I invariably sing the melody.

Our choir leader arranges songs. She hears each part and writes it down. Pretty impressive I reckon. She runs 5 or 6 choirs at different times of the week and she sometimes arranges a song and teaches each choir a different bit and she only hears it “live” when we come together at the end of the year. I suppose she hears the complete thing in her head, but she’s always pretty rapt when it turns out something like she originally arranged.

Yeah, I reckon I’d rather be hearing music than the voices like your bloody mate ‘George W’ – bloody dangerous.

Don’t get onto that mate. You know the Alaskan Governor scares the shit out of me. Anyway it’s your shout isn’t it?


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