Thursday, May 31, 2012

IDPTUTT: I Don't Pretend To Understand These Things

A person I imagine is a Musical Assumptions reader sent me a link to this 2004 New York Times article by Bernard Holland that I found to be great food for thought. I won't duplicate my reply, but I will use this moment as an excuse for a ramble.

Holland touches (without articulating it as such) on the difference between ways of knowing that are best demonstrated by looking at the German "to know" verbs Kennen and Wissen. Wissen could be applied to "stuff you know about," while Kennen is used to talk about things you know personally, like people.

I'm not sure if I could use Kennen to talk about a composer who I have never met, but I suppose could use it to talk about his or her music.

Anyway, my ramble concerns the what Holland muses on concerning the difference between appreciation and understanding when it comes to music. I consider the road between appreciating and understanding music, particularly of the "classical" kind, to be long, winding, dangerous, and always under construction. As a matter of fact, once I think I understand something, I am often proven wrong.

When I was growing up my father used to abbreviate his saying, "I don't pretend to understand these things," as the word "IDPTUTT." I totally forgot about that "saying" until ten minutes ago. He used it to try to explain (or explain away) the interpersonal workings of musicians and administration in his orchestra. I use it to try to explain what it is I know about music itself. Which, I can proudly way is more slanted towards the "easy" slide of the teeter-totter, and we can call "appreciation."

The more I mess with music as a practicing and performing musician, the more I am able to observe patterns, tendencies, mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, and "personality" in the music I play, but the more I write, the less I am able to see those things in my own music.


The closer a person is to me, the less I seem to know about the way that person thinks and acts. Perhaps that is the reason we develop close relationships: the element of surprise and delight that they can bring.


I have close friends who have absolute feelings about the teachings of their religion(s). These are really good people who "walk the walk" in addition to "talking the talk," and appear to be certain that their understanding of the universe, life, and their concept of an afterlife is correct. (Some of my favorite composers like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms fall into this category as well). My sense of "understanding" anything is constantly in flux, and I can't even imagine what it would feel like to be certain about anything. In a way I envy that singular mindset, but I always seem to pull away from it by trying to learn new things and new ways of looking at and listening to everything.

Perhaps we return most to those things that we can't understand, because we experience them with our senses rather than with our minds. Food would be an example. Some people can conjure up flavor from out of the blue, but when they do it becomes a craving for the real thing. We may not "understand" why we want something, but we are sure happy when we get it. Our senses sing.

It works the same way with music for me.

We can know (as in the verb Wissen) what needs to go together to make a particular kind of food come together, but perhaps it is our senses that allow us to know (as in the verb Kennen that something needs a bit of salt. Or cumin.

And with music it works the same way.


You can supply your own examples. It's time for me to think about lunch.


Susan Scheid said...

Not only is the Holland article thought-provoking, but so is your response. For various reasons, not least of which was going off to Wales for a music festival and then trying, without technical knowledge, to write about it, I have been thinking quite a bit about how it is that I've come to be able to get my ears around more "new music" than I could have imagined even a year ago. I do think one can "learn to like" music, but the means are not straightforward, are they? Amusing to me, because it’s so basic, is that I keep coming back to listening as the primary way of learning, particularly listening in live performance. I agree with you that "our senses allow us to know," certainly (for me anyway, and I am one of those audience-lawyers) not by methodical analysis. But then . . . I read (well, read is a strong word for my capabilities in this regard—a little like Patty Duke at the water pump . . .) my first orchestral score not long ago, and, once I could follow it the least little bit, I found it a thrilling experience. Oh, so that's how this composer created these incredible sounds my senses enjoy so much! Now, having listened to Qigang Chen's Reflet and Iris D. in live performance and on CD, and then trying to write about what I heard, I really, really want to get hold of that score, too. How does he come up with those sounds? I want to know. So, it's a bit of this, a bit of that, but I do think it's true that, if my senses aren't engaged after a "good college try," I'm highly unlikely to go further with a piece.

Elaine Fine said...

I do appreciate the difference between liking something and the need to understand it, particularly when it comes to usic that is not written in the common practice period. How wonderful that you are starting to collect scores of pieces you like! It is important to remember that a score is a map, and the sounds that happen when people are playing are relative and depend on a large number of factors aside from who plays what where.

A performance can be a dull recreation of a score, or to can be a living and vital experience. It all depends on who is playing, who is conducting, and under what circumstances it is being played. People who make recordings, for example, have every opportunity to adjust their "product" to fit the score, even if it means recording different parts in different rooms and collaging them together.

Susan Scheid said...

Only one score so far. Chen's I would have to buy, and it seems an extravagance, given what I can do(though I'm tempted). But there will be more, I'm sure. Interesting what you say about the map. John Metcalf said the same to me, and of course, it makes perfect sense!