Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Education of the Senses

My friend Norman Spencer (who has told me over and over that music is not one of his areas of real knowledge) put this post on Facebook where he made reference to his fondness for the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. He included a picture of Linus (of Peanuts fame) sitting next to a radio on top of a caption that reads "Happiness is a Sad Song."
I think I've said before that I am intellectually a pessimist, but emotionally an optimist. People without a tolerance for ambiguity might find this to be a paradox, but in combination they result in a wistful melancholy, like music in a minor key. However much I am cheered, even exhilarated, by Mozart's Singspiele, I am comforted by the Allegretto movement of Beethoven's Seventh, the greatest piece of music ever written, in my opinion, because, because like me, it is both major and minor.
Here's my response:
Some of the most uplifting and exhilarating pieces of music happen to be in the minor mode. And that fine line between the emotions can be crisscrossed constantly and imperceptibly by a composer who has the sensitivity to understand how complex the human animal is. I don't really understand why people (who do not prioritize music) divide it between major and minor, reflecting merely happy and sad states of being. We have areas of our tongues that taste bitter, sweet, salty, and sour (not to mention umami), and most of us see a wide swash of the color spectrum in three dimensions. We feel a wide range of temperatures and textures with our skin, and we experience smells that allow us to recall times and places from our most deeply buried memories. Composing musicians and performing musicians offer us those kinds of experiences in organized sound (though too many people hear only happy and sad, loud and soft, or fast and slow). A good performance of the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th (not to mention the whole Symphony) can stimulate and challenge the senses of people hearing it partly because it stimulates and challenges the senses of the people playing it. It is one of the handful of pieces in the orchestral repertoire that instantly allows the people playing it and the people hearing it to become one.
Then I started thinking about my own sense of sense in relation to my recent gastronomic expansion and the pleasure that it has given me to eat from the whole "repertoire," not just from the foods that grow in the ground.

The first piece of meat I ate in a decade was a piece of chicken I had at our daughter's wedding two weeks ago. Surprisingly the chicken itself had little in the way of flavor for me, but it gave me energy and kept me full. Meal by subsequent meal during these last two weeks I started to notice complicated and pleasurable flavors that were in my food. It was not instant. It was kind of like a negative developing, or like a distant radio signal becoming more clear. Now that I am eating meat regularly I have a much more acute sense of the various flavors in the plant foods that accompany it. I simply get more pleasure from the various (and they are now really various) flavors that are in my food. I wonder if eliminating a whole category of food (or two categories if you include dairy) eventually began to dull my sense of taste.

I wonder if people who have only had the experience of listening to music through a recorded filter suffer unknowingly from the same kind of passive sensory deprivation that I had during my decade of eating only plant-based foods. I wonder if people who only listen to music played in a few keys (you know, C major, G major, D major, and A major and their relative minors) don't happen to notice that there are all sorts of harmonic possibilities beyond three sharps. And young brass players who live in the keys of F, B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat might not realize the possibilities available in the worlds of sharp keys. Pianists get used to the tempered tuning of their instrument, and they may not really notice that when they hear vocal music or string music that the musicians are often using a natural (or pure) scale when they are singing or playing.

One of the maxims in Stevens Hewitt's Oboe Method reads, "The only education is the education of the senses." This makes total sense (no pun intended) to me now. As human beings we are totally pleasure driven. If it were not for pleasure, we would not bother to procreate. If it were not for pleasure we would not form communities. We make music for pleasure and for the pleasure of others. We cook food for pleasure and for the pleasure of others. The experience of pleasure is what allows us to recognize it when we encounter it again. Teaching people to recognize the pleasures available in the world around them is a genuinely worthwhile activity, but, like anything worthwhile, it sometimes takes time and courage for relative novices to hear (and taste and feel) for themselves.

Here are some more of Hewitt's maxims (for your pleasure).


Anonymous said...

So glad I just came across your blog. Came for the music, but I stayed for the writing! As a 15-year vegetarian I am curious why you decided to start eating meat again. (Maybe I need to scroll back through your previous posts.) were you aware of a flattening of your appreciation for flavors before? Personally, I am getting worried about my b-12. Thanks again for your rich blog.

Elaine Fine said...

I decided to stop eating meat and dairy after a strange bout of inflammation (something that happens when some people reach their mid 40s). I did feel better, and the inflammation did go down. I enjoyed the challenges of vegan cooking, and was able to get a decent amount of protein from plant sources. I have to say that fear of the physical consequences of eating meat was all that was keeping me away for the last few years. I decided to take a leap of faith and become an omnivore again partially because I found that I needed more protein than I was getting, and I was tired of feeling tired as well as hungry between meals. Now I take fish oil to counteract inflammation, and I feel just fine.

B-12 is a definite concern. You can get high-quality sub-lingual B-12 from non-animal sources (it's artificial B-12) at good health food stores. I still take it every day.