Saturday, June 22, 2019

I'm All Ears

Errol Morris's New York Times Opinion piece about Sviatoslav Richter, "The Pianist and the Lobster," is a fantastic piece of writing about one of the most enigmatic of an enigmatic breed of great pianists. And it includes interviews with Richter's video biographer Bruno Monsaingeon and pianist (and illustrious member of the musical blogosphere) Jeremy Denk.

I knew about Richter's problems with pitch as he got older, but I was struck by the peculiar nature of the way Richter's sense of pitch changed. Then again, why should Richter, who functioned on the on outer expressive margins of musical possibilities, have an experience with physical changes in his hearing that wasn't singular?
ERROL MORRIS Hearing things a half tone up or down — was this also a problem related to depression?

BRUNO MONSAINGEON It was probably related to depression. But actually, he mentioned that a bit later in our conversations. One day in a hotel room in Paris, he went to the Clavinova [an electric practice piano] which he had in his room. We had great problems plugging the machine in. And finally he started playing the “Carmen” overture. And he said, “This is in A major, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, yes of course, Maestro.” But he was playing the left hand in B major. There was a separation in his mind between the left and the right hand. One was playing one key and another in another key. It must have been a real nightmare for him.

ERROL MORRIS How can you play a piece when you’re transposing only one hand into a different key?

BRUNO MONSAINGEON Well, that’s why he stopped. At that time, he had stopped playing in public. He was trying, towards the very end, the very, very last weeks of his life, he was trying to go back to the keyboard and was even planning to play some concerts. But, during those three years, there was not one note played (except on occasion on that Clavinova). Not one note. And he was desperate about it. It’s a very sad ending. This mighty artist and great, great mind, affected by all these problems.

Both my parents, at least two of my grandparents, and all three of my brothers were born with absolute pitch. Even within the term "absolute pitch" there is a continuum. My father has it to a lesser degree than my brother Marshall, who had a pair of ears that might have compared to Richter's, but Marshall didn't live long enough to experience physical changes in his hearing. To the rest of the family perfect pitch was just a given utilitarian thing. I grew up feeling like I was missing something. In most families the person with absolute pitch is the "other." In my family of origin I was "other." And if I sang something in the wrong key, my brothers would always let me know.

"You're in the wrong key!"

Pitches and harmonies are magical to me. They always were. But like most magical things they are also illusive. Sometimes a piece of music running through my head is in the right key, but I just don't have the wherewithal to name the key or the particular pitches. I sometimes recognize pitches by their color when they are played on a particular instrument, and my string-playing arm will usually find them when prompted by visual (i.e. reading music) stimulation. But my navigation through the world of pitches is like the visual experience of walking through a seasonally changing stretch of woods, following a well-worn path, and looking up, down, and all around to find wonderful happenings. Some people who walk through the woods see (and name) species of trees, species of flowers, species of birds, species of insects, species of mold, numbers of living trees, numbers of dead trees, geologic formations, erosion, and diseases of all sorts. Their visual experience is different from mine.

In his later seventies father, who will be eighty-nine in August, noticed that he started hearing pitches half a tone sharp. Since he is a string player, and has the musical habits of someone with relative pitch, he has managed to adjust. My friend Susan Teicher told me that her father, the pianist Louis Teicher also had that problem. And when I learned about Richter's half-tone-off hearing, I started to wonder if this kind of change in hearing might be a general physical phenomenon, but one only noticed by the small segment of the population who are musicians with absolute pitch.

Musicianship is so much more than pitch memory or pitch labeling. And there are zillions of sounds in the world that are not classified as music: language, animal sounds, nature sounds, motors, anything that vibrates, anything that bangs or rubs against objects. There are certainly people with absolute pitch who are not musical. They just use their sense of pitch in other ways.

We do know that size and shape of our ears change as we get older. This video from the BBC shows how the outsides of our ears change over time. I imagine that the insides of our ears change as well. And I imagine that changes in the inner parts of our ears affect the way we hear pitches. I asked an audiologist about this when it was happening to my father, and he could not give me any information.

After reading the article about Richter last night, I did a little google search and came upon this livejournal discussion, which links to a 2007 article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about aging and absolute pitch that confirms my suspicions.

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