MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Creative Diaspora and Russian Composers

Alexander Raskatov

Alexander Raskatov

UPDATE on Saturday 22 March, 9:42: I just learned that Richard Taruskin will not be at the Conference to give the keynote speech; he’s prevented from traveling on account of illness. The lineup given here appears to have just been updated.

This weekend brings a conference co-hosted by the Seattle Symphony on the topic Creative Diaspora: Émigré Composers from the Former USSR. It’s taking place in conjunction with the U.S. premiere of Alexander Raskatov’s new piano concerto, Night Butterflies. Here’s my preview for CityArts:

Living in exile, crossing borders, starting over—are there any experiences more definitive of the modern era? Along with their concrete political and social consequences, these experiences have shaped cultural expression. What, for example, does it mean to be a “Russian” composer today? Does it even make sense to keep referring to national musical styles in this century of instant global connectivity?

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Filed under: commissions, musical research, new music, Seattle Symphony

Musical Anhedonia


You know that chilling moment when you try to introduce a friend to a piece of music you love — a piece of music that contains a little bit of the world’s meaning for you — and … nothing? That moment when it doesn’t just fail to register, but the other party has no interest in trying to figure out what turned you on in the first place?

This phenomenon can be shocking when you’re dealing with someone who normally does have some sort of musical response but who remains immune to the piece in question. I vividly recall trying to introduce an acquaintance years ago to the Heiliger Dankgesang from Beethoven’s Op. 132 — which is about as transcendent as music gets, as far as I know it — and being appalled by the evident reaction of boredom. For a moment, it felt like some sort of variant on the uncanny valley phenomenon.

I think we’ve all been there, but what I find truly unfathomable is an existence without music. Yet it turns out a new study whose results were just published in Current Biology suggests that music simply may not be as “universal” as we like to believe it is. A team of psychologists at the University of Barcelona found that possibly up to 5% (!) of the population cannot take pleasure in music — any music. Some people are simply, or rather, biologically, incapable of enjoying it, no matter how accessible we try to make the experience.

This is distinct from the well-known phenomenon of amusia and similar dysfunctions Oliver Sacks has described in Musicophilia. The Barcelona study also points out that the 30 student volunteers who participated — “healthy people with specific musical anhedonia” — “do not find music pleasurable, but enjoy other rewarding stimuli.”

From the abstract of the article (“Dissociation between Musical and Monetary Reward Responses in Specific Musical Anhedonia”):

Music has been present in all human cultures since prehistory, although it is not associated with any apparent biological advantages (such as food, sex, etc.) or utility value (such as money). Nevertheless, music is ranked among the highest sources of pleasure, and its important role in our society and culture has led to the assumption that the ability of music to induce pleasure is universal. However, this assumption has never been empirically tested.

In the present report, we identified a group of healthy individuals without depression or generalized anhedonia who showed reduced behavioral pleasure ratings and no autonomic responses to pleasurable music, despite having normal musical perception capacities. These persons showed preserved behavioral and physiological responses to monetary reward, indicating that the low sensitivity to music was not due to a global hypofunction of the reward network. These results point to the existence of specific musical anhedonia and suggest that there may be individual differences in access to the reward system.

Filed under: aesthetics, music news, musical research

The Score to Ancient Greece

Statue of Homer at the Bavarian State Library in Munich; photo by J. Williams

Statue of Homer at the Bavarian State Library in Munich; photo by J. Williams

Oxford Classics scholar Armand D’Angour describes how researchers are on the verge of a breakthrough in being able to “reconstruct” the music that was known to have accompanied such seminal texts as the Homeric epics, the great tragedies, and Sappho’s lyric poetry:

The rhythms – perhaps the most important aspect of music – are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.

The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

He asks what Greek music would have sounded like:

Homer tells us that bards of his period sang to a four-stringed lyre, called a “phorminx”. Those strings will probably have been tuned to the four notes that survived at the core of the later Greek scale systems.

Professor Martin West of Oxford has reconstructed the singing of Homer on that basis. The result is a fairly monotonous tune, which probably explains why the tradition of Homeric recitation without melody emerged from what was originally a sung composition.

Filed under: classical literature, musical research

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