School starting back set me to thinking about my experiences last year, and one in particular came to mind that I want to record on OperaGene, involving a performance of the Parker Quartet. My son, now a junior, attends a liberal arts college, St Johns College in Annapolis. It distinguishes itself by its complete liberal arts focus and by using the Great Books as its texts. There have been collateral benefits to my wife and I from him attending. One is the discussions (often arguments) we have about music. I lack training in music. For a while as a young boy, my son took up piano and then the viola. At St. Johns, freshmen and sophomores are required to take music courses. They are required to be in the choir in year one and take a music theory class in year two, including having to learn and play one piece of music on the instrument of their choice and write a short piece of music. It seems that guys like Plato and Aristotle thought it was important. A typical discussion (argument) we have comes about when I say that guys like Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi were either born on distant worlds, or aliens came here and gave them special powers. He counters that I would have a more rational understanding of how they created their works if I studied a bit of music theory. Then he hands me another book or more class notes that I am to read. And I am honestly trying to do some reading on the subject, at my own slow pace.
In looking at his Materials for Sophomore Music manual, page 30, I found a quote I’d like to share aboiut the Pythagorean notion of "music of the spheres": “Perhaps it [the coming together of astronomy and music] was that music was thought to bring astronomy to the level of the human soul and in this way give astronomy an intelligibility it would not otherwise possess. Music is, among other things, the province of the beautiful in the world of sound. When we confront the beautiful we are moved to love and admiration. If the kosmos is to merit our full admiration, perhaps this can come about only if music is present in it. To join music and astronomy is to join ourselves to the highest beings in the sensed world in a way that touches us deeply and powerfully. Cosmic music, if such exists, renders the whole of nature intelligible to us because we are musical. The music of the spheres then is no romantic notion. It binds music to the whole of nature and in this way binds the human soul to its intelligible objects.” I never got that from my anatomy and physiology courses, did you?
Another benefit of knowing about St. Johns comes from learning about its Friday Night Formal Lecture series open to the public. These lectures cover many liberal arts topics, often related to current events, and sometimes are instead music offerings. Below I write about one of the ones I attended last year. I offer it as an example. Typically most all colleges and universities have public outreach programs that include the arts; free concerts are commonly part of the schedule. I encourage you to check out what is available to you locally for free or at a modest fee! And best of all, it is live music. I listen to a lot of recorded music and love it. However, there is something totally different about listening to music live. Music of the spheres or the earthly variety are best heard live.
The quote above deals with the macrocosm. In the concert I heard last October at St Johns, there was an attempt to connect music with the microcosm, our DNA. It was a wonderful, live concert that was also thought provoking. The Parker Quartet which provided the concert will appear at St. Johns again on September 23, 2016. Below is my write up of last year’s performance:
Friday Night Formal Lecture, St. John’s College Annapolis
October 30, 2015
St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD offers free public lectures during the academic year on Friday nights (see 2016-2017 schedule at http://www.sjc.edu/programs-and-events/annapolis/formal-lecture-series/). These are typically educational and thought-provoking lectures by St. John’s tutors and guest lecturers. Occasionally, they are concerts. This past Friday night was a concert by the Grammy-award winning Parker Quartet, http://www.parkerquartet.com. I personally would find this group worth watching if no sound was coming from their instruments. They play with striking zest, gusto, and dramatic flair, with facial expressions that show their connection to the music and with glances among them to pass along cues and signals. And, the music is worth hearing even if you can not see them. Their first and last selections on the program were quartets by Beethoven and Schumann, beautiful pieces well done. In between these two was a highly innovative piece called Helix Spirals by Augusta Read Thomas, a quartet inspired by DNA replication and celebrating the Meselson-Stahl experiment that provided the evidence leading to the acceptance of this mechanism. This work was commissioned by the scientist Jeanne Guillemin and the program notes for the concert noted that she and the composer agreed at the beginning that “music is music and science is science” but that if “one moves into the realm of metaphor, great synergies exist.” DNA replication is the process by which cells make new copies of DNA in a process called mitosis. Inside the cells the DNA double helix is unwound and a copy is made of each individual strand. The new strands each pair with one of the original DNA strands (this pairing process is called annealing). Two copies of DNA are produced from the original copy and one each goes with the new cells when a cell undergoes cell division. This is the process whereby molecules carrying plans for an organism interact to produce new life. The three movements reflected this process, Loci (the location of genes in the DNA), Interlacing (the annealing process), and Spiral (the renewing life force). The Parker quartet worked with the composer in creating this piece and a member of the quartet explained how different musical techniques were incorporated to reflect the replication process, beginning for example with a good deal of pizzicato playing to reflect molecules. I enjoyed the music in this piece and it was considerably enhanced by understanding the flow of the music from individual molecules to life. For a more complete description of the piece and samples of the music visit the composer’s web page, http://www.augustareadthomas.com/composition/helixspirals.html. Helix Spirals was premiered at Harvard University in April of this year by the Parker Quartet.