Last Weekend and the Appearance of Music

Last weekend I spent some time in the big city again visiting some friends, which was every bit as much fun as I’d hoped for. I got into town mid afternoon and spent a little while hanging around in the fashion district staring at suits I can’t afford and breaking various coveting-based commandments before I headed up to meet up with my friends. Unfortunately, I haven’t entirely mastered the New York subway yet, so it took me longer than expected to get to where I was trying to go, and by the time our group had gotten together, we didn’t have much time left for dinner. At first, I was a little disappointed, but when we wound up grabbing pizza slices to go and I realized this was, in fact, exactly how I spent most of my summer in Italy: rolling in to town, taking longer than I intended to master the local mass-transit, and not getting out to dinner in time to do anything besides stop in at a pizza place. The pizza wasn’t as good as it was in Italy, but the company was better, so it all worked out in the end.

Anyway, the reason we were in a hurry to finish with dinner is that we were on our way to go hear the Takacs Quartet play a Schubert concert at the 92nd Street Y* in Midtown Manhattan.

The venue was very nice; more spacious than it looked from the street, but with excellent acoustics and a fairly intimate feel in spite of it’s size. I took a hasty snapshot with my cellphone camera, which doesn’t really do it justice, but at least it gives the impression of the place. There was a lot of wood panelling, and there were names of random famous people carved around the top of the walls. My friends and I had fun trying to figure out what they all had in common, actually; the front wall was Old Testament Prophets, but the left and right slanted walls had “Jefferson” and “Washington,” respectively, who weren’t Hebrew I don’t think. The side walls had an assortment of folks including Goethe and Twain, and the back wall was Albert Einstein. So as far as I could tell, the theme was literally just “famous people.”

The highlight of the first half of the concert was pianist Benjamin Hochman performing a Schubert piano Sonata. Hochman, filling in for an ailing Jeffrey Kahane, was quite exceptionally talented. At first I found his performance a bit flat, but as the piece progressed I discovered there was something quite compelling about the subtly of his technique, and I enjoyed it very much. During the intermission, one of my friends struck up a conversation with a woman in the row in front of us who kept referring to the pianist as “Benji”– it came out later he was her nephew, and I think it made her quite happy to hear us singing his praises without knowing at the time that we were talking to a relative.

The second half of the show was even better. The Takacs Quartet returned to the stage to play a piece by CU composer/faculty member Daniel Kellogg, “Meditations on Death and and the Maiden.” I believe the piece was actually written for the quartet, and they played it wonderfully. It’s no the kind of thing I would buy a recording of for my own listen ing pleasure, but (as is often the case with slightly avante-garde compositions) it was much more meaningful when seen live. The piece serves as a wonderful prelude to the quartet itself, introducing the theme and chord structure slowly as they emerge through a jungle of slowly-shifting homophonic chords. The combined effect was as though I had been napping and my roommate had put “Death and the Maiden” on in the background, so that it’s mysterious and plaintive strains crept into my dreams, but only in that mixed-up way that the noises of the waking world become incorporated into our REM cycles.

The grand finale of course was “Death and the Maiden” itself, which was every bit as moving as I remembered it being. It’s a piece I know well enough that I can finally follow the flow of most of the musical themes and ideas**, which makes it a particular delight to see performed live, since I can actually watch the notes handed off between the musicians as the piece evolves.

In fact, towards the end of the show I found myself thinking about how exciting it was to be able to see how the layers of notes are distributed between the instruments, and it occurred to me that it might be even more exciting if one could see those layers they way they appear as sound waves in the air. If only air molecules were large enough for us to see them; what fun we would have in seeing music performed. The wavefronts from the sound-waves would make the air in front of us shimmer back and forth as it’s density rapidly changed. Okay, that’s a lie; the frequency of musical notes is in general too high for us to be able to see these oscillations with our eyes, but since we’ve already agreed to pretend that all air looks like London fog, lets pretend also that the refresh rate of our optic nerve has gone up by couple factors of ten. When a note was played, we’d see the fog before us shift back and forth between being darker and lighter, but when a chord was played, we’d see a complex interference pattern that would result in a fog that sometimes changed rapidly, sometimes slowly, other times seemingly not at all. The sudden addition of a trill from a violin would produce a sudden, extra layer of wiggling that perhaps would tend to drown the other motion out, but the slow pulsing of the cello would still be there, acting like an envelope around the amplitude of the violin vibrations. And the whole thing, of course, would be heavily influenced by the geometry and acoustics of the room. It would suddenly be very easy to find the best place to sit, as you watched the shimmering sound waves bounce around the room and pass through each other, sometimes interfering and dampening the pattern, but at other times joining together and becoming stronger and more visually striking than before.

It’s interesting to think about how fun it would be to be able to see sounds like that, but of course, from another perspective, our sense of hearing is indeed exactly that, a mapping of the pressure waves in the air around us. It’s just that our brains are so smart they do all of the signal processing without our getting to see the raw details, I suppose. The control freak in me would love to get to try to puzzle them out on my own.

Anyway it was a lovely evening of music and friends The quartet will be back in April, playing more Schubert. I certainly hope I’ll be able to go see them again. In the meanwhile, if you’re one of my friends back in Colorado, please do your best to go see them, because those of us who don’t get to do it very often anymore would really like to live vicariously through you.



*No, not a “Y” like a YMCA. A “Y” like a “YMHA,” a young man’s Hebrew association. I hear the Village People were gonna do that one but the Rabbi left the group right before recording was about to start. I presume he later went on to become Matisyahu.


**More on this in a future blog post I hope. One of my friends asked me that evening how I experience live classical music, and how much of the time when hearing it I’m fully present to the details of the performance and how often I am simply basking in its ambiance. It was a good question, and I recently found a nice analogy to answer it. I hope I can write it up sometime next week.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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