September 04, 2004

Oh Lord, Now He's Bach Blogging

Despite the fact that we have squandered considerable sums of money over the years on Julie Clark and the Baby Einstein Company, I have never really subscribed to the theory of the "Mozart Effect", the idea that if you play Mozart to infants and toddlers it will stimulate various desirable bits in their brains to such effect that they can rest assured of easy entry into Harvard Med School.

However, this does not mean that I don't think there is some kind of link between music and cerebral activity. Indeed, I do. Interestingly, though, in at least one case what I see is the reverse of the Mozart Effect. Rather than the music stimulating brain activity, I find that the firing up of a given set of synapses suddenly makes the music much more accessible. And I see this with respect to one particular composer: J.S. Bach.

It isn't a question so much of listening as it is of performing. I have been playing the piano for about 33 years now. While it's been a very long time since I seriously studied a score, I have become familiar with many composers and individual pieces over the years through sight-reading and steady repetition. Most of the music that I play - Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Handel, Telemann, Mendelssohn - I manage to understand and execute more or less consistently and, if I do say so myself, reasonably well.

But Bach is a totally different case. I have learned through much trial and error that I cannot just sit down and play his music the way I can with most other composers. Attempts to do so often end in much frustration and extremely bad language. But when I am in what I have learned to recognize as the Bach frame of mind, the case is utterly altered. In such instances, I feel like Dr. McCoy putting Spock's brain back in his head. "It's so simple. A child could do it!"

This happened this morning as I was indulging in my weekly concert. I pulled out the Two-Part Inventions and blazed through them. I played some Sinfonien I've never tried before. I had a great time with two pieces I studied years ago - the A minor English Suite and a Toccata in E minor. And I was amazed because in each case, old favorite or brand new piece, I wasn't just playing the notes, I was making the music effortlessly, intelligently, comprehensively. Mistakes (and there were plenty, to be sure) did not interrupt either the flow of my hands or the argument of the piece. And it wasn't because I was being excessively careful or studious. Rather, it was because I was locked in on the essense of the stuff. (How do you kids say it? I was channelling Bach.) Indeed, I had to stop myself from wondering too much about this, lest I suddenly became McCoy after the alien knowledge injection started to wear off. "So many ganglia! It's impossible!"

Again, I am a reasonably competent amateur pianist. I can play a great deal of music pretty well. What is remarkable here is that I cannot approach Bach as casually as any other composer and achieve the same results. But when my head is lined up right, the possibilities are astonishing.

Now I've never been able to figure out exactly what the Bach state of mind is or how it comes about. But I strongly suspect that there is a particular spot deep in the ol' grey matter that is humming (as it were) when this condition is in effect, and is dormant when it is not. There must be some direct connection between the man's music and a particular kind of neural activity.

I have long thought Bach was the greatest musical genius ever to walk the Earth. (The late Douglas Adams actually thought Bach's music wasn't written by Bach, but rather was salvaged from the computer banks of an alien spaceship in order to allow Mankind to retain some small scraps of data concerning the very music of Existence itself. But it's a long story involving a ghost, a time machine, the poet Coleridge and a horse in a bathroom, so I won't try to explain it here. Go read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency if you are interested.) I can only surmise that the neural spark that occassionally flits across my brain, giving me momentary powers of expressing the beauty of Bach's music, is a brief and pale shadow of the force that was constantly hammering away on all twelve cylinders in the Old Gentleman's head. It makes me slightly dizzy just to think about it.

Posted by Robert at September 4, 2004 09:52 PM | TrackBack
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