No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, August 14, 1998

Rachmaninoff's Dog: A Jigsaw Puzzle

This piece originally appeared in Banana Wings #12, 1998, eds Brialey / Plummer


Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is like being plugged into the mains.

Or, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is the music that drives men (David Helfgott, protagonist of Shine, at least) mad.

Or, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is very Russian.

Or, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is quite nice but falls apart a bit in the middle.

I saw a performance of this piece at the Proms, the pianist being Arcady Volodos: it changed my entire perception of the music, and made me question what happens when I listen to a piece of music that moves me.

In the Albert Hall I sat with shivers racing up and down my spine: cold hands: a pinpoint headache behind my right eye: a feeling of slight nausea, and a distinct adrenaline rush. I felt exhilarated. (Once I’d left, my hands hurt from applause and my feet from striding down the road with more energy than I’d had for weeks. I hummed the quiet, agoraphiliac first bars of the music over and over, thinking of wide open spaces, to keep the charge. The weather helped: the tail-end of Hurricane Bonnie had hit London, and the trees were thrashing and casting off their leaves. I had that sense of being about to be whirled off my feet.)

During the performance, and especially during the hectic third movement, I had a distinct sense of panic and pursuit. A first-person viewpoint movie of running through tangled undergrowth in a forest at dusk, pursued by something I couldn’t spare time to look back at, unreeled in my mind. There were impressions of wide, cool spaces, and icy rivers, and a dark blue sky with clouds. The music may not be about being hunted, or running, or any of the images or thoughts that ran through my mind – I think Rachmaninoff would have thrown up his hands in disgust at having his music described as 'programmatic' – but that is what it evokes in me.

The whole experience, physical and mental, started me thinking again about what one brings to work and what is already there in it. And whether things that the creator didn’t intend can be considered as being part of the creation, rather than of its audience. How much of that sense of panic came from what's been described as ‘one particular and perhaps obsessive emotional experience … that underlines every aspect of the music’? How much of it was my over-active imagination? Why this piece, and not others? (Shivers up the spine are a fairly regular occurrence at live performances: on the other hand, the music I choose to see is that which already has some effect on me. It’s not limited to classical music: some voices, and some guitar breaks, in popular music can have the same effect.) Why this performance? And why, when I put on my only recording of the piece (Helfgott, from the soundtrack of Shine), did a certain amount of the experience repeat itself, when I’d never had that effect from that CD before?

My first experience of unprovoked physical reaction to something was to the weather. A high wind, dead grass bending before it, blue sky with high clouds, and a sense that the wind was coming towards me, coming for me. I was terrified: shaking and panting, wide-eyed, staring into the sky. I ran, and did not outrun the wind. And, of course, nothing happened. I was about six years old, and had been reading Norse mythology: this may explain a great deal, not least my subsequent fanciful thoughts.

This experience might have been described as a kind of agoraphobia: but I love wide spaces, and find many landscapes claustrophobic simply because there is too much up-and-down, and not enough sideways.

One of the first things that sprang to mind was, unaccountably, Robert Graves. I had, for years, had a half-recollection of his comment that a shiver up the spine implied the presence of the Goddess. Rachmaninoff sent me back to Graves, hunting for the actual wording. It’s in The White Goddess:

The reason why the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted and a shiver runs down the spine when one reads or writes a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the ancient power of fright and lust.

He’s talking about poetry rather than music. I now recall that this is the book which informed me that women could never be poets because they couldn’t have that psychosexual relationship with the Muse. He’s talking about poetry, because music is the realm of the sun-god Apollo rather than of the Triple Goddess: thus music shouldn’t, by Gravesian standards, be expected to have the same effect.

But it does: and anyway, I am sceptical about Goddess-invocation and mysticism when it seems that more mundane explanations may be offered.

Some places have an atmosphere so strong that most people are aware of a change in the air, or the temperature. A ruined house out in the middle of Dartmoor, probably abandoned by sheep-crofters at the turn of the century, feels safe. It is simply a collection of unroofed walls, with a doorway low enough that I have to stoop to enter. One of the old ponds near my childhood home – dating at least back to the 1930s, as opposed to having been created in the gravel mining of the Sixties and Seventies – had a peaceful, brooding atmosphere. The other was less pleasant to be near. Maybe this had something to do with the amount of rotting vegetable matter nearby, or the way the trees leant over the water rather than forming a respectful circle, as they did at the other pond. Perhaps the sedge was withered, and no birds sang.

Alan Garner’s good at evoking atmosphere. The sense of lingering horror in The Owl Service is based on silence, and the spookiness of still summer days: a sense of horror that is wasted on the modern world, as fewer people grow up having experienced the dreadful immanence of a silent noon with no breeze. Almost all the places in England where one can escape the noise of humanity are uplands: hilltops and moors where the silence may be abruptly jarred by an RAF fighter on exercises. That suffocating silence happens, almost always, in forests or narrow valleys, or on low flat land when there is no wind. It is the sense of oppression that precedes a storm, without the release.

I played the music to a friend, and she reported similar images. Weird, or what? 'Or what', actually. We both grew up watching BBC documentaries and Cold War dramas. When the producer says 'Russia' (or, as it may be, 'the USSR', or 'the Soviets', or 'the Evil Empire') the sound consultant reaches for his Tchaikovsky or his Rachmaninoff. This music makes us both think of ice floes on wide rivers, wolves running alongside trains at night, and dark forests, simply because that's what the man at the Beeb felt this music suited. Or, just as likely, that's what was on the front of the record sleeve when he bought it.

The only problem with regarding one's experience of a piece of music as a cultural construct is that it doesn't seem to account for the autonomic responses. I may be Pavlov’s, or Rachmaninoff’s, dog, but I refuse to believe that all of that was mere programming.

The autonomic responses, physical and mental, can't be inherent in the music itself. Otherwise any merely competent performance (that is, any performance where the pianist hits all the right notes in the right order) would evoke them. Helfgott’s performance of the same piece never had any particular effect on me before. It has, though, evoked more of a response since I heard Volodos play: I suppose because subconsciously I am filling in something that is missing, from my recollection of the Volodos performance.

I acquired another recording of the piece shortly after that experience. I wonder how much of it I am hearing objectively, and how much is overlaid with the memory of the live performance. Conversely, how much of my memory of Volodos’ interpretation has been replaced by Martha Argerich’s style?

How do I tell which memories are real?

I’m willing to believe that there is a scientific explanation for my reaction to a particular rendition of a particular piece. The phenomenon does not seem to be inherent either in the performer or the music performed: rather, it’s a combination of the two. Arcady Volodos’ album of piano transcriptions, while brilliant (he gives the impression of growing an extra arm or two as needed), doesn’t force my attention. Patti Smith’s version of ‘Gloria’ does something to the nerves on my back, which Van Morrison has never achieved.

The objective part of a piece of music is the notes, as they are written. Getting this right requires a degree of precision. Musical notes are mathematical entities: middle ‘A’ is a vibration at a wavelength of 440 Hz, with a variety of harmonics that are partly dependent on the instrument that is being used to produce the note.

There are also the knotty, but still mathematical, questions of key and mode. Minor-key music feels more subdued than major-key music: there are apparently also differences between the various major or minor keys. (Mozart felt that D major was best for serious, yet joyful, music). It’s likely that Rachmaninoff used a particular key, perhaps with amendments, to evoke the scale and ‘feel’ of Russian folk music.

The subjective art of the music is the performer’s responsibility. This is where passion comes in (or not). A technically perfect rendition can be soulless: the notes are all exactly the right length, not even a millisecond longer or shorter than they’re written, and there are no extra notes where the player’s hit another string, or key, or stop while reproducing what’s written. (I don’t, incidentally, think humans are capable of perfect performances).

Put the two aspects of a piece together, and it seems to me that you get extra harmonies and harmonics, perhaps unique to that performance by that player of that piece. Sound can have physiological effects: therefore, a specific performance may evoke physiological responses that another, apparently identical performance does not.

Acoustics may explain why music can affect one in this way. The atmosphere of a place, or the emotional impact of weather, may be just as explicable. Feng shui or barometric pressure or geomagnetic fields or cosmic ray bombardment or … you see, I could go on. And on. Whether or not I feel that any experience is spiritual, I refuse to believe that there is not, at the very least in part, a physical explanation for it. Humans take the physical and found the spiritual upon it: ‘upon this rock’, if you like, 'I shall build my church’.

Passion and precision are all very well: what makes it worthwhile is attention – or involvement, if you like. The third element is the listener, and their memories and thoughts and reflections and beliefs.

I wish I could play you my Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto: for piano, orchestra, and crowded agoraphiliac mind.

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