Music performance and morphic resonance

Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance posits the existence (in some metaphysical or conceptual sense) of morphic forms which arise when living beings act in the world. In this theory, these forms are strengthened with each repetition of the action, and create a force field (a morphic field) which can be drawn upon by subsequent beings repeating the same act. The theory predicts that doing the same thing should become easier over time, even when the entities doing the acting are different, in different locations or not not even alive at the same time. Morphic resonance, if it exists (whatever that may mean) is a form of action at a distance and action through time. I have been fascinated by this theory since first reading Sheldrake’s book about it 36 years ago.

One criticism that has been made of the theory is that Sheldrake provides no direct evidence for morphic fields, only indirect evidence of their alleged effects. As he points out, we are still waiting, almost three and a half centuries after Newton’s proposal of the concept of gravitational fields, for direct evidence for these fields. We still only have evidence of their effects, not of the fields themselves; nor do we yet have an agreed mechanism, if indeed they exist, for how gravitational fields operate. Because of the strength of modern, western school education, whenever I say this to people, almost always they push back: the notion of gravitational fields is so embedded in the modern western mind that most people cannot imagine the evidential flimsiness of its intellectual foundations. Science is a form of reasoning-to-the-best-explanation. This does not mean that the best explanation is necessarily good, only that alternative explanations are worse.

Lately, I have been thinking about musical performance in relation to morphic resonance. If each act of performance of a specific work creates or reinforces a morphic field, then one would imagine that playing that particular work should become easier over time. I don’t know if Mily Balakirev’s Islamey, one of the most difficult works in the piano repertoire, has become easier to play or to learn since its composition in 1869, for example. But this hypothesis could be readily tested.

Developing this idea, one could imagine that each composition creates a generic, or platonic, morphic form, from which each interpretation of the work creates a specific variant sub-form. Performing a work by giving it a specific interpretation is a manner of “giving life” to the respective variant form, a reification or instantiation or precization, if you like. (English has no good word for the process opposite to the process of abstraction, that is, the process of going from the general to the particular. Precization is the word philosopher Arne Naess used.) Thus, for example, violinist Pekka Kuusisto has recorded a version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, in an interpretation I described once as follows:

We’ve had 60 years of elegant, effete and twee recordings of The Seasons, so we know what restrained with regard to this music means. PK’s treatment is rustic and earthy and full-blooded, as if the entire ensemble had been taken outside and roughed-up in the mud of the farmyard, and the complete opposite of restrained! A simply superb interpretation, original, fresh and compelling.”

Then, in a live performance of the same work led by PK that I was fortunate to hear in May 2014 (exactly ten years ago as I write this), his interpretation struck me as:

PK’s recording of Vivaldi is the most exciting and thrilling I know. But this live performance was on another plane entirely. Usually The Seasons are twee and effete and smugly complacent. PK’s recording is not that, but rather raw and rustic. . . . The live performance, in contrast, was sharp and edgy, thrilling and exciting too but in a different way entirely to the recording. If Vivaldi is usually suburban Barnet gemütlichkeit, then the recording [by Kuusisto] is from the wild places of Cornwall or the Hebrides, and this performance was from the mean streets of Toxteth or Mile End.

Related to this are ideas put to me recently by a musician friend, who said he feels a musical work has a certain autonomy, separate from whatever the composer may have intended for the work, which he, the performer, needs to grapple with in a dialectical fashion when learning the work and developing an interpretation of it. A performance then becomes (or seeks to become) an intellectually and emotionally coherent presentation of that autonomous entity or thing.

The ideas of John Berger on the nature of drawing are relevant here (page 123 of “Berger on Drawing.” Edited by Jim Savage. Aghabullogue, Co. Cork, Eire: Occasional Press. Second Edition, 2007):

where are we, during the act of drawing, in spirit? Where are you at such moments – moments which add up to so many, one might think of them as another life-time? Each pictorial tradition offers a different answer to this query. For instance, the European tradition, since the Renaissance, places the model over there, the draughtsman here, and the paper somewhere in between, within arms reach of the draughtsman, who observes the model and notes down what he has observed on the paper in front of him. The Chinese tradition arranges things differently. Calligraphy, the trace of things, is behind the model and the draughtsman has to search for it, looking through the model. On his paper he then repeats the gestures he has seen calligraphically. For the Paleolithic shaman, drawing inside a cave, it was different again. The model and the drawing surface were in the same place, calling to the draughtsman to come and meet them, and then trace, with his hand on the rock, their presence.”

If we accept the idea of morphic resonance, then we can see this dialectical grappling process – a form of wrangling of the work – as interacting with the various different morphic forms of the variants of the work in order to hear through them all to find its essence, akin to the Chinese tradition of calligraphy. For a work already practiced and performed often before by others, the morphic resonances will be strong, making it both easier to learn (and perhaps to memorize) the piece, and yet also harder to find a new interpretation, or to bring anything personal from the performer to this task. A completely new work, with no prior performances, will be harder to learn and memorize, yet easier to find a coherent interpretation for or to bring one’s own personality to bear on the process.

I hope to explore these ideas further, looking for arguments for and against them. As always, I welcome comments and responses, and please feel free to contact me.

ACK: This post arose after separate conversations with Alexander Doronin and Vincent Neeb, to both of whom I am most grateful. However, responsibility for any errors, omissions or infelicities rests with me.

On quitting

Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) to Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) in Billions, Season 7, Episode 6, minute 36:20:

Sometimes quitting isn’t capitulation. Sometimes it shows grit and wisdom.”

Concert Concat 2024

This post is one in a sequence which lists (mostly) live music I have heard, as best my memory allows. I update this list as time permits. In some cases, I am also motivated to write about what I heard. I write to have a record of my musical experiences because memory is fallible. These entries are intended as postcards from me to my future self. Other posts in this collection can be found here.

  • Pavel Kolesnikov in a solo recital at an almost-full Wigmore Hall, London, 22 May 2024. The theme of the recital was Celestial Navigation, and before he came on stage, there was a short talk by Mr Kolesnikov through the speakers about the idea behind the theme. It was not clear if he was speaking live or this talk had been pre-recorded. (I know how difficult it can be for some musicians to speak before or during playing, as both activities may be using the same hemisphere of the brain.)
    • Louis Couperin (1626-1661): Pavane in F sharp minor
    • Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992): Regard de l’Etoile from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944)
    • Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): Nocturne in D flat Op. 27 No. 2 (1835)
    • Olivier Messiaen: Regard de l’Etoile from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
    • Olivier Messiaen: La colombe from Préludes (1928-9)
    • Fryderyk Chopin: Nocturne in E minor Op. 72 No. 1 (c.1829)
    • Olivier Messiaen: La colombe from Préludes Prélude (1964)
    • Fryderyk Chopin: Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 1 (1835)
    • Olivier Messiaen: Prélude
    • Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Une barque sur l’océan from Miroirs (1904–5)
    • Thomas Adès (b.1971) Darknesse visible (1992)
    • Interval
    • Franz Schubert (1797-1828): 4 Impromptus D935 (1827):
      Impromptu in F minor • Impromptu in A flat • Impromptu in B flat • Impromptu in F minor

    This was a fine and moving performance by Mr Kolesnikov, played (I think) from memory. For the audience, our experience was enhanced by the admirable new policy of The Wigmore to darken the house lights during performances (something standard in British theatre, but not previously common in British music). Mr K played one encore, a moderately long, quiet minimalist work, Etude #2 of Philip Glass. This piece was well chosen, as it had the effect of calming us after the emotional turmoil of the Schubert Impromptus.

    As in his recent performances, the pianist was dressed entirely in white or off-white (in what looked to be designer clothes), which may presage a new trend: Is white the new black? Does it matter what the performer wears? Given that the only lights up were directed to the stage, dressing in white emphasized the performer more than dressing in black would have done. People who hold a traditional view of the performer as merely a slave to the composer (not a view which I hold), would perhaps not approve this emphasis. On the one hand, some would argue, it makes no difference to the sound, and I record it here merely for the historical record. On the other, musicians know that how you think strongly influences how you play, and the feelings and attitude of the performer may be greatly affected by what they are wearing, and by the reasons they have chosen a particular outfit.

  • Leopoldo Mugnai in a saxophone recital in the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London, 20 May 2024 (accompanied by pianist Anya Fadina and supported by recording engineer Stephen Harrington). This was an exciting recital of 20th and 21st Century music.
    • Graham Fitkin: Gate (1963) (soprano saxophone)
    • Jonathan Harvey: Ricerare una melodia (soprano saxophone and electronics)
    • Alfred Desenclos: Prelude, Cadenza et Finale (soprano saxophone)
    • Andre Waignein: Deux Mouvements (alto saxophone)
    • Ida Gotkovsky: Brillance (alto saxophone).
  • Alexander Doronin playing Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with the Sevenoaks Symphony Orchestra under Darrell Davison, in Pamoja Concert Hall, Sevenoaks School, Sevenoaks, UK, 19 May 2024.

    This was a superb performance by Mr Doronin, commanding and thrilling, and played from memory. The psychological anguish of the first movement (likely arising from the pain Brahms felt after Schumann’s suicide) and the determination to live on in the main theme of the third were both strongly evident. Mr Doronin’s playing was technically adept, confident and controlled, yet not at all mechanical. This was an artful and emotionally expressive performance, and I was privileged to have heard it.

    Prior to the Brahms, the orchestra played Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and, after the interval, his Eroica Symphony (which I did not catch). The orchestra and conductor are to be congratulated for tackling such an ambitious programme, and for playing with such enthusiasm.

    The Pamoja Hall has a very high, peaked wooden roof with ribbed wood cladding on the walls, and the acoustic was very good. This hall is inside a modern building with a very good design, allowing the interval audience to spill outside onto a stepped terrace, which the warm evening encouraged. The hall apparently seats 410 and tonight was about three-quarters full. In the audience was the Mayor of Sevenoaks Town Council, wearing her ceremonial gold neck chain.

  • Part 1 of the Final Audition of the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT) at Wigmore Hall, Thursday 16 May 2024. The performers were

    The standout performances for me were those by James Morley (who was successful in being chosen as a YCAT Fellow for 2024) and the Dianto Reed Quintet (who were not). Mr Harewood was also successful. Congratulations to the winners and to all the contestants.

    I had attended this concert primarily to hear Mr Morley, and I was not disappointed. His program had a symmetry through time, with an excerpt from a Bach Cello Suite at its centre and works by Britten and Kaija Saariaho on both sides of it. The final piece by Liza Lim he played with two bows. The wooden back of the second bow was used initially, higher up the strings than the first bow, but by mid piece, both bows were being used in the usual manner. Although played very well, I thought the music of this work fairly mundane, with mostly low rumblings of little interest. However, the last third of the piece was transformed when Mr Morley started to sing. His voice sang long, soft, high notes that changed this music into something powerfully ethereal.

    • Benjamin Britten: Cello Suite #1, Op. 72 – Canto Primo
    • Luciano Berio: Les monts sont alles
    • Kaija Saariaho: Sept Papillon – Papillon II
    • JS Bach: Cello Suite no. 6 – Allemande
    • Benjamin Britten: Cello Suite #1, Op. 72 – Fuga
    • Kaija Saariaho: Sept Papillon – Papillon II (reprise)
    • Martin Marais: Les voix humains
    • Liza Kim: Cello Playing – as Meteorology

    The Dianto Reed Quintet were simply outstanding. The members had memorized the music, so were not confined to stand still in place reading the scores. Instead, they could move about to enact the dialectical elements of the story they presented, which was music about and leading to Manuel de Falla’s Danza del Terror from his ballet El Amor Brujo (Love, The Sorcerer). We didn’t just hear the attempted siren song and the counter song that is the final act of the ballet, we saw the musicians enact it by their movements around the stage. The set included a cocktail table and four chairs, and the musicians played variously sitting and standing around the table, or moving elsewhere on the stage. The movements appeared to have been carefully choreographed. I was reminded of the physical enactment of the dialectical interactions in Vivaldi’s The Seasons that I witnessed almost exactly ten years ago by Pekka Kuusisto playing with and leading the Sacconi Quartet and the Chamber Orchestra of the Royal College of Music.

    Identidades: la magia del Duende

    • Primo Ish-Hurwitz: Three Preludes to El Amor Brujo, No. I
    • Manuel de Falla (arranged Arjan Linker): La vida breve – Danza espanola
    • Enrique Granados (arranged Arjan Linker): Doce danzas espanola – Oriental
    • Primo Ish-Hurwitz: Three Preludes to El Amor Brujo, No. II
    • Xoan Montes Capon (arranged Max Knigge): Negra sombra
    • Primo Ish-Hurwitz: Three Preludes to El Amor Brujo, No. III
    • Manuel de Falla (arranged Hugo Bouma): “El amor brujo” Suite – Danza del Terror & Danza Ritual del Fuego

    The quintet comprises five Spanish musicians who studied together in Amsterdam. The theme of their recital was The Duende, the fiery internal spirit that sometimes inspires performers to create great and passionate art. The performers introduced us to Federico Garcia Lorca’s Theory and Play of The Duende and then quoted from it several times. Garcia Lorca posited The Duende as a third member of a trio that includes positive angels and the artist’s muse in inspiring artists: angels are always better than ourselves, while the muse is static. Only the duende is alive and possibly capricious in its intentions.

    The Diantoistas aimed to reveal to us the duende in their recital, and they most certainly did. This performance was passionate and fiery, and among the best half-dozen musical performances I have ever been fortunate to be present at. If you ever wondered, as I have, what present-day England would have been like had the Spanish Armada been successful in their attempted invasion of 1588, then here is part of the answer: Britain would have had musicians like this!

    There is a video of a live performance by the Dianto Reed Quintet of a longer version of the Duende programme here.

  • Tom Zalmanov in a very fine solo piano recital at Steinway Hall, London, Wednesday 15 May 2024. The programme was on the theme of traveling and comprised music from France, Austria, Israel, Russia and Spain:
    • Francis Poulenc: Trois Novelettes
    • Franz Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy in C major, Op. 15 D760
    • Tal-Haim Samnon: Memory and Variations
    • Sergei Rachmaninov: Preludes Op. 23 – No. 3 in D minor, No. 4 in D major, No. 5 in G minor
    • Ferruccio Busoni: Kammer-Fantasie uber Carmen, BV284.

    Mr Zalmanov’s teacher Professor Ian Fountain of the Royal Academy of Music was in the audience, as was pianist Murray Perahia. A review of the recital by the indefatigable Christopher Axworthy is here.

  • Continue reading ‘Concert Concat 2024’

On ambition

Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) in Billions (Season 7, Episode 2, 11:45):

If a fella doesn’t have his eye on something, how’s he gonna know where he’s going?”

Loud Living in Cambridge

I was most fortunate this week to hear Jan Lisiecki in an outstanding recital at the West Road Concert Hall, Department of Music, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, on 26 February 2024, in a concert sponsored by Camerata Musica Cambridge. West Road Hall is a fine modern hall with very nice acoustics, and was fully packed. The hall management turned off the lights over the audience (as in a theatre), which should happen more often. Perhaps that darkness helped create the atmosphere of great seriousness this performance had. I later learnt that this recital was the twelfth time in the series that Mr Lisiecki had played the Preludes program.

Continue reading ‘Loud Living in Cambridge’

Oratory at Nudgee

This is a short post to record for history a very fine speech by Mr Oscar Roati, School Captain of St Joseph’s Nudgee College, Brisbane, Australia, at the Investiture Ceremony for the 2024 Senior Class on 24 January 2024. Apparently, his father Alex Roati was a Vice-Captain and his two brothers were both Captains of Nudgee. The speech can be seen here, from minute 41:20.

Vale: Peter Schickele (1935-2024)

The composer and musician Peter Schickele, manager of that lesser-known last son of JS Bach, PDQ Bach, has just died. He was heavily influenced by Spike Jones, whose music was a strong presence in my household growing up. With the death last year of Barry Humphries, it feels like the 1950s may now just have ended.

From his obituary in The New York Times, Mr Schickele is quoted as having said in an interview with the Times in 2015:

“Years ago I used to watch Victor Borge, still concertizing in his 80s. And it never occurred to me that I would do the same. I’m amazed that P.D.Q. has gone on for 50 years.

It just goes to show: Some people never learn.”

Owning the day

Australian chef and restaurateur Bill Granger (1969-2023) died on Christmas Day of cancer. Although he did not invent avocado on toast, he certainly popularized the breakfast dish through his restaurants in Sydney, London and elsewhere. In an interview with the AFR earlier this year, he is reported to have said:

I grew up in Melbourne, and when I moved to Sydney, I was shocked by its morning life. People were on the beach, walking through the park, owning the day. It felt very Australian, very optimistic. I think avocado on toast is optimistic.”

Transcendent music

Some years ago, I compiled a list of purposes that may motivate composers, performers or listeners of music, under the heading What is music for?

An objective that may motivate many performers is that of reaching a transcendent state, as the Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, describes here. His blog post was written after he had performed all five Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Brussels Philharmonic (under Thierry Fischer) across three evenings, in February 2020 (blog entry of 18 February 2020):

The high point for me was No. 4, during which I experienced something which until now I’ve only felt while playing Russian music: a kind of floating, when your brain disengages or splits in two. One (small) part is alert and following the performance, and perhaps directs the musical flow a little bit, the other (much larger) part is completely sunk into the music, experiencing it in a kind of visceral, instinctive way which precludes logical thinking and seems wired directly to your deepest feelings, without any buffers or defenses. After that concerto I was drained, bewildered, exhilarated – a complete mess. But what an unforgettable night.”

Continue reading ‘Transcendent music’

Concert Concat 2

This post is one in a sequence which lists live music I have heard, as best my memory allows, from the Pandemic onwards. I will update this as time permits. In some cases, I am also motivated to write about what I heard.

Other posts in this collection can be found here.

  • Ariel Lanyi – piano recital at the Wigmore Hall, London, 27 December 2023. The program was:
    • Beethoven: Sonata #2 in A, Op 2 No 2 (1794-5)
    • Franck: Prelude, Aria et Final (1887)
    • R. Schumann: Etudes Symphoniques Op 13 (with posthumous etudes) (1834-7)

    A very refined performance to a house about 3/4 full. Many people seemed to know each other. I was not able to stay for the Schumann.

    Continue reading ‘Concert Concat 2’