I’ve loved music ever since I was a child, and, since about the age of 23, I started to methodically accumulate knowledge about music. Beyond taking piano lessons for 2 years as a child, and here and there as an adult, I am totally untrained in music. Everything I know I learned from reading books, listening to recordings, going to concerts, and asking people questions.
So, from my novel “Extreme Music” to these odd articles, what makes me think I’m competent enough to write about classical music?
My “school of hard knocks” education came in three stages: first, after graduating from Boston University with an undergraduate degree in Communication in 1988, I worked for Boston’s then-classical music-oriented NPR affiliate WBUR (not WGBH! People tend to confuse the two in the same way they confuse Boston University and Boston College!), where I was an audio engineer. Most of my job involved recording local classical concerts at night and then preparing them for broadcast the next morning, so I would hear every concert twice, and I digested a large part of the repertoire this way. I still remember those early mornings (4am to 7am) in WBUR’s rather makeshift recording studio as some of the happiest days of my life! Sadly, the station has gone all-news (though it is an exceptionally good news source), so I guess I’ll never relive that particular joy again…not that I’d want to, at the $14,000 a year they paid me at the time!
Step 2 of my “education” came when I moved to Japan in 1994, and started teaching English. In Japan, I started a subscription to Britain’s Gramophone magazine, and kept it for about 5 years, from 1995 to 1999. I read every issue I received in that period from cover to cover. I also accumulated a lot of CDs and spent a lot of money as a result of that subscription, so I finally ended it, as it was driving me to bankruptcy! Nevertheless, I accumulated an intimidating amount of knowledge in those years.
Step 3 came with the discovery of Robert Greenberg’s DVD course, “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music,” which is available through a company called The Great Courses, formally known as The Teaching Company. Watching Greenberg’s highly competent and very funny lectures gave me a sense of the history of Western music, which allowed me to organize what I’d learned, and in so doing, understand it more deeply.
The lesson to be learned from my experience is: love of a subject conquers all difficulty in learning it.
At this point, I needed to do something to make other people take all my enthusiastically acquired knowledge seriously, so I did a Master’s Degree in Humanities, concentrating in Music, through California State University Dominguez Hills’ External Studies program. CSUDH is one of the few places in the world (if not the ONLY place!) that offers music as a humanities subject. It’s often taught as performance only, and that’s a shame.
My Master’s Thesis was titled “The Divine Proportion and its Uses in Musical Composition: an Investigation and Interpretation,” (a VERY speculative topic, I know, but it has fascinated me ever since Charles Fornari, my piano teacher in the Boston area during the late 80’s, introduced it to me through the writings of Dr. Hugo Norden), and I earned my Master’s Degree in Humanities in 2008. I wrote about classical music for Japan’s Kansai Time Out magazine when it was still in print. KTO was a local culture and entertainment magazine for English speaking residents and visitors. I’ve taught courses in understanding Western music in Japan as well.
The name “Classical Musings” is derived from the name of a coffee shop called “The Muse,” formerly located behind the North Kiyamachi-Pontocho exit of the Hankyu line’s Kawaramachi station in downtown Kyoto, Japan, where it stood for most of the 20th century. It was situated along a canal running down Kiyamachi-dori, and its interior was designed like the inside of an old wooden ship, with a print of a painting here and there. I remember Dalì’s “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus” hanging on one panel. The owner had a large collection of Classical music CDs, and played them in the shop. You could request what you wanted to hear. I remember that I heard Schumann’s Piano Concerto there for the first time, and now, when I listen to that piece, especially its soaring, spacious, joyous third movement, I always associate it with that wonderful first listening. I don’t remember who the performers on the recording were, but I associate it with Murray Perahia’s first recording of the work with Colin Davis conducting. The Muse was a wonderful place to read, entertain friends, or bring a date after an evening out. It’s long gone now, and has been replaced by a trendy restaurant. Wish I had a photo…
I still live in Kyoto, if only because the expense and scale of airlifting my enormous CD collection out of the city would be massive, and moving the CDs could potentially cause the unstable tectonic plates beneath the city to shift and cause an earthquake! I WOULD rip all of my CDs into my computer, but that would require constructing a cooling tower next to my apartment in order to keep the computer operating.
When I write about classical music, I like to present my ideas as they would be discussed among friends in a coffee shop like The Muse; that is, with a fair amount of much-needed irreverence. When I wrote for Kansai Time Out, or submitted academic papers, the ideas had to be safe and fully thought out, but I have a lot of ideas I’d like to try out that I don’t always have thorough sources for. Many ideas presented here will be untried, and some will be unresearched and perhaps not thought through all the way: the seeds of ideas looking to grow through talk. This will be a place to try out new ideas that haven’t found, or are unable to find, a place anywhere else.
I hope you enjoy my Classical Musings!