Garden Notes: Schoenberg and a Calico Cat…

I’d seen her before, a few times.

As I would be opening the door to the garden she would be making a very hasty exit, garden right. Sometimes so hasty that all I would catch would be her calicoed tail rapidly disappearing after her around the corner of the house. No amount of puss-entreaty on my part had the slightest effect on her.

That was at first.

But, after a half-dozen or so of such hasty exits, came the day that she –the full calico cat– paused for a full moment to take me in, a quick up and down– before, again, came the hasty exit.
Ah well, I thought, that’s some progress. (I like cats, you see; I’d like the word to get out.)

Imagine my surprise a few days ago when I was in the garden: having fed the birds I was settling down for a few keyboard minutes, a further enquiry into my “Birds and Music” project.

I had noticed that when I introduced my birds to a new tune, they were apparently less enthusiastic than when I played one of their (our? my? –at this stage, who knows) old favorites. Do birds have old favorites? Do their musical tastes fall into that “Play it Again” category? Going on the evidence of their own (recognizable) birdcalls, on the face of it the answer would be ‘yes’.

(But I can also make the opposite case for avian musical invention. I have heard the male Cardinal –the bird, not the prelate– in full morning or evening performance, fully engaged in the business of impressing a mate and/or staking out a territorial claim, push itself to new heights and inventions. Otherwise, what would be the standard by which it won –or lost– the contest?)

In his most interesting book, “This is Your Brain on Music” –I think that’s the title– author Daniel Levittin proposes a most intriguing idea: that when we listen to music, one part of our brain responds favorably to hearing a recognized melody line, while another listens to a melody line anticipating what is going to come. Apparently this part of the brain is quite open to being –I will put it this way– “surprised and delighted (or not)” on hearing something new. (And, of course, rewarded with a dollop of dopamine.)

To me this is one of the more extraordinary findings about us human beings that I have come across, and it explains a great deal about the evolution of music in the last –well, you pick the period. Five years, ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years? Dividing music into old and new, familiar and unfamiliar.
Into “Play it again” versus “Sing unto the Lord a new song”. ( I couldn’t come up with something more secular, and anyway I do like those old plain statements: this one is from Thomas Cranmer and his New Prayer Book –“new” in 1549, that is.)

If we overdo –and surely we often tend to– the Play-it-Again mode, we lay ourselves open to staleness, to cultural decay, even cultural decadence. It’s a conflict, unspoken of necessity, and hard to articulate, that is nonetheless –and even allthemore– fiercely waged in every age. Strike the right balance and you are an educated and civilized genius; overdo it and, bingo, you enter the Musty World of the Paleoflatii.
By the way, don’t even bother to look up the word ‘Paleoflatus’ –I just invented it. Translation: “Old Fart”. And something tells me that the fleeting inordinate self-satisfaction with my own imagined cleverness, is in itself a warning sign that I am in danger of entering that same …Musty World. (If not already ensconced.)

But –to return to my theme– on the other hand, if we try to separate from our musical roots and look only to the unconnected new, –well, we are almost defining failure before we even start.

I have just read a most fascinating article about Schoenberg and atonality in music. The writer’s thesis was that, one hundred years later, we still don’t know what is supposed to come next in music after atonality. You could regard that as an indication of Schoenberg’s genius. Or that he simply went too far. Or that there was no more to be said. I suppose it might even be all three.

I do a lot of whistling when I ride my bike. Often, when I whistle, I will improvise on some tune or other that I’m interested in. And when I improvise I often will set myself, what you might regard as, the impossible task of…surprising myself with my own invention, of going in an unpredictable direction. As I said –impossible. Except. Except that it does….seem to work. Sometimes.

[The great American philosopher, Charles “Chuck” Anderson Berry, was uncompromising on the subject, more than fifty years ago “It’s got to be rock and roll music…got no kick against modern jazz, except they play it too darn fast, and take the beauty of the melody, and turn it out just like a symphony”
Ouch, Chuck.]

So. Where was I?

Oh, the cat. The calico cat.

So. There I was trying out the new tunes with the birds who seemed to be in a definite “Play-It-Again” mood. Indeed, at one point, the skittish sparrows all left their trellis concert seats and flew back to their hedge.
I tried to get them back, without too much success. They come back in their own time. Then I did something new: on the keyboard, as well as the three hundred or so instrument voices that I have, there are quite a few sound effects –anything from the “sound of thunder” to “rain falling” to various animal sounds. A Dog. A Horse. A Cow. Et cetera.
Included are two bird sounds, entitled “Tweet One” and “Tweet Two”. “Tweet Two” sounds very…sparrowish: tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet-tweet. I play this sound effect, repeatedly. I see some of the sparrows prick up their ears. I keep tweeting….

Then I see something else. Creeping along a low hedged wall on the other side of the trellis ….it’s Miss Calico herself, an intense and careful approach, a cat’s hunting-creep. Utterly silent, of course.

Then I realize what’s going on here: she’s been taken by the Orgy of Yamaha Tweet. It sounds like….a whole Sparrow Aviary! She is fascinated. And –no doubt– she is up for the thrill of the hunt, followed by a tasty meal! More dopamine.
She crouches even-lower in even-greater readiness. The now- familiar calico tail is an index of that readiness. Every feline fibre of her calico being is poised to pounce.

Except –pounce where? Where ARE those birds? What IS this?

A thought occurs to me –a cruel thought, you could say. I remember the Dog sound effect –it’s a pretty good “Wuff-wuff-wuff”, and it repeats. I play the Wuff.

As quick as my “Tweet” changes to “Wuff”, the cat’s expression change from bird-curious to dog-cautious, both equally intense, though one is all-pounce and the other is high-guarded.

(Yes, I did flick back and forth between ‘tweet’ and ‘wuff’, just to observe Miss Calico’s own instantaneous switch back and forth. And I thought: I wish I could draw that. What, visually, was the difference, the observable difference, between the two expressions? It was not easy to see, and still they seemed quite distinct.)

Maybe I’ll get a chance to try that. Maybe Sion would like to take a shot at it.

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3 Responses to “Garden Notes: Schoenberg and a Calico Cat…”

  1. Kevin T. McEneaney

    Extremely nice piece. You might think of extending and revising it into a full-length essay. I was intrigued by the use of Schoenberg in the title but was a bit confused on the follow through: did you mean that “tweet” and “wuff” were an atonal theme? If so, that could be made slightly clearer. You could bring the atonal theme into your own whistling and do more with the bike and whistling theme. If Siom does a drawing that could accomapny the essay and make it more attractive to a magazine.

  2. Kevin T. McEneaney

    Scarlatti had a cat who jumped on his keybaord, inspiring his
    composition “Cat’s Fugue” (Sonata in G minor, Kk 30). From a similar
    Frederick Chopin composed his “Cat’s Waltz” (op. 34, No. 3). Chopin
    composed a “Dog’s Waltz” (O. 64, No. 1), inspired by George Sand’s dog
    chasing its tale. Ravel has a cat duet in L’enfant et les sortileges,
    the tom-cat a baritone and the innocent kitten a soprano. When
    Telemann’s cat ate his canary he composed a “Funeral ode on a talented
    berating the cat.Constant Lambert (1905-1951) was a famous cat lover
    who gave several talks on cats in music for BBC3 (I don’t know if
    can be accessed).

  3. Malachi

    You are quite right: I did skimp on my point about Schoenberg and atonality. I should have been clearer.
    It seems to me that there is a connection between Schoenberg’s atonality and Daniel Levittin’s “Your Brain on Music” thesis concerning the brain’s discomfort with hearing too much that is unfamiliar and difficult.
    I am no expert on Schoenberg’s work, but I do very much admire his courage –which served him, and us, well in his music and in his life. However, I suspect that the reason that we have not yet seen –one hundred years later– what comes after atonality, is that Schoenberg went too far for too many people. He is “too difficult”. He delivers no dopamine, which will only come when we are sufficiently familiar with him. In other words, Schoenberg as “Play it again”.

    [A footnote: As it happens, two tunes that I play for the birds, and that they seem especially to “like” are “The Duke” by Dave Brubeck, and “My Ship” by Kurt Weill –two composers with Schoenberg connections (Brubeck as a student –briefly– in California, and Weill, earlier, as a friend and music-colleague in Berlin in the twenties.)
    Some jazz fans will recognize that one tune immediately follows the other in that seminal Miles Davis/Gil Evans album of the late fifties –“Miles Ahead”. It is so fixed in the archives of my music-memory, that, fifty years later, I still hear the beginning of the second tune in my mind before it actually starts to play.
    Thus demonstrating in an intriguing way some subtler and broader influences of Schoenberg on our world of music.