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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Robin Maconie

The Second Sense: Language, music & hearing

Published 2002 Lanham, Maryland / London

The Scarecrow Press 372 pages

ISBN: 0810842424 £30 $39

 

This book is an exploration of the scientific, physical and conceptual background behind music. In it, the author attempts to explain (and rationalise) the myriad processes that have gone on in the background when we listen to and appreciate music. The book is based on a music appreciation course and is intended as a listening programme for people who do not necessarily have any musical training. The author is a professor of Performing Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia, USA. He is a composer and has published several books on Stockhausen as well as two earlier books on similar topics to this one, 'The Concept of Music' and 'The Science of Music'.

The book is divided into 20 chapters plus an introduction. Each chapter covers a topic or a group of topics but the chapter headings are not always representative of the contents of the chapter. 'Sound and Vision' introduces the author's thoughts about sound. 'Processing Sound' goes on to discuss the physical sound and how we interpret it. 'Instruments' relates how we hear and how instruments make sounds. 'Signatures' starts to introduce the concept of notation and of expressing things through music. 'Reflections' is mainly about how we use sound. 'Directions' moves from the development of the classical amphitheatre through to more detailed ideas about notation. 'Space' presents several topics themed around how the acoustical space affects the music and our perception of it. 'Visible Sound' is a selection of pictures which have musical connotations. 'In Camera' is a series of reflections on chamber music including a discussion of lute tablature. 'Team Players' considers the concept of performance by groups of musicians and the scientific developments needed to make this easier. 'Resonance' discusses effects the physical resonance of a structure can have on music. 'Leadership' introduces who does what - issues related to soloists and concerti. 'Time and Motion' discusses issues of time in music and performance. 'Noise' relates issues of noise and harmony, consonance and dissonance. 'Mechanical Music' is a history of mechanical musical reproduction. 'Mouth Music' is a group of topics related to speech and voice. 'Relativity' discusses the problems of texture, style and tempo being relative rather than absolute as well as problems of keeping time with groups of players. 'Inspiration' is a discussion on film music. "Memory' is a group of topics related to recording and voice reproduction. 'Outer Space' involves science fiction and new types of instruments.

Each chapter is divided into a number of sections, each with its own rather smart heading. The first chapter, 'Sound and Vision' has 7 sections but some have over a dozen. Here the author's structure tends to break down. I can imagine, in a lecture, linked by musical examples, each of these chapters could become quite a coherent narrative. But shorn of any musical soundtrack, the sections sometimes seem to wander from idea to idea as each seems to occur to the author, rather than having a predefined structure. Also, he does seem to use sections as light relief. So that in the chapter 'Space', a discussion of spatial effects in Venetian music is followed by a pretty unnecessary section on Corelli's 1680 Concerto Grosso with its in-built musical joke. A good way of lightening the atmosphere in a lecture, but not so useful on the printed page without the musical example.

Maconie is writing for people who do not necessarily have any musical experience, so he makes a heroic attempt to avoid jargon. But the structure of the book means that, for instance, pitch is not defined until page 55. Though this is probably inevitable as otherwise the book would start with an off-putting welter of definitions. In his striving to avoid jargon, Maconie is fond of using metaphors from so-called real life. These can get rather strained and eventually become rather annoying. But, you must bear in mind the book’s intended audience. If you have studied the piano and another musical instrument, played in an orchestra, sung in a choir, had voice lessons, studied music or physics - then much of this information will not be new to you and the author's circumlocutions may become tedious. But it is a mark of Maconie's lucidity that he never fails to bring something of interest to any of the topics that he covers.

One of the basic premises that Maconie bases the book on is the idea of music as heightened speech. This means that in the discussing the development of music and of musical notation, he spends quite a lot of time referring to plainchant. This is very relevant and quite fascinating for a musician. But for someone who is untrained, the early chapter of this book spend rather too much time discussing music of which they will have little or no experience.

Early on in the book, Maconie states that 'An even more radical conclusion would be that the only information of any consequence that music has to offer comes down to the quality of the acoustic signal, the sound of the instrument in a particular location, and how much of it a person can hear. We do not intend to suggest that a knowledge of the history of music and performance cannot add to the enjoyment of a finely executed concert. Well, yes, actually we do. What matters is the experience. The experience is acoustical' (Author's italics). This might be reassuring for a new listener - the idea that you can come to a concert without any musical history cluttering your unconscious and still appreciate the music fully. But it is surely a false reassurance. Even the author goes on to suggest the opposite is true on occasions, particularly when talking about how cultures attach different expressive natures to modes and scales. Later on, Maconie even goes on to discuss subversion in music, which surely needs more cultural references. Listening to music is never a purely acoustic experience, it always brings with it innumerable cultural references, be they welcome or unwelcome.

Essentially, I found this a book to dip into. Reading from beginning to end, there was rather too much information and the lack of structure began to tell. But taken selectively, the individual sections are fascinating and if you can add your own musical sound track, then all the better.

Robert Hugill

 



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