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Read To Me!

I was copying an old videotape of a concert onto DVD this morning, sitting and watching the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra playing the music of Tchaikovsky, when I had a vivid awareness of how important our eyes are to the process of communication. They were playing a movement from the Sixth Symphony, music Iím so familiar with that I could hum along with various instruments. Iíve listened to that magnificent piece hundreds of times, and enjoy it nearly every time. Iím continually amazed at how a hundred musicians can create such a singular experience, each one contributing a vital part in perfect synchrony.

When Iím fully immersed in good music, even if I know it almost by heart, each hearing gives me something new, as though Iím hearing it for the first time. While I watched this particular performance, with the video camera shifting my attention to different groups of instruments, I listened more carefully than I remember doing before. In some passages, certain instruments are quite dominantóbut others may be adding subtly to the musical effect, and the camera reminded me sometimes to listen to this instrument, because itís saying something different.

I may pick out such things by myself when Iím simply listening to music, but usually itís an unconscious thing. I might never hear that soft counterpoint unless someone points it out to me. The video camera did that.

Not long ago I heard a radio interview with the author of a novel, who spoke of the importance in writing dialog to be conscious of the way people actually speak. He had been experimenting with dictating his stories into a microphone and letting his computer transcribe them to text. While the computer had trouble with punctuation and spelling at times, it captured the feel of the words better because he was speaking as his characters spoke, rather than writing. Other writers make a point of reading their work aloud, for the same reason. Most of my essays get read aloud to my writing group. It hadnít occurred to me before that the process might enhance the effect of my words.

Psychologists have long known that communications that use two or more of our senses are usually more effective than those using only one. Sometimes itís a matter of reinforcing particular aspects, and sometimes itís simply an additive thing, as it was this morning as I watched the video of the concert. In the 1920s, when sound was introduced to motion pictures, it opened up the experience of watching what was already a spectacular advance in the visual arts. Around the same time, color provided an additional dimension to the motion picture. Each of these channelsómotion, sound, and coloróincreased the ďbandwidthĒ of communication and enhanced the ability of the authors to convey whatever stories (in the broadest sense) they were telling.

Itís not an automatic thing, however. As Marshall McLuhen pointed out in the 1960s with his book Understanding Media, sometimes limiting the channels makes the audience ďfill inĒ details that are not explicit, and thereby enhances the experience. Radio plays, he said, require the audience to imagine the scenes being portrayed, as well as the appearance of different characters. This enriches the experience for the audience because it allows individuals to relate what was happening to their own past experiences. An effective writer could suggest and hint at things that might actually detract from the story if presented too explicitly. (Erotic situations have been suggested as supporting examples.)

What I realize, in thinking about my experience with the video of the concert, is that I wouldnít always want to hear music in that way. It was good for me in part because it was different, and it led my attention through the piece in a way that appealed to me. The next time I hear that movement of Tchaikovskyís Sixth without the video images, Iíll probably listen for those subtle touches. Iíll be paying closer attention. But I want also to hear with my own unguided sensibilities. In live concerts, I often close my eyes to really hear the music. As much as I enjoy the environment of an auditorium filled with appreciative people listeningótogetheróto great music, sometimes I need to allow my own unconscious to tell me about what it is that Iím experiencing.

July 4, 2007

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