Music as Ambiance?

Music as MIND!

Walking in the woods in late fall, I do not need frost to tell me that the woods are lovely, dark and deep. Everywhere there is the kind of silence which has a sound to it. My dog walks ahead scouting scents as I pick up unfocused images of trees, stands of thicket, brush of juniper, leaves scattered everywhere. There is a sense of the rich world all around me as I rove along.

Then there are before me tracks, large with heavy claws. Old Hunter sniffs while I inspect them as we change our focus. Now it is all a sharp sensing of who was there, clearly black bear and a big one, dog sniffs a tree for something rubbed off, I see long claw marks up about seven feet. We are on the track of something live, something that knows where he is going, something very smart and probably watching us as this moment from a distance. We are without question confronting a Mind.

Later in front of the fire I remember the afternoon. Roving and poking around, we were involved in a wonderfully soft ambiance, much like the ambiance of a piece of music which says nothing but surrounds us comfortably. I have a tape of quiet Electro Acoustic Music on, it has an ambiance of gently pressing sound, but I don't have to listen to it because it folds all around me. I am in its envelope.

For many people all music is like this. You can call it background music of an elegant restaurant, but it is also the radio music in the pickup truck which each genre of carpenter, plumber, electrician selects to accompany his particular trade. After building a house you get to see the trade preferences, and the annoyance when I turn off the radio which they have to hear in order to work. They need its ambiance, just as the student needs to turn on the radio before getting into the algebra homework.

Then I recall the rest of the afternoon, how we saw the steps and tracked the bear. We had no gun and certainly no evil intent, we knew the blacks were shy and we were relatively safe. But what led us on with fevered excitement was knowing that we were on the track of something intelligent, coordinated, something which had intelligence. I think it was MIND which made this tracking so ineluctable.

So when that evening I put on the old Gulda recording of Bach's Well Tempered 48, I found it was the same ambiance here in my study. All of the pieces are charming in themselves, favorites of the thousands who have been hearing and playing them for two centuries. But some were quite clearly works of Ambiance, music to enjoy being in the room with, while others were very different. They had turns and surprises, and surprises within surprises, and then old Bach, that master of the diatonic world of sound, suddenly went chromatic with a zest, sketching out something different for the future, something very absorbing and interesting....

Let us not over-praise famous men, there is danger in reverence ending in imitation which is anathema to their spirit. But if we hear a piece of music as Ambiance (and it will generally be that way at first hearing), there is perhaps something more to pursue. If we don't find it, that is alright because hearing any music is a good experience, that is what we have ears for.

But when you find a piece of music which has a sheer power of MIND, then you have something to really focus on, to pursue, to hunt down. If a painting, it will be your intense point-foveal vision searching the minutest brushstrokes of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. If it is music you hear it all at once, it floods in on you in a moment, all together. If you isolate only the top line as melody, you are an appreciative neophyte and can enjoy music perfectly well that stage. But if by nature or training you can hear all the levels of pitch, dynamics, voice leaving, rhythmics and historical allusion at the same moment in real-time, which is the full way music has to be heard, then you findyourself participating in a very complex musical complex. But beyond that there is one more factor, which made me think of the bear tracks in the snow.

In over half of the pieces in Bach's "48", you are forced to recognize the sheer quality of Mind behind the Sound. That is the higher level, the transcendental level which music offers us, perhaps more than any other art, because it is an un-differentiable, all coming in at you together experience. At the end you may remember Bach's stodgy face from one of the old portraits looking at you, nothing much on the surface (any more than the old black bear staring at you from the brush). But that is the face of a deep thinker, and his music is full of Mind.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College