Saturday, January 14, 2006

Billy Mayerl

There's always something a little unnerving about listening to music recorded before I was born. Something of the same feeling holds for film too - a sense that human activity was in full flood before I had acquired any form of consciousness, either of it or of myself. Strange how this unease is most closely associated with sound; early silent films share with Art a sense of timelessness and have quite a different feel.

But recorded sound seems to define time in a much more precise manner. I suspect that much of this has to do with a tradition of music where a composition was usually heard in a live performance by a contemporary performer. The music might be centuries old; but the music was here and now. This is no longer necessarily the case.

All of these thoughts struck me while listening to a series of recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s by the British light music pianist Billy Mayerl. Several of the cuts have singing or spoken dialogue, and the posh British BBC accents sound quite strange in today's context. The music, too, mostly syncopated ditties not so much in the ragtime but more in the novelty piano tradition is very much of its time.

Charming, yes, and very attractive. But impossible to hear without a powerful historical veil settling over it and placing it in a time remote from my own.

Funnily, because this music is unfamiliar and little heard, the sense of history is stronger than found with better known works from the same era that, through constant exposure, have lost their strong ties to their genesis.

I think I prefer it this way. Listening to this Billy Mayerl compilation (Naxos 8.120654) is more akin to rooting around in the attic and finding a trunk full of your great grandparent's belongings. There is a sense of discovery and looking back into a different way of doing and seeing things.

6 comments: said...

After reading your comments and thoughts regarding music composed before being born I thought how your words parallel the same feelings I get when I too listen to recordings of another time. Music, when beautiful and meaningful, (as composed before our time) has a powerful effect on me, it captivates me and thus evokes thoughts and emotions from another era.
Could it be that we were on this earth in times bygone?

Musickna said...

Perhaps we were... I would not rule it out!

Thank you for your interesting and thoughtful comment.

Monica said...

One more comment to your elegant discertation on music. I cannot find another medium that is capable of moving the soul in such a powerful, and at times, almost irrational manner. One only has to listen to Vivaldi's "The Seasons" to have a glimpse of transcendant beauty and inexplicable emotions.

Musickna said...

Monica - I'm sure you are right about music's unique power. Thanks for your comment.

monica said...

When it comes to discussing this topic, an observation is in order. Not everything one hears is music. For this writer, the term music must be reserved for those notes, melodies et words that have the power to affect and move the listener to experience emotions of beauty, melancholy, sensuousness, inspiration, even sadness. Many times I have wondered what are these sounds that touch our ears that can also have the ability of enhancing health. Numerous studies have been conducted where music was played to people who were ill and/or recovering from surgery. The outcomes were striking, it was noted that the healing process was hastened and thus there was a faster return to health. Surely when we are surrounded with beautiful music, our brain releases vast amounts of endorphins, these in turn exact such positive results in the listener.
Conversely, one must wonder what effect does many of today's erratic, asynchronous, unmelodic so-called "music" have on those who tune in to it. I have found it to be disturbing and unsettling, to the extent that my entire mood would change causing me to need to leave the place where it was being played. Incidentally, thanks for reading my ramblings on this topic. Music is the center of my life and not many people understand to what depths it can affect the soul. I suspect you can.

Musickna said...

Yes, one should never discount the power of music as a healing force, both for the physical body and the mind. Music therapy has been shown to have great psychological benefits for disturbed individuals.

Your point about asynchronous, erratic, and non-melodic music is a valid one - however I believe that such music can still tap into emotions, and can be cathartic and cleansing as well. For example, I find the free jazz explorations of John Coltrane in his last years to be profoundly spiritual and deeply moving even though his music is not melodic, rhythmically indeterminate and fiercely atonal.

This music is not attractive at all on the surface, but once drawn into it and washed with it, I emerge with a sense of wonder and spiritual cleanliness that is akin to that derived from deep meditation.

You respond differently, and that is just as valid. Like all art, certain works are going to appeal to some individuals more than others.