The Well-Tempered Ear

Does making music count as manual labor?

September 7, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

I’m sitting here anticipating the joys of tonight’s 33rd annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert (Monday, Sept. 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall in the UW-Madison Mosse Humanities Building), which this year is FREE and features an early piano quartet by Mendelssohn, waltzes by Hans Huber and the “Archduke” Piano Trio by Beethoven.crawford1

Once again I will be going, since it is usually highlight of any season.

But this year I realize there is yet another connection between the Karps’ superb music-making and performing on Labor Day.

One connection, of course, is that generally Labor Day is the last day of summer and first day of fall — or at least the last day before fall classes start at the UW. (This year it’s different because Labor Day falls so late and classes started last week,)

Then too, Labor Day is considered a politically progressive holiday that celebrates workers and the benefits of unions, which brought workers the 40-hour week and paid vacations among other things. And the Karps are outspoken progressives.

But maybe there is another connection.

Over the past week, I have several times heard the writer Matthew B. Crawford (see the photo above) talk about his new book, “Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.” (You can stream interviews with Crawford at both National Public Radio, PBS’ Newshour, “The Colbert Report” on YouTube, and Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”)crawford book

The writer distinguishes between manual workers and knowledge workers. He himself has been both. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago and worked at a think tank. But he quit that job and now repairs motorcycles in Richmond, Va. He says he earns both more money and both meaning from the motorcycles.

He makes the point that manual labor is undervalued by our money-exchanging, paper-shuffling culture as a source of income, satisfaction and intellectual engagement. Even in so-called manual labor, he says, intelligent choices and thoughtful decisions must still be made and personal judgment still exercised.

And so I ask: Does making music also count as a fusion of both manual labor and knowledge work?

I speak as an amateur pianist. I find something particularly satisfying about the sheer mechanics of playing the notes, let alone making the music so that I bring out beauty, emotion and structure and also give pleasure to others who are listening.

Perhaps that’s why the composer Igor Stravinsky told people to listen with their eyes open. Music involves a lot of hand-eye coordination and physicality.

And maybe that’s why I’ve never met a musician who wished they were something else. Sure, some wanted to be better musicians, or better paid, or better appreciated, or less busy. But all seem deeply satisfied with what they do.

Maybe the fusion of physical labor and intellectual labor explains why.

Tell me what you think.

Whether you are an amateur musician or a professional musician: Do you think making music counts as manual labor?

Let’s do an informal survey.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Is there too much Mozart? What’s your favorite Mozart work?

September 7, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

Robert Levin (pictured below right) returned to town last Saturday and Sunday to open the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival with two performances of the six-player chamber versions of two Mozart piano concertos: the Concerto in C major, K. 413 and the Piano Concerto in F Major, K. 415. (The festival ended Sunday afternoon.)Robert Levin

The Harvard professor, world-renowned keyboard performer (piano and fortepiano) and Mozart scholar has completed a performance version of the uncompleted Requiem (it has been recorded) and who has written some quite convincing and authentic-sounding cadenzas for Mozart’s violin and piano concertos. Levin is a gifted improviser, which serves him well in Mozart concertos and especially in cadenzas.

Levin’s performances and scholarship are both impressive.

Little wonder, then, that a couple of weeks ago, Levin was in Salzburg, Austria, Mozart’s birthplace, to help unveil the two newly discovered manuscripts of Mozart. (It proved to be a Mozart Month. Just a week or so later new medical scholarship suggested that Mozart died in 1791 not from being poisoned or from typhoid fever but from an epidemic of strep throat.)

The new discoveries are small and minor works, copied out by Mozart’s father. They were composed when Mozart was about 7.

Great. Just what we need: More Mozart juvenilia. Mozart

Is it just me? Or are there other people out there who sometimes think Mozart wrote too much? That too often he just phoned it in while he was busy chasing women or drinking with singer-actors or playing billiards? (In the short story “Sleep”  by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, a dentist-husband’s constant and uncritical listening to the music of Mozart and Haydn is used to convey the charming blandness and tedious sameness that his insomniac wife sees in him.)

I mean, find me some lost mature work by Mozart  — a late concerto or symphony, a late string quartet or opera, or even a fragment of one — and The Ear will perk up.

Now, I don’t doubt the historical importance of the latest discovery.

But as for the aesthetic importance of the discovery: Well, maybe it would be better for each of us to spend our time and attention on getting to know even better just one famous work, one big work, one deep work. For me that might be the Piano Concertos K. 453 in G Major or K. 595 in B-flat major. Or maybe Clarinet Concerto. Or maybe the “Dissonant” Quartet or the “Haffner” Symphony.

What do you think?

Did Mozart write too much? Do we have too much Mozart?

If you had to pick one Mozart work to listen to repeatedly and focus on, what would it be?

And what is your least favorite Mozart work or series of works, and why?

If he hadn’t died at 35, what direction do you think Mozart would have taken? Would he have become more dramatically Romantic and Beethoven-like? Or more lyrical and Schubert-like?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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