Skaneateles Fest week 2:The power of nuance

Music, the brain, and time travel in Skaneateles, NY:

Have you ever heard a song on the radio and felt suddenly that you're immersed in a very particular memory? It's sort of like wondering why you're thinking of Uncle Bert and then realizing that the guy next to you in the coffee shop is wearing cologne that smells the way Uncle Bert's house did when you were little.

Sound can create a similar phenomenon. Recently, a friend of mine who has no particular knowledge of birds heard a Chickadee singing. She got a funny look on her face and said, as though it were crazy, "that sound makes me think of Brook Farm in the spring." She was absolutely right: the Chickadee was showcasing his spring song--a drawn-out, two-note "deeee-doooo," which is one of the most prevalent sounds as winter finally gives up at 2870 West Lake Road in Skaneateles, the lakeside home where the Skaneateles Festival holds its Saturday evening concerts in summer.

Not only did she associate the species with the right place, but she also hit the nail on the head by feeling confused, because the Chickadee in question was singing his springtime song in August! It's amazing what the brain knows that we don't know it knows, if you know what I mean.

If our brains are tuned to these tiny little things--an eleven-gram bird singing out of turn, the smell of Uncle Bert's laundry detergent twenty years ago--imagine what such seemingly small details can mean in music, an art intended (arguably) for communicating feeling.

The casual music appreciator, or anyone else, for that matter, is likely to be perfectly happy listening to Bach played on a friend's piano or a modern classical guitar. But those really weren't the instruments Bach himself would have played or heard in his head. His genius of course can translate perfectly well on many, many instruments, but wouldn't it be compelling to give our busy brains, which are paying closer attention than we know, a chance to feel that slight but momentous difference between the music of Bach as played on instruments we're accustomed to and the music of the master as played on instruments that his ears heard?

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