A musical dinner party

by Rob Tiller

We had a small dinner party on Saturday night for some old friends. Sally put a lot of thought and work into the food, and I organized the music, including both recordings and some of my own piano playing. I’ve come to think that a musician’s work is inherently social. This isn’t completely obvious, since so much of the work consists of individual, solitary practice. It is possible to enjoy music alone, although even this has a social aspects, since it involves interacting with the musical ideas of others (composers, editors, previous performers).

But a musician’s conception that doesn’t get communicated is not quite complete. It’s like a meal prepared with infinite care which no one tastes. Listeners complete the musical circuit that runs from abstract idea to human emotion. Just as a meal is just an abstraction if it isn’t eaten, a musical conception isn’t really music until someone listens.

So I was happy that our friends let me share with them some of my musical ideas regarding Chopin and Debussy. I played the Minute Waltz, the D flat Nocturne (Op. 27, No. 2), and Clair de Lune, and managed to make some beautiful sonorities. There were some memory lapses, which I was not pleased about, but I recognized them as minor and didn’t get discombobulated.

Having listeners always changes the musician’s mental processing. It can cause greater inspiration and concentration, but it also causes greater stress, and sometimes system failure. The possibility of losing one’s grip and falling is part of the business of climbing, and the possibility of losing one’s place is part of the business of musical performance. It is strange, though, when it happens. The keys suddenly look completely unfamiliar, and the hands are paralyzed with uncertainty. It’s a terrible feeling. But it happens, and the only thing to do is move on. Despite the problems, I was glad I made the effort, and grateful to my listeners for completing the musical circuit.

Sally’s cooking was delicious, and there was plenty of laughter and lively conversation. Tony Judt, the historian and author of Postwar (a great book about the aftermath of WW II) who died of ALS last week, once said that talking was the point of adult experience. It certainly is a great pleasure to talk with kindred spirits about things we care about passionately.

At work last week I took a short class on the subject of “crucial conversations,” which was about how to communicate better when stakes and emotions are high. The class included a little film by a middle schooler who replicated Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment. In the experiment, the subject is told that there is a test of visual perception, and asked to compare the length of one straight line to another. The subject hears several people who are secretly in on the experiment give answers that are clearly wrong, and then, most often, agrees with the clearly wrong answer. The point is, most people go along with the group, even when they think the group is wrong. Those who are willing to trust their own perceptions and buck the group are a minority.

Why does this happen? Is it intellectual insecurity? The fear of being ostracized? It’s possible to imagine a certain evolutionary advantage might accrue to those that maintained stable groups with uniform, though wrong, ideas, so that their band was more effective in hunting, say, the woolly mammoth. But it’s also possible that a huge evolutionary disadvantage from group think that prevented admitting and addressing such global problems as the disastrous war on drugs or global warming from CO2 emissions.

Whether we admit it or not, we all struggle with the pressure to conform to the group, but some of us put up more of a fight than others. Our friends would probably be in the minority of Asch’s test subjects that was willing to go against the grain and voice their true thoughts. It makes for much more lively conversation. Before we knew it, four hours had flown by, and it was time to say good night.