The critic Rosamond Bernier tells of being with Matisse when he had just seen a documentary film of himself at work. He was highly displeased to observe that he went through elaborate motions with the pencil above the surface of the paper before he brought them in contact. His almost magician-like motions had been unconscious but habitual. Miss Bernier describes it as Matisse’s means of establishing the relationship between his subject (in all its levels of reality) and the dimensions of the paper. In other words, he was reconciling the infinite with the finite—exactly the task that the best medieval chanters were said to set for themselves. And how did Matisse—evidently embarrassed at having been caught in his sacred and private process—account for it? He resorted to musical language: “Je n’avais pas encore commencé à chanter.”

Singer he may have been, but Matisse was also a composer.

Thanks to Ana María Machado for pointing me to the photos at the link.

Adolf Hitler (front row on aisle) at concert in Leipzig

We hear much about Hitler’s admiration for Wagner. Less well-known is his dislike for Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms — as related in this fascinating post.

It had to happen. Check it out.

New research shows that musicians’ brains are highly developed in a way that makes the musicians alert, interested in learning, disposed to see the whole picture, calm, and playful. The same traits have previously been found among world-class athletes, top-level managers, and individuals who practice transcendental meditation.

The new study also credits musicians with higher levels of moral reasoning and more transcending “peak experiences” emotionally.

In an article on the stylus fantasticus, we find a contributor unburdening his or her conscience of this insight:

Many facets of musical modernism were invented in the stylus fantasticus at Kromeriz, such as bitonality in Battalia, minimalism in The Peasants go to Church, stochasticism in Vejvanovsky’s Bells. What is not always mentioned is that these techniques are used to represent chaos, drunkenness, stupidity, and animal noises rather than as a principal resource.

National Riches

May 13, 2011

At the risk of seriously derailing your schedule, I point you to the online availability of thousands of recordings from the Library of Congress. When the founders of the library conceived of a great national collection of materials (which, naturally, meant books when the word library really named a repository for libri), they could hardly have dreamed of the diffusion that digital means allow.

Almost at random I whet your appetite with three examples: a 1917 recording of a Rossini aria and Sousa’s band in 1923 and “O sole mio” performed by the “Neapolitan Trio” in 1915. If that’s not enough breadth for you, you can discover your own at

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

I don’t quite know why I’m so grief-striken at what Christopher Hitchens (whom I’ve never met) is going through, aside from his being a fellow human, but this article hits me where I live. Perhaps the reason I’m choked up reading it is that I love to talk and have to write. As for Hitchens himself, the highest praise I can give him is that I always enjoy hearing him talk even when I abominate what he is saying.

Only Connect

May 9, 2011

Though Mark Zuckerberg is a person of massive accomplishment, sites like this one depend on Eli Pariser’s vision of the Web.