Michael Tilson Thomas: Music and emotion through time (1)
Well when I was asked to do this TEDTalk, I was really chuckled, because, you see, my father's name was Ted, and much of my life, especially my musical life, is really a talk that I'm still having with him, or the part of me that he continues to be.
Now Ted was a New Yorker, an all-around theater guy, and he was a self-taught illustrator and musician.
He didn't read a note, and he was profoundly hearing impaired. Yet, he was my greatest teacher. Because even through the squeaks of his hearing aids, his understanding of music was profound. And for him, it wasn't so much the way the music goes as about what it witnesses and where it can take you.
And he did a painting of this experience, which he called "In the Realm of Music." Now Ted entered this realm every day by improvising in a sort of Tin Pan Alley style like this. (Music) But he was tough when it came to music.
He said, "There are only two things that matter in music: what and how. And the thing about classical music, that what and how, it's inexhaustible. That was his passion for the music.
Both my parents really loved it. They didn't know all that much about it, but they gave me the opportunity to discover it together with them. And I think inspired by that memory, it's been my desire to try and bring it to as many other people as I can, sort of pass it on through whatever means. And how people get this music, how it comes into their lives, really fascinates me. One day in New York, I was on the street and I saw some kids playing baseball between stoops and cars and fire hydrants.
And a tough, slouchy kid got up to bat, and he took a swing and really connected. And he watched the ball fly for a second, and then he went, "Dah dadaratatatah. Brah dada dadadadah." And he ran around the bases. And I thought, go figure. How did this piece of 18th century Austrian aristocratic entertainment turn into the victory crow of this New York kid? How was that passed on? How did he get to hear Mozart? Well when it comes to classical music, there's an awful lot to pass on, much more than Mozart, Beethoven or Tchiakovsky.
Because classical music is an unbroken living tradition that goes back over 1,000 years. And every one of those years has had something unique and powerful to say to us about what it's like to be alive. Now the raw material of it, of course, is just the music of everyday life.
It's all the anthems and dance crazes and ballads and marches. But what classical music does is to distill all of these musics down, to condense them to their absolute essence, and from that essence create a new language, a language that speaks very lovingly and unflinchingly about who we really are. It's a language that's still evolving. Now over the centuries it grew into the big pieces we always think of, like concertos and symphonies, but even the most ambitious masterpiece can have as its central mission to bring you back to a fragile and personal moment -- like this one from the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
(Music) It's so simple, so evocative. So many emotions seem to be inside of it. Yet, of course, like all music, it's essentially not about anything. It's just a design of pitches and silence and time. And the pitches, the notes, as you know, are just vibrations.
They're locations in the spectrum of sound. And whether we call them 440 per second, A, or 3,729, B flat -- trust me, that's right -- they're just phenomena. But the way we react to different combinations of these phenomena is complex and emotional and not totally understood. And the way we react to them has changed radically over the centuries, as have our preferences for them. So for example, in the 11th century, people liked pieces that ended like this.
(Music) And in the 17th century, it was more like this. (Music) And in the 21st century ... (Music) Now your 21st century ears are quite happy with this last chord, even though a while back it would have puzzled or annoyed you or sent some of you running from the room.
And the reason you like it is because you've inherited, whether you knew it or not, centuries-worth of changes in musical theory, practice and fashion. And in classical music we can follow these changes very, very accurately because of the music's powerful silent partner, the way it's been passed on: notation.
Now the impulse to notate, or, more exactly I should say, encode music has been with us for a very long time. In 200 B.C., a man named Sekulos wrote this song for his departed wife and inscribed it on her gravestone in the notational system of the Greeks. (Music) And a thousand years later, this impulse to notate took an entirely different form.
And you can see how this happened in these excerpts from the Christmas mass "Puer Natus est nobis," "For Us is Born." (Music) In the 10th century, little squiggles were used just to indicate the general shape of the tune. And in the 12th century, a line was drawn, like a musical horizon line, to better pinpoint the pitch's location. And then in the 13th century, more lines and new shapes of notes locked in the concept of the tune exactly, and that led to the kind of notation we have today.
Well notation not only passed the music on, notating and encoding the music changed its priorities entirely, because it enabled the musicians to imagine music on a much vaster scale. Now inspired moves of improvisation could be recorded, saved, considered, prioritized, made into intricate designs.
And from this moment, classical music became what it most essentially is, a dialogue between the two powerful sides of our nature: instinct and intelligence. And there began to be a real difference at this point between the art of improvisation and the art of composition.
Now an improviser senses and plays the next cool move, but a composer is considering all possible moves, testing them out, prioritizing them out, until he sees how they can form a powerful and coherent design of ultimate and enduring coolness. Now some of the greatest composers, like Bach, were combinations of these two things. Bach was like a great improviser with a mind of a chess master. Mozart was the same way. But every musician strikes a different balance between faith and reason, instinct and intelligence.
And every musical era had different priorities of these things, different things to pass on, different 'whats' and 'hows'. So in the first eight centuries or so of this tradition the big 'what' was to praise God. And by the 1400s, music was being written that tried to mirror God's mind as could be seen in the design of the night sky. The 'how' was a style called polyphony, music of many independently moving voices that suggested the way the planets seemed to move in Ptolemy's geocentric universe. This was truly the music of the spheres. (Music)