Home » Your Ears Deceive You: Emi Ferguson at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Your Ears Deceive You: Emi Ferguson at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Emi Ferguson – Juilliard-trained flutist and educator: Well, I’m so thrilled to be here because I grew up right here in Brookline and spent much of my childhood right across the street at the Brookline Music School. So I ‘m thrilled to be here today to talk to you guys about something that nobody talked to me enough about when I was growing up.

Now, I may be a classical musician, but I’m also a serious lover of pop music and often get asked what I feel the difference between the two is. Now for me, in the 20th century, it’s roughly straightforward. We usually refer to classical compositions by their composer: We have Beethoven’s 5th symphony. But we usually refer to pop music not by its composer – Max Martin wrote “Baby One More Time” – no, but we refer to it by its performer. But before the 20th century, things weren’t quite so cut-and-dried.

Each year, I begin my classes at Juilliard and the University of Buffalo by playing my students a piece of music and asking them to tell me what genre and time period it comes from. (Music) So, whenever I play this piece, the immediate response I get from my students is that this has to be classical music, and it’s from the baroque period. And they’re right. I gave them a little hint by playing my baroque flute, but they’re totally right, and they’re incredibly shocked when I reveal to them the original lyrics of this song: “Once, twice, thrice, I Julia try’d. The scornfull puss as oft deny’d, and since I cannot better thrive, I’ll cringe to ne’er a bitch alive. So kiss my ass, disdainful sow, good claret is my mistress now.”

So, these are the original lyrics, and my students cannot believe that this is classical music anymore. They tell me, “There’s no way this is classical music, because these lyrics are more like pop lyrics; they’re far too lewd and inappropriate to be classical music, which is a serious, studied music, one that your parents make you listen to, where performers are always formally dressed, audience members are gray-haired, and there are previously dictated places about when and how you can enjoy the music. God forbid that any of you clap at the wrong time. Right? You’ve been there.

But all of these stereotypes are very new to classical music. And today, we tend to lump almost all of the music before the 20th century into one single category, when this was not the way that composers, performers, and audiences alike viewed it in their day. “One, twice, thrice, I Julia try’d” was written by a man named Henry Purcell in the late 1600s. Purcell is known as one of England’s greatest composers. He was the organist at Westminster Abbey and is known for many of his famous operas, plays, sacred religious music, as well as the music he wrote in service to the monarchs of England.

But, as you can see, he had a rather norty side. So, in the time of Purcell, people didn’t refer to music as “classical” or “popular,” but instead, they referred to it by its function: religious, courtly, dance, or for just plain fun. People didn’t have the instant access to music that we have today, and it was a real privilege. Those who were wealthy could afford to pay people to be their human jukeboxes, but for the 99%, if you wanted music, you had to create it for yourself. Purcell may have been composing music for the aristocracy and the church during the day, but at night, he and his friends – well, this isn’t Purcell, but it could be – he and his friends would get together to compose and perform these innuendo-laden songs, for fun.

Now, for us today, it can be really hard to grasp that the composers’ repertoire could be so diverse. But there were fewer boundaries and expectations in place as to what a musician – what was acceptable for a musician to do back then. And the classical, or “serious,” and popular music worlds shared a very blurry line. Composers, including Haydn, Mozart and Brahms, all quoted popular music in their concert music. And people behaved at concerts the way that we behave today at pop and jazz shows.

They would clap when they liked a particular solo or melody, they were rowdy, drunk. They’d walk in and out. And they’d often make the performers repeat pieces they liked two, three, even four times. But the performers and the composers loved this because applause was the highest form of flattery, and they would brag to each other about how quickly they could get an audience to applaud. Famous musician Hans von Bülow once said – well, he bragged to his students – that he was able to get the audience clapping in the middle of his cadenza of his Beethoven concerto even before the movement was over.

And Beethoven would have loved this, because he is quoted as saying, “Silence is not what we want. Applause is what we want.” Mozart, too, revelled in the audience’s response to his music, and this is a letter that he wrote, where he says, “In the midst of the first allegro came a passage I had known would please. The audience was quite carried away, and there was a great outburst of applause. But since I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation, I had brought it in again and again.”

So he knew he wanted applause there and repeated the same melody three times. He says about the last movement: “I began with two violins only, piano – so quietly – for eight bars, then forte – loud – so that at the piano, as I had expected, the audience said “shh,” and when they heard the forte, they began at once to clap their hands.” Today, we have got so far away from how audiences and musicians listen and perceive this music in their time, that classical record companies even have a “Complete Guide to Good Concert Manners” on their website. This actually says, “When music is playing, be quiet, stay put and do not clap until the whole piece is over”. With time, musicians began to capitalize on the enthusiasm of the audience, and superstars like Liszt and Paganini were born.

Yes, our first rock stars were classical musicians, and Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber owe everything that they do to these first rock stars. Before Bieber Fever, there was Liszt-o-mania. Not kidding, it was a real thing that is documented in articles of the time, that swept over Europe during the mid-1800s. Franz Liszt made women hysterical. They would fight over his broken piano strings and locks of his gorgeous hair. They would throw their underwear on stage at him, and they would tear his clothing off if they got close enough.

One woman is said to have picked up one of his discarded cigar butts out of the gutter and kept it in a locket around her neck, inscribed “FL” Niccolò Paganini, like Liszt, was a showstopping rock star of the 19th century. Known as the man who made the original “deal with the Devil” for his superhuman violin skills, he was equally well known for his fierce rivalries with other violinists, his drinking, his gambling, his womanizing, and his many rehab stints.

Sounds like a rock star to me. He even started his own celebratory franchise, Casino Paganini, which, unfortunately, failed miserably. He was all about marketing and appearance, and he capitalized on his rumored “deal with the Devil” by showing up to concerts in a black carriage pulled by four black horses and himself dressed all in black. He perpetuated this rumor so well that when he died, he was forbidden burial on sacred ground. Now, one of his most famous quotes is “I am not a handsome man, but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet.”

So there you have it Franz Liszt and Niccolò Paganini changed the course of music as we know it. They were the first to play performances entirely by memory and incorporated technical skills that were so difficult and dazzling into their performances, that to see them perform was a superhuman feat in and of itself. Some even compared it to the Super Bowl halftime show of the day. Here’s a little example, Niccolò Paganini’s “Caprice No 5.” (Music)

Now, these new concert etiquette rules, that were solidified in the 20th century, have alienated a lot of the audience from my art form, classical music. When we abide by these rules, we lack that visceral response to the music that is the reason why we love and we need it in the first place. It is part of our human nature, and the minute that we’re forced to enjoy something within someone else’s construct, we stop listening, and we become disengaged from the performance and the music; it becomes inaccessible. What we need to do, as classical performers today, is break down that barrier between the audience and the stage, and we need to have that passion between the audience and performer come back again.

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