Music and Microscopy
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
Now, at my venerable age, I can at last feel free to express my views as to how I think things should be and not be very concerned about whether or not others agree with me unless they want to shower me with expensive gifts–a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur will do for starters.
So, with that said, I will answer that one should listen to music when one engages in microscopy. By music, I mean, real music, great music, and not the sort of noise that passes for music these days. Am I a snob? Oh yes, emphatically, if by that you mean someone who wants the best and near best in real terms and not those of artificial standards. You may well ask: “What in blazes does that mean?: Today, I saw an advertisement in our local paper for a 40 year old bottle of Balvenie Single Malt Scotch for discounted, for a mere $3,999.99. And then this week, I saw that McCallan not to be outdone had a special decanter bottle crafted that took 50 hours of work. Only 4 were made and one sold recently for $628,205. But that’s by no means the record–a bottle of Isabella Islay in 2010 commanded a price of $6,200,000. It might have had something to do with the white gold bottle encrusted with 8,500 diamonds and 300 rubies! Were I a billionaire, I still wouldn’t buy even the Balvenie for $4,000; that’s the kind of snob I am. I’m beyond the point of trying to impress others; what I try to seek out are things which I genuinely deeply appreciate and enjoy. If I find a single malt Scotch for $40 which I truly savor, then I don’t care whether or not you think it has the proper status and credentials. The same is true of music, art and literature.
There is a kind of freedom in being a crusty old curmudgeon like Sir Thomas Beecham who was notorious for his blunt remarks. I like some of them, so I’ll share some of the more delectable bits with you.
To an underperforming female cellist, “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands–and all you can do is scratch it.”
“Beecham once met a lady he knew, but could not remember who she was. He asked her whether she was well. ‘Oh very well, but my brother has been rather ill lately,’ she said.
‘Ah, yes, your brother. I’m sorry to hear that. And, er, what is your brother doing at the moment?’
‘Well...he’s still King’, replied Princess Mary.
“Brass bands are all very well in their place–outdoors and several miles away.”
A musician playing the tuba made a deep shake on the wrong note. Beecham requested, ‘Thank you, and now would you pull the chain.’”
“The English may not like music, but they absolutely adore the noise it makes.”
“Asked his opinion of a university setting up a chair of musical criticism, ‘ if there is to be a chair for critics, I think it had better be an electric chair.’”
“English sopranos sound as if they subsisted on seaweed. English tenors sound like yawning giraffes.”
On Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7: “It’s like a lot of yaks jumping around.”
“Her singing reminds me of a cart coming downhill with the brakes on.”
“When asked if he had heard any Stockhausen, Beecham replied, ‘No, but I might have stepped in some.’”
Musicians are often ruthless in their judgments and Beecham is by no means the only example.
“Why do you always insist on playing while I’m trying to conduct?” –Eugene Ormandy to his orchestra.
To his orchestra: “I hate you all because you destroy my dreams.”–Toscanini
“If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon.”–Johannes Brahms
“Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.”–Stravinsky
“I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting an urge to conquer Poland.”–Woody Allen
“I’m a concert pianist. That’s a pretentious way of saying I’m unemployed at the moment.”–Oscar Levant
“There are some experiences in life which should not be demanded twice from any man, and one of them is listening to the Brahms Requiem.”–G.B. Shaw
“How wonderful opera would be if there were no singers.”–Rossini
So, what does any of this have to do with microscopy? Well, not much actually virtually nothing, but don’t despair, there are still many possibilities, but even if there aren’t any connections just think of all the fun and amusement you’ve had.
However, for me, it’s undeniable that there are connections between what I listen to and what I observe with my microscopes. My one and only criterion, which I’ll present a bit later, is largely based on intuition and sensibility. Others I know would take quite different approaches. For example, there is the Alphabetist for whom there must be an alphabetical connection between the organism being observed and the composer. For example, if you’re looking at an Amoeba, then you select a composer such as Albeniz, Albrechtsberger, or Arensky. If you’re examining a Blepharisma culture, then you’re overwhelmed with choices–J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, and Johann Christian Bach, for starters and then Brahms, Beethoven, Boccherini, Bliss, Bellini, Bizet, Berlioz, Bruckner, Bartok, Berg, Berio, Bernstein, Biber, Boito, Borodin, Britten, Bruch, Busoni, Buxtehude, among others.
So, we didn’t even need to go very far through the alphabet at all to show that this approach is not viable. Surely, it would be quite irrational to claim that all of these radically different composers’ music would be consonant with viewing Blepharisma or Bugula. Alphabetism can be such a great temptation for those who believe that through their efforts they can make life more orderly and thus to a small extent have a degree of control. There is a wonderful eccentricity given to the main character in Ann Tyler’s delicious novel Morgan’s Passing. Everything in the refrigerator is arranged in alphabetical order. On the surface, such an arrangement would seem to make life simpler, but doing the arrangement would certainly be challenging.
And then there are the categorists. If, for example, we are looking at something exquisitely beautiful, such as this diatom arrangement:
then we should listen to something delicate and sublime, such as, Beethoven’s Serenade No. 2 for violin. If, on the other hand, we’re looking at the whirling dervish protist, Urocentrum turbo, then perhaps Chopin’s Minute Waltz would be suitable. Then again, imagine a swarm of Didinium nasutum darting back and forth devouring Paramecia–perhaps, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra or if it’s really a savage feeding frenzy, maybe even Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. All of this does require a good bit of deliberation and time to select the appropriate items for a day’s observations.
Then there are the numerologists, who number each CD and cross reference it in 87 different ways on their computers. However, when it comes to matching music to specimens, the true numerological purist does it purely by numbers. So, on day 1, he or she plays CD #1 even though it’s selections from the dreadful Wagner’s Ring Cycle on a day when the specimens are lovely, delicate diatom arrangements and then much later CD #121, a Mozart violin sonata might be made to accompany the dissection of a hammerhead shark.
And, finally, there’s the random intuitionist–that’s me. I walk over to a CD cabinet, pull out 4 to 5, check them out and select the one I’m in the mood for.
But make no mistake about it, I really do believe that music can enhance doing microscopy by adding an auditory dimension to the visual. It works for me, it may not work for you, but then as Nietzsche says: “All of life is the experience of taste and tasting.”
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the August 2019 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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