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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Communication

I do not read Chinese or speak any of the Chinese dialects. If a Chinese traveller from Bejing entered my room and spoke to me in his own dialect, I would not understand him. (Nor would a Cantonese if Mandarin was being spoken!). The visitor is no more intelligent than me because he speaks Chinese, and I am no less intelligent because I do not. The material of communication has nothing to do with intelligence.

It is however a failure of the teaching process to assume that a lack of understanding unmasks a deficiency of intellect. If modern art is not understood, it is the artist's means of communication that is at fault, not us. My capacity to understand most reasonable transmissions is reasonably average. But my mind is rather like a computer that cannot read a particular kind of software; it is not necessarily a bad computer, just one that is limited by the means to decode the information. There is no need to feel humiliated by inferiority through this lack of understanding, though there are academics who delight in their power to demean a student's confidence by suggesting that it is an intellectual failing not to understand.

I would however be less intelligent than my foreign colleague if I learnt some Chinese phrases phonetically without fully understanding their meaning and then went to Chongqing in the west of their country and addressed a university audience with my prize sentence. Should I be surprised if the audience laugh at what I believe to be a serious statement? Even academics, in self deception, can fall for this. How many performances of fine music have we heard, given by players who have learnt the notes 'phonetically', but do not really understand the language? It is surely no surprise if these superficial performers are mystified by the cool or even derisory reception given to their recitals.

Using an adapted version of the sort of outrageously confident spin-talk practiced by politicians and business tycoons, it may be possible to persuade the Chinese audience that it doesn't really understand good Chinese! The ultimate sartorial deception for the Emperor.

Copyright © 25 November 2003 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK

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From: Alistair Hinton, UK

Mr Standford now addresses the very rationale for music itself - communication.

Much of what he writes is indeed salutary, but a few small issues occur nevertheless.

His references to 'intelligence' and 'intellect' persuade me to suggest that it may be wise to be wary of confusing the two and considering them as though they are one and the same. In his first letter to me, the composer Sorabji dealt with this by defining an 'intellectual' (a term which he seemed to invest with pejorative overtones) as someone 'educated above his intelligence'. Intelligence in communicants can perhaps aid or enhance their communication to an extent and in ways of which intellectual prowess alone may be less capable. This does not necessarily lessen the thrust of Mr Standford's observation that 'the material of communication has nothing to do with intelligence.'

While Mr Standford is right in principle to observe that 'it is ... a failure of the teaching process to assume that a lack of understanding unmasks a deficiency of intellect', I am less certain that, as he then opines, 'if modern art is not understood, it is the artist's means of communication that is at fault, not us'. Mr Standford cites verbal language and software in his observations, but the case of music - that art which is said (by someone arguably more 'intelligent' than Stravinsky!) to be 'capable of expressing everything but naming nothing' - seems to be the very one where his contention is least convincing - perhaps because it is by definition so unamenable to accounting in mere words.

If the levels of intelligence of the composer and his listener are well out of balance one with another - or when the listener's grasp of the composer's message is compromised by the former's inexperience - one may wonder to what extent it would seem reasonable to assume a listener's lack of understanding to be the composer's fault. I well recall the sheer perplexity occasioned by my first encounter with a Mozart piano concerto in my mid-'teens, having been raised almost entirely (for a short time) on Webern and the composers of what one might term the Darmstadt / Donaueschingen persuasion; my reaction was very much akin to that of 'funny modern music' which one observes in a reverse situation and its origin bears no intrinsic relation to 'intelligence' levels but to unfamiliarity. This was, I hope, no more due to lack of intelligence on my part than it was the fault of Mozart!

The context in which Mr Standford writes that 'it is surely no surprise if ... superficial performers are mystified by the cool or even derisory reception given to their recitals' has a validity which reminds me of an observation, again by Sorabji, on the hilarity occasioned in a group of sophisticated and intelligent Japanese by listening to the B minor Mass - here we have an even more acute case of unfamiliarity than that which I cited earlier.

Mr Standford ends by arguing that 'using an adapted version of the sort of outrageously confident spin-talk practiced by politicians and business tycoons, it may be possible to persuade the Chinese audience that it doesn't really understand good Chinese!' Ah, what an unpleasant truth that is! - almost as unpleasant, indeed, as the spin-talk itself. 'The ultimate sartorial deception for the Emperor'? Since it is the Chinese of which Mr Standford writes here, one might be forgiven for hoping that, regardless of the age of the clothes, it will at least be the 'Last Emperor' - although I fear such optimism will prove to be unfounded ...

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