Lecturer at ‘Winds and Literature’ concert throws aesthetic analysis to the wind

In his lecture before the Dec. 8 “Winds and Literature” concert at Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley professor Donald McQuade insisted that although music and literature exist independently, each feeds off the other.

“Music and literature are highly interrelated,” he said. “Those who work with words can learn from those who work with music.”

The lecture, though long-winded (pun intended), was a nice reprieve before the concert. So often are audience members swiftly ushered into a space and caught up in powering off and unzipping and whispering last remarks before the ensuing silence that it’s not until minutes (or more!) into a performance that they relax into the music and let it move them — effortlessly.

Yet Donald McQuade engendered an ambiance that was anything but rushed. He spoke of the relationship between music and literature, but his speech read less like a lecture and more like an aide-memoire. Art is to be enjoyed. His wisdom was a reminder of the simplicity that accompanies an open mindset — the idea that aesthetics bode better enjoyed than analyzed.

He noted it is typical in our culture to check creativity at the door and relinquish free spirit in exchange for appeasement. McQuade’s challenge was to turn off our perceptive minds, forget how to listen carefully and just listen.  After all, he said, “Literature and music each evoke reflection … as words and lines move us, we breathe them in, and we are more alive because of it.”

McQuade was on a roll, and the audience lapped hungrily at his loosely philosophic musings. Then, midway through the lecture, he stopped, shifted tones and presented a concrete application of his statements.

Alluding to the third selection, “Emily Dickinson Suite,” he said that in Dickinson’s poetic work, “Dashes that were flat meant monotone, those that went up signified a rising inflection and those that went down signified sinking into deflection. Dashes … prompt us to read more carefully, (and) the musicality of Dickinson’s verse infuses every line with a live sentence sound.”

UC Berkeley’s wind ensemble certainly translated this piece, as it did others, into something vitalizing. The concert was vivacious; each of the five pieces was inspired by a piece of literature, and the renditions literally translated into that. It was like hearing a book turned into wordless song — synesthesia’s misguided cousin. The array of sounds introduced in this concert was nearly ineffable — they were provoking, brazen and engaging all at once. Just when the music veered toward overwhelming, the smoothest and milkiest notes would placate the disturbance.

McQuade aptly described the experience with a quote by Robert Frost: “It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”

Such power in sound makes one wonder how one instrument — or one group of instruments — can evoke such a range of emotions. As an audience member, the experience was humbling, and “Winds and Literature” was testament to the gratification that can come from experiencing art live in its most raw form.

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected].