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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beethoven and the Smell of Apple Pie

We live in an era focused on the visual. At least, that is what I am told regularly. Some of my colleague music educators use this dominance of the visual in the modern world to make a plea for the importance of music in school. Wouldn’t it be a great thing if pupils would learn to use their so neglected ears next to their eyes? Wouldn’t they be more in balance? Wouldn’t the world become a better place? Continuing this line of thought, it is for some just a matter of time before the hemispheres of the brain enter the scene, shortly afterwards followed by the vices of Cartesian dualism and the beauty of quantum mechanics. But usually I have quit the audience long before that.

Personally, I think that the aural part of our culture is not the most neglected part when it comes to the senses. Basically, what we do continuously is talk, sing, play and write, draw and paint, and to take all that in we need to listen and look a lot. If we are looking for the losers amongst the senses, then the aural is not one of them - after the visual it actually holds a solid silver medal. Maybe the hierarchy is more like: the visual and the aural, then taste, smell and finally feel. And then, of course, the supernatural.

This hierarchy of the senses is probably personal. For me, for example, smell is extremely important when it comes to remembering – it is my memory technique nr.1. A whiff of a certain odor may strongly bring back “involuntary memories” (yes, yes, Proust and his Madeleine; and to prevent you thinking you have to read Proust in order to be taken serious by me, but also to prevent you thinking of me as an intellectual poseur, I immediately confess I actually did read Proust, but only two of the seven books of A la r├ęcherche…, and that will probably be all I can take in in this life).

For example, the smell of what I think is a concoction of diesel, out-of-order sewers, and spiced food immediately puts me in the middle of Marrakesh, Amman or Sana’a – including the sound of Umm Kalthum blaring from cheap minivan loudspeakers. And the smell of charcoal fires puts me in the middle of Sarajevo – the sight of the mountains (a “guilty landscape”, as Dutch painter Armando would say), the taste of cevapcici and the sound of sevdalinkah (I can’t inform you on the tactile part of my memory). And it goes all ways around: cevapcici reminds me of sevdalinkah, Umm Kalthum of diesel, et cetera.

In cultural anthropology, the recent strand called “anthropology of the senses” does study all his. What does it mean for a human being to be in the world through his senses? Although I have not read a lot on it, I think anthropology of the senses is a big opportunity for musicologists. Listening to music is a specific orientation towards the world, but intensely tied to other kinds of listening, and to seeing, tasting, smelling and touching. Placing music in this “sensitive” domain can, I am sure, uncover the working of music for many, many people.

Thus, smelling apple pie I remember this: it is winter and very cold. I am a conservatoire student walking on a Sunday morning from the city center of Maastricht to the house of my good friend Paul, a little house in the floodplains of the river Maas just outside town. When I arrive, my friends Hannie and Jasper are there already. Paul has heated up the fire, made coffee and baked an apple pie. And then he plays Beethoven’s 7th symphony; of which the allegretto – especially the last couple of bars, with the great instrumentation and lovely rhythmic features – kind of breaks and mends my heart at the same time every time I hear it, and will from that moment on forever be connected to the smell of freshly baked apple pie.

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