How to read a composer’s mind

How to read a composer’s mind


norman lebrecht

October 28, 2018

From our moderator, Anthea Kreston:

Welcome to this week’s Fortnightly Music Book Club, and a “Sound Experiment”. Fortnightly is a book club which connects the broad and diverse Slipped Disk audience to great literature as well as gives us a chance to engage with leading musicians of our time; and now, we can connect directly to one another through a group musical exercise.

Guest host Bruce Adolphe – composer, author, radio host and lecturer, has proposed an adventurous investigation, based on his book “The Mind’s Ear: Exercises for Improving the Imagination for Performers, Composers and Listeners”. How much of what we feel, as audience and performer, match with what the composer truly feels? We try to get into Schubert’s mind, read into Brahms’ complex relationship with Clara. Can we listen to this music and feel the same things that the composer intends?

Listen to the following evocative string quartet. How does it make you feel? What do you imagine as you listen to it – does it remind you of something that has happened in your life, something you have read, or a specific memory? How does it make your body feel – are you excited, saddened, hopeful, exhausted? Record your emotional responses, and submit to by November 8. We will then compare reader responses directly with the composer.

In addition, two quartets (the American quartet Thalea and French Girard) have the score and parts, and will be reporting their emotional responses hands-on. If you are a quartet and would like to try this method, simply email me for the parts.

Resident lecturer at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Bruce Adolphe is the creator/performer of national public radio’s popular podcast Piano Puzzler as well as the author of three books on music. He is presenting two books concurrently – one fiction and one non-fiction, available on Amazon and other outlets as kindle or book. Questions and comments can be left here, or via email to

The Mind’s Ear, Bruce Adolphe
Orfeo, Richard Powers

Included below is a timely interaction between Jill Owens and Richard Powers, taken from a interview about our selection, Orfeo.

Jill Owens:
“I refrain a like throughout this book is, “Music doesn’t mean things. It is things.””

Richard Powers:
“Yes. The struggle for composers, which Els (the main character) goes through in different stages over the course of his seventy years, is precisely that battle between a music that might be a matter of life and death, as it is for Shostakovich, or a way of surviving the evils of human history, as it is for Messiaen. You align yourself to a kind of music in the service of one or another of all the different kinds of things that the human mind might want. And at the end of the day, you have this reflective feeling of saying, it’s very possible that in pursuing a kind of music that you wanted to serve a certain function, to create a certain social urgency, to solve the problems of your historical time and place, that it might also have been worthwhile to make a music that simply moves people in the most etymological sense of that word – actually just makes their bodies want to move.
It’s that tension – between the music of pattern, the music of the cognitive brain; and the music of the body, the music of pure spirit – that infects his life at every turn. Music is both those things! And human beings are both thinking creatures and feeling creatures. And the art that hits on all cylinders, the art that moves us intellectually and bodily and spiritually, is what we’re after. But to capture all those things in the same vessel is a very, very difficult task. And it’s a very difficult one for Els until the very end.”

See you in a Fortnight!



  • Anthea Kreston says:

    Just a correction here – Fred Child is the host of Performance Today, and Bruce is the guest on that show for his Piano Puzzler (not the host). Check it out here –

    • Bill says:

      He’s on every episode, and writes the music used, how is he a guest? There is no PP without Bruce. Fred, on the other hand…nice guy, but just about anyone could take over his role.

      • Anthea Kreston says:

        Hi Bill!
        Fred is the greatest interviewer I have ever had. I was with him for a full week of live performances and interviews as a young artist in residence, and he made me feel so comfortable and open – hard to do when it is a live interview situation! Fred got his start in Oregon, so he is particularly close to my heart. Bruce is a wonderful part of the show, and also a brilliant interviewer and lecturer. His role is as a part of the larger PT, so he is not actually the host. What a great team, though!!

      • Anthea Kreston says:

        People are writing in and requesting parts to the mystery quartet! Join in – what an amazing experiment – just email me and I will send the parts/score.