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As many of you know, in addition to my work as a trader in financial markets, I’m also a classically-trained musician. Recently, I’ve shared some of my musical compositions in a few forums, and I’ve had several people say things like, “I am interested in your music and classical music, but I don’t know how to listen to it. I don’t get it. It seems very complicated.”
If you’re one of the people who said that to me, thank you! Coming from pretty deep within the tradition, it was a wake-up call to hear this sentiment echoed by many people. Rather than digging into the whole history of the art, let’s begin this journey with a personal note on my own experience and perspective.
Growing up, I was fascinated by scientific topics and by music—almost in equal measure. While I was drawn to discovering new things and figuring things out with my brain, there was something about music that grabbed me and never really let go.
If I have to take this back to one formative experience, it was when my father took me to an orchestral concert. I remember, clearly, the sound of first hearing an orchestra tune in person—the resonance of the big open sounds, and the range of pitch from the big, rumbling bass monsters to the chirps of the tiny piccolo. Of course, at that point I knew very little about any of those instruments, but the immediacy and power of the sonic experience was shattering. I think I’ve spent much of the rest of my life trying to recapture some hint of that moment of revelation.
I also grew up in a religious tradition and heard some pretty decent pipe organ playing every week, and my family did what they could to entertain and nurture my obvious interest in music. I can remember writing my first “composition” in second grade, which involved my family sitting around my grandmother’s living room, banging pots and pans according to some hieroglyphs I had scrawled on school notebook paper.
I can remember being equally fascinated with feats of virtuosity on the keyboard and on some almost somatic connection with the quality of sound. I was driven to practice four or more hours each day, even rigging up a system of putting a blanket between the hammers and piano strings so I could practice at night. (Not recommended, if you’re curious!) I also spent a lot of time—and I do mean a lot of time—doing things like lying under the piano and playing single bass notes very loudly, and then listening to them decay.
Try this yourself
Try it. Go to a piano or pick up a guitar or other stringed instrument and play a single, low note. Loudly. (Sorry, electronic instruments will not really work for this.) And then just sit and listen, but really listen. Listen for details. Listen like you’ve never listened to anything in the past.
You’re not listening for sense or meaning, the way you listen to conversations with rapt attention. You’re not listening for structure or enjoyment. You are listening for pure, untarnished experience—and maybe for revelation.
What you’ll discover is that the sound changes as it decays. If you want to know the science behind the sound: the harmonics of the string contain different amounts of energy and resonance, and they decay at different rates. But the experience is something on an entirely different level—as the sound fades away, particularly at the end, you’ll hear choirs of angels singing within the string. (That’s not as insane as it sounds—Sufi traditions say this exact thing about vibrating strings, and many musics of the world are exquisitely sensitive to these effects in a way that we are not.) To my 10 year old ears, I was often reminded of jet airplanes receding in the distance as the sound finally fades away. (To have a different experience, do the same thing with the pedal held down on a piano. With all of this, getting your head as close as you can to vibrating wood and string is critical!)
Years of exile and return
After college, I worked as a professional musician for a while, and also had an incredibly rewarding experience teaching. Today, many of my students are professional performing musicians, professors, and teachers. I stopped music nearly completely around 2007, and touched a keyboard literally two or three times over the next decade.
During this time, I focused all of my time and energy on my trading and developing skills related to financial markets. You might ask why I didn’t just keep playing for fun and personal enjoyment. The problem is that once you’ve done something at a high level, it’s hard to do it casually. In this case, I would not have had the technique to play adequately, but I have a brain that has been honed through tens of thousands of hours at the keyboard—there’s no way to turn off that quality of the brain that evaluates the output (nor would I want to). So if I had played casually, I would have been in the highly undesirable situation of knowing I wasn’t very good at what I was doing, and that’s never good for enjoyment.
After a decade away from music, I returned first by rebuilding my piano technique. I spent some time working with a brilliant teacher in NYC who patiently worked from first principles—I spent months playing single notes at the keyboard, but with careful attention to alignment of the entire playing mechanism. After a lot of hard work, my playing became competent again. Then I decided to turn my attention back to composition, after going more than a decade without writing a note.
The results exceeded my expectations—I was surprised to find that skills and knowledge were largely intact. Maybe the link is that both music and trading used parts of my brain to process patterns. Perhaps there was some consolidation and skill development going on “under the hood” all along. I’ll tell you more about that in future blog posts.
A new piece
Let me wrap this up today by leaving you with a piece I composed. Ignis is a relatively short piece of music which I wrote originally for viola and piano and later transcribed for violin. Here is a performance by my friend and a brilliant violinist, Alexandra Hauser.
I would encourage you to listen to it a few times. This kind of music is very much about details; a piece reveals new things as our familiarity grows. If you have time, try to listen at least once with no distractions. Let the music define your experience of time for a few minutes, and invite your brain to process sound and structure in a way that might be a bit unfamiliar.
I don’t want to leave you with a list of “things to listen for,” so let’s leave it there for now. I’ll come back soon with some more thoughts about this piece, from the perspective of the composer.