Sounds exquisite


Written by: Mandy Stefanakis

“The man all await arrives.”

I stand in the foyer of the Conservatorium of Music at Melbourne University. It is amass with the music mob waiting for a string quartet to depart Melba Hall so they can enter. Student attire ranges from dreadlocks to suits while the sign suggesting quiet falls on deaf eyes. The man all await arrives. He is focused, ignoring the vocal drone, the excited hum all around. He wears jeans. My last encounter with him was listening to him perform on the stage of the Melbourne Concert Hall with the ACO. Many shades of black there, like a perched flock of currawongs. But this is a masterclass and apart from the students who are about to have their pieces, their musical lives unpacked, most are nonchalant – until the music starts.

One note on an extraordinary cello by an extraordinary cellist is, well, extraordinary. String a few together. Transcendent. My cello teacher, who sits next to me, whispers that the five million bucks worth of wood and wire seems worth it.

Peter Wispelwey

Technique is everything and ultimately nothing because without being in the music it doesn’t really say much. Renowned Dutch cellist, Pieter Wispelwey, spends half an hour making suggestions to a student on how to shape the first four individual notes of the gorgeous William Walton Cello Concerto. Cellos, like others in the string family allow the player to shape every facet of a note, from the tiniest increments in pitch to the attack, resonance, vibrato, amplitude tone colour and decay. Hence so long on one note. Wispelwey gesticulates, arms suggesting bow movements or an opening up, or a suppression. He moves around the stage, sings, models. There are some words. What do you see, imagine? What do you hear? Listen. Listen to everything about the sound and its relationship to the next note and that to come, or the silence, the air, the breath before it. Breathe!

As you can imagine, all the students performing are very fine players. But it’s all about the sound, the sound of one note and the message throughout is that need for refined focus on the sound event. Evelyn Glennie has a similar mantra and her conveyance of this concept of listening is palpable in her Ted talk which has had over four million views. Okay, most of those viewers were me.

I’ve been reading Steve Larsen’s book, Musical Forces. It discusses the metaphoric and algorithmic nature of tonal music. And there are rises and falls and shapes in music that suggest our inner knowledge of how the world works. But neither number nor word address the shaping of a sound, its ephemeral presence and lasting memory. These lie at the heart of the musical experience. Music is music, pure and far from simple. There is no metaphor or algorithm that can elucidate our understanding of it.


Larsen, S. (2012). Musical Forces: Motion, Metaphor, and Meaning in Music. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Evelyn Glennie (2003) How to Truly Listen. Ted. Retrieved at


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