For the New Year, we went to Lei & Tina’s, visited Philly, played poker, had hot pot, and watched 大话(what a tradition). Fun, but not much to write about.

What’s worth writing about is music. Lei’s old turntable has some speed issue so he went out and bought the same Sony with built-in preamp as mine on Friday “because of Zheng Hua is coming”, as he put it–what an honor and excuse. All his LPs are stored in a few boxes in the small office room next to the entrance, while the audio system is of course in the living room, so Lei and I had to make several trips to grab things to play. After my first treasure hunt, he said that I got all his best–I hope that’s not just an obligatory compliment 🙂

Seeing from Lei’s hardware and software, he’s not as hardcore as some of his friends, whom as he described would lavish thousands of dollars just on cables. In that, as well as in his collection and taste, I find some true connections. He has maybe a few hundred LPs, mostly from a few bulk acquisition. Most are from the Baroque masters: Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart. I haven’t acquired any interest in H&H, Bach is too serious for the time being, and I’ve had a bit Mozart overdose lately. I still picked a few Bach and Mozart, and then some Romantic classics.

The most interesting one (Lei’s pick) is a Chopin Concerto No. 2. The Seraphim LP sleeve says Dinu Lipatti, but no orchestra name is given. I was just curious to look up Lipatti and found to my greatest surprise that the pianist for the record is actually Halina Czerny-Stefanska, a Polish who shared the 1st prize of 1949 Chopin competition. The orchestra is Vaclav Smetacek and the Czech Philharmonic. The notes on “Dinu Lipatti: Cornerstones, 1936-1950” CD explain in fascinating details of how the prominent EMI producer Walter Legge and Mrs. Lipatti mistook a collector’s tape while trying to secure a Lipatti recording.

Lei said after the revelation that he did hear some feminine touch in the recording. I haven’t listened to enough pianists enough to recognize their distinct styles and touches–I’d better get the full Great Pianists of the 20th Century series from the library soon.

We sampled maybe a dozen LPs throughout the day, but as it got dark hip-hop and Mid-Eastern dance music took over. After rounds of drinks and water tobacco, someone puked, someone slept, and Lei put on his favorite Callas aria while holding on a rum bottle left with the last ounces of rum. (Un)fortunately someone complained that the music made his headache worse…

To sober up, let’s look at some neuroscience research projects on music done by an ex-pop music producer from NYTimes. I’m always fascinated by the neural basis of music–how do we perceive music out of sound? Here’s the most interesting experiment from the article:

Observing 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an M.R.I. machine, the scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity. First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune. Then the nucleus accumbus and ventral tegmental area activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward.

The cerebellum, an area normally associated with physical movement, reacted too, responding to what Dr. Levitin suspected was the brain’s predictions of where the song was going to go. As the brain internalizes the tempo, rhythm and emotional peaks of a song, the cerebellum begins reacting every time the song produces tension (that is, subtle deviations from its normal melody or tempo).

That explains a LOT of things: music is the subjective result from pattern recognition; why music can evoke comfort and joy, along with all other kinds of emotions; why people can’t help some body movement (head shaking, foot tapping, hand waving, etc.) when listening to music; and why I feel classical music is usually more enjoyable–most pop songs has too little variation beyond lyrics.

There are still too much left unexplained, of course. Take this wrong cover of Chopin No. 2: what is the psychological implications of listening to the same music before and after seeing the cover, and before and after knowing it’s the wrong guy/gal playing?