Music For Your Day

Living life harmoniously

IDAGIO curator Mark Ainley explores his dual life as Contemporary Feng Shui consultant and expert in historical piano recordings.

Photo by Nathan Van Egmond on Unsplash

I've often been asked how I came to work in two seemingly different fields, as both a curator of historical piano recordings and a Contemporary Feng Shui consultant. To me, the art of musical interpretation and the ancient Chinese approach to designing living environments share many common qualities: creating beauty and balance, providing atmosphere within a fixed structure, and expressing individuality. Our homes all have four walls, a floor, a ceiling, and windows, but we can bring life to these inanimate spaces in our own way. The same applies to a piece of music, whose structure musicians bring alive by translating black-and-white notation into colourful sound.

My interest in homes and music goes back to my earliest years. My Hungarian mother was attentive to various principles that likely planted the seeds for what would become an interest in Feng Shui and its focus on design inspired by nature. She insisted that no packaged containers be placed on the dining table, and our living room was a warm, welcoming space for listening, reading, and conversation. It was beautifully enhanced with natural materials, and even our stereo and speakers were wood-panelled: our vintage Bang & Olufsen Beomaster 1000 receiver had matching teakwood speakers with gorgeous blue fabric panel covers.

Music played as much a part in setting the atmosphere as did decor. Specific pieces were chosen for certain types of dinner, and to this day I can still smell and taste roast beef when I hear the first moments of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No.4. Tea lights in crystal candle holders illuminated the dining room while we drank from pewter wine glasses or beer mugs (my sister and I were given water and soft drinks in these elegant vessels), so the setting reflected the old-school elegance of the music we listened to.

Design and music share a common thread in that we decorate homes with art, objects, and furnishings, but music is how we decorate time. Music is one way that we can sense the ever-changing, elusive present moment, and while it is a "now" experience, the imprints that specific sounds can forge in our memory banks are incredibly powerful and personal.

The music of my childhood instantly takes me back to our Montreal living room: I would run there from the other end of our apartment when I heard the opening strains of Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, and I can still feel that exuberance when I hear these passages today. The theme music from radio programmes that my family and I listened to daily or weekly on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) carries to this day the particular flavour of the time and space in which I regularly heard these tunes.

My fascination with historical recordings developed unexpectedly. I took my piano teacher a record of a performance that we both agreed was rather dull, and her seemingly superficial comment on the dimensions of the disc changed the course of my life. "I've never seen a record that thin – you should see the old, heavy 78s in my closet." As we examined a treasure trove of antique records in elegant sleeves that were languishing untouched in her hallway armoire, my attention was drawn to a large bound album with a distinguished pair of hands on the cover. "Oh look," she said, "Rachmaninoff plays Rachmaninoff." My heart almost stopped as my brain reeled at the concept of composers making records. And thus began a near obsession with old recordings, a unique means whereby one could explore how musicians living in different eras played and how performance styles had changed.

Feng Shui was an unanticipated arrival in my life, too. I moved to London, England in the mid-'90s, where I shared a flat with a friend of a friend. As we were discussing my time spent in Asia (I had previously lived in Japan), he asked if I'd heard of Feng Shui. I didn't know what he was talking about, so he handed me a book that he had on the topic. As I scanned its pages, I was immediately fascinated by this seemingly magical ancient Chinese philosophy that espoused balancing elements in home environments in order to nurture a sense of natural peace and harmony. Just as my piano teacher's old records had, this book opened up a new world to me that would expand my outlook on existence. This practice answered some of my questions about how we create atmosphere: colour combinations, materials, the placement of furniture, the images in art, the objects we keep.

How similar the philosophy was to my exploration of the special ingredients the greatest musicians brought to their recordings! The pace and dynamics of an artist's performance are among the first qualities that one might recognize, but there is much more to consider: the sonority that they produce, how the volume and tonal colour vary as a certain melody is played, and how that melody is expressed differently when repeated. We might think that each pianist produces a similar sound, but, in the first half of the 20th century in particular, each musician had such a unique timbre – as well an individual approach to timing and other factors – that one can often identify the performer within a few seconds of listening. Such is the case with some of my favourite pianists, like Dinu Lipatti, Alfred Cortot, and Marcelle Meyer.

In our homes, there is more to do than simply create functionality in the space, just as there is more to musical performance than just playing the notes. A house is not a home until it becomes personalized, and ideally it should be a balance of practical organization and aesthetic design. Similarly, I believe a musical performance should have an individual touch, but not to the extent that it completely overrides the personality of the composer or the character of the work. As in so much of life, it is a matter of balance.

Indeed, life seems to be an act of balancing opposing forces: light and dark, hard and soft, loud and quiet. One could say there is a grey area between the extremes of black and white, but I believe that between these polarities is in fact the full spectrum of colours. Nature is a colourful place – look at the incredible array of hues we see in flowers and birds, for example – and if we wish to live vibrant lives, we need to embrace the diversity that exists in every arena of life. How boring it would be if every home looked the same, if every piece of music were played the same way, if everyone dressed the same. Variety is indeed the spice of life!

Listen to the playlist accompanying this article here

Explore Mark Ainley's The Piano Files here

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