Saturday 9 July 2022

Scarlatti's cat

Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

When we speak of a sixth sense, we speak vaguely or mystically.  It is hard to extrapolate from the five senses we know, which each seems to be unique and incomparable.  In fact, they form part of a series, with a clear underlying logic.  The sixth sense exists and extends that series.

The first sense was touch.  When life began, its primary means of detecting the outside world was the press of molecule on molecule.  Touch grew into smell and taste: the ability to determine properties of distant objects through the odours and flavours they unleash into the wind and the water.  Hearing too perceives other entities by their effects on the environment.  It continues the progression of the senses by widening the cognitive reach of the organism from the adjacent to several hundred metres away.  But that world is still crudely described: it took the development of sight to add an epistemological richness of detail.

Sight allows us to perceive our universe to the depths of infinity.  But it is not the last word in controlling that universe.  The first five senses are passive: they arose to give the organism progressively better chances in the Darwinian contest through superior information.  The sixth is more active, and evolved with mankind's ability to use tools.

The sixth sense can best be described as an innate bodily awareness: put simply, we know where our body is without the need to look.  An easy test is to close the eyes and then to touch your nose with your finger: the movements are possible because in the absence of any other input you are aware of the relative disposition of limbs.  This sense comes into its own with tools: through it we can with practice manipulate objects without the need to watch every movement we make with them.  An example is driving a car: you soon learn to press the pedals, change gears and switch on lights and wipers with your eyes fixed on the road: you just know - through your body - where everything is.

Perhaps the most impressive manifestation of this skill is in music.  Many instruments - the voice, strings, keyboards - require the player to know without looking where notes are: for violinists or singers, there are no markers for each pitch which must be learnt as a bodily position.  Similarly the pianist is often called upon to make quickly large and accurate leaps with the hands.

This technique became a commonplace in the Romantic period, when it was used to impress; a more interesting case is that of the Italian Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, who wrote over 500 sonatas for harpsichord.  Many of his pieces include the most extraordinary jumps for both hands.  One of his early works is a powerful fugue.  Although the sonata is without rapid leaps, its opening subject moves up the keyboard in a very unusual pattern.  Its oddness has led to the work being dubbed 'The cat's fugue' with the suggestion that the theme was produced by Scarlatti's cat walking across the keys.  The real reason is probably simpler: Scarlatti's delight in the physical sensation of keyboard playing meant that notes and themes placed awkwardly for the hands had for him a delicious extra dimension.  To some degree, we all have our own Scarlatti's cat.


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