Saturday, April 7, 2007

What's it all about?

Three different articles from around the web have gotten me thinking (again) about just what classical music is about. Most provocative was a throwaway quote from a Terry Teachout review. In praising a recently released jazz recording of a live performance, Teachout writes, "I happened to be on hand for one of the sets taped for inclusion in this album. Sometimes the heat of the moment can fool you into thinking that a live performance is better than it is, so I was delighted, though not surprised, to hear that this one was every bit as good as I’d remembered."

I know I'm strawman-ing poor Mr. Teachout here, but I'm intrigued by the suggestion that the recording is somehow more 'real and reliable' than the memory of the live experience. Of course I understand what he means, but this reveals again the tendency, especially among reviewers, to want to talk about musical performance in objective terms. "The heat of the moment" apparently shouldn't be allowed to fool us, to cloud our judgment of the true, objective quality of a performance. And yet, the heat of the moment is what it's all about. No doubt, the development of a recording industry has changed this dynamic to some degree, as I noted here, but I continue to hope that classical music is still most at home in a live context where the heat of the moment means anything can happen. It's fine to comment on how well a live performance translates to a disc that will be heard over and over again, but that's something different than what the performance means in the moment.

This is one of the bittersweet things about our art: a beautiful moment is gone as soon as it appears, living only in our memory of it, no matter how heated that memory is. This creates a special kind of conflict in the directionally-oriented structures of Western music. The music tells us we're going forward towards something, but our minds may get stuck in particular moments that have already passed. About a month ago I heard the extraordinary young violinist Stefan Jackiw play the Beethoven Violin Concerto. (I don't mind admitting that I know Stefan, so I won't pretend to be objective, although there's a pretty broad consensus that he's got it all.) There's nothing remotely self-indulgent about his playing, which is ideally suited to that piece, but I still found myself distracted from the music by the unfailingly astounding fiddling - the beauty of tone, perfection of intonation, the naturalness of phrasing, etc. The very fact that Stefan manages to play in a way that serves the music was distracting because it was so successful at not being distracting. OK, perhaps I'm just revealing more of my A.D.D. tendencies here, but I think this illustrates something about how the heat of the moment works.

I like what musicologist Phil Ford says here about the tendency for musicologists to focus much more energy on how performers should perform (performance practice studies) rather than on how they actually do perform. Because musical notation can provide so much information (certainly the typical score gives more prescriptive information than the text of a play or the choreography for a ballet), the basic mindset is that the performer exists simply to translate a score into sound. I've already quoted this interview with Alfred Brendel in which he dismisses the notion that a performer could be called a genius when his/her task is simply to serve the genius of a composer. This ignores common experience: an essential part of the communicative power of music has to do with the physical act of performing - not to mention the live acoustic, the shared interaction with others in the audience, the heat of the moment, etc. I wouldn't hesitate to say that Stefan's genius was as vivid to me in that concert as was Beethoven's - even Stradivarius's genius was on display. It's not just about Ludwig.

[Here's something interesting: I had just remembered a post from Elaine Fine's blog in which she talked about a non-professional acquaintance being more focused on a soloist (Vadim Repin) than the composer (Shostakovich). I went to fetch the link and discovered that Fine titled that post "What's it all about?" I'd already chosen the same title for my post, so I'm keeping it, but it's something I love about the interconnectedness of the blogosphere.]

The third recent article that inspired this post was a NY Times feature on the explosive infusion of talent from mainland China into the classical world. What I found compelling was how unapologetically these non-Westerners embrace the very Western classical tradition. At a time when a postmodern mindset has us questioning both long-held assumptions of cultural superiority and our overemphasis on music of dead composers, the Chinese pianist featured in the accompanying video plays Rachmaninoff as if his life depended on it and with no sense that this is music our wiser heads like to pooh-pooh as hopelessly unprogressive. I tried to tackle that progressive problem in this post past, but it's a sticky one. Should we give more attention to music that moves the art forward, or is the music itself all that matters? Well, it's an unanswerable question, but it's refreshing to see these students who don't seem to care about that - they play Rachmaninoff because it deserves to be played and Amen to that. They may play Schoenberg with the same passion and dedication, but I wonder. (Let me apologize now for generalizing so gliby about a pretty large group of people.)

I miss the time when I felt the same way. When I was listening to good 'ol Rachy 2 recently, I had to fight off those inner voices that kept saying, "that's just another big, sappy tune - nothing interesting or challenging about it. What a panderer, that Sergei!" I'm happy to say that the inner voices lose out, but the price of musical training is often that we learn how not to like things we used to like. The problem is well-summarized by Teachout here:

Is it possible for a critic to know too much? Not a chance. The unhappy truth is that it’s far more common for us not to know nearly enough about the art forms we review. (If you doubt it, ask any artist.) But I’ve also discovered that the accumulation of knowledge can inhibit our ability to appreciate an artistic experience. I know middle-aged opera buffs who never seem to enjoy the performances they attend. Whenever they go to “La Traviata,” they always end up spending the whole intermission grousing about how the soprano wasn’t as good as some half-forgotten diva they heard in Milan 37 years ago. They’ve lost the knack of enjoying the performances they’re seeing—not to mention the piercing beauty of the music they’re hearing….

The more you learn about an art form, the harder it becomes to enjoy it in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. The literary critic R.P. Blackmur had this phenomenon in mind when he observed that “knowledge itself is a fall from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation.” Go to “Swan Lake” for the first time and you’ll be blown away by the flood of gorgeous new sights and sounds that spills over you. Go 20 times and you’re more likely to notice that the orchestra played out of tune and the ballerina did 31 fouett├ęs instead of 32.

That’s not snobbishness. It’s connoisseurship, and it’s a good thing—unless it gets between you and the immediate experience of art. Gratuitous pickiness is a soul-killing trap against which the critic must always be on guard….

Snobbishness. Connoisseurship that slides into Elitism. That's not what it should be all about, but it's a hard path to resist. The mighty Soho the Dog complained last month about a Boston classical radio station fan poll that, not surprisingly, had a lot more Rachmaninoff than Schoenberg (none)- and no music by living composers. The comments to his post included the predictable Pachelbel bashing and other quotes such as this: "Meditation from Thais? I'd be very, very ashamed in Boston right now." Coincidentally, I was listening to a recording of Stefan Jackiw (at age 15) playing the Meditation this morning (hear here) and I can't think of any melody more perfect, especially as thus played. (The Paganini on that recording ain't bad either.) What's it all about? Stefan meditating is definitely part of the answer.

No comments: