Perfect and imperfect music

September 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some composers can and must be trusted absolutely:  Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Ravel.  And I do mean “must”:  if, for some reason, you don’t get something, there is only one explanation:  you’re not good enough, yet; and you must keep listening until you are.

The special thing about these composers is that — they have never written a bad thing.  Absolutely every work from their pen is wholly and completely perfect.  What’s more:  none could possibly have been written differently (“not one iota”, etc).  The perfection of the Brandenburg concerto or a Chopin Mazurka lies in the way it makes sense, each part fits with every other, B always follows from A.

The reason why some compositions are perfect is that they fit certain inherent structures of the human brain: structures that either exist at birth or can evolve from the structures that exist at birth.  (Each instance of listening to music changes the structure of the brain, but only in a way permitted by the original structure and the rules of change:  the variety of possible mental states is possibly huge (though possibly not), but it is definitely not infinite. To fit the brain, a work of art must fit one of the mind’s possible states; throwing cheesecake against the wall — or employing armies of typist-monkeys — might once in a blue-moon produce something suitable, true, but the artist’s art — meaning skill — lies in vastly improving the odds.  A work that fits the brain perfectly, is perfect:  we perceive it as such).

There also exist unerring performers:  Sviatoslav Richter is one, Claudio Abbado is another.  If a work presents a problem, if you cannot understand it, or like it, you must go to an unerring performer and hear him do it.  These special performers can find meaning and beauty in the most resistant pieces of dross.

Abbado/ Grimaud is a prettty good ensemble, and if they cannot make Rach2 sound good — as was seen in Lucerne in 2008 — then, probably, Rach2 cannot be played well at all.

Not that there isn’t a lot of good material there:  the piece feels like an artist’s studio cluttered haphazardly with all kinds of brilliant unfinished sketches of pieces of armor, plates of fruit, heads of youths — all lying about in helpless mess.  Rachmaninov had enough talent to come up with all these nice details, yet, he simply didn’t know how to put them together.

By comparison, Tchaikovsky’s Tempest doesn’t even have nice bits in it.  It’s just a stretch of indifferent stuff, now piano now forte, in a hopeless attempt to make it interesting:  a laundry list — minus Rossini.  (“Give me a laundry list and I will compose fascinating music to it”).

The overall impression is that while perfectly logical pieces like Chopin’s scherzi or Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites seem to arise out of some deep need — one feels that they had to come into being sooner or later, and they could not have come in any other way — there is no apparent compelling reason to compose something like The Tempest — other than Tchaikovsky’s misguided ambition to be a composer which, he imagined, meant turning out one large work every year. (“One damn thing after another” theory of art).  Artists like Tchaikovsky are like those people who go into plastics — it seems the smart thing to do.

Puzzlingly, there does not appear to be any apparent need to perform it, either.  So, why does Divine Claudio bother?

Incidentally, this photo only looks like Helene is bending down to kiss Divine Claudio’s hand.  Though, we would understand it, if she did:  we want to every time we see him.

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