Why write? (2)

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

A certain Polish composer wrote around the age of thirty: “All that matters to me now, today, is music, my music.  It is the only thing in the world for me.”  Then, aged 50 — shortly before his death and already sick — he wrote:  “I have failed in my music.  I never quite got it.  Only in [xx]  there I had it for a moment, didn’t I?  But the rest — the rest is a failure.”

The thing is — his music isn’t great (as I reflect now, re-listening).  So… is his case a case of someone realizing only at 50, upon reaching fullness of age, in a kind of flash of revelation, that all his life he’d been writing drivel?  If so, his story would be a sad story indeed, but one containing a central kernel of hope:  the hope being the fact that we — some of us — can learn to understand better — even if that knowledge should come too late, as it did for the composer in question, at least it can come.  How much better is such a case than a case of someone who’ll have gone down to his grave without realizing what waste all his production has been.

Or is his case a case of someone writing drivel, seeing it for what it was all along, but persevering all the same?  And if the case is this case, then one must wonder:  how does one dedicate himself to the creation of inferior art?  Does one do this because one hopes that “in time things will get better”?   Or does one do it for some other reason — perhaps in order “to be an artist”?  For the status — whether to impress the unwashed even if it is only self-perceived?

Tschaikovsky, Brahms, Wagner — did they honestly think they were writing good stuff?  One has to wonder:  in a letter to his publisher Brahms refers to his second symphony as a “charming monster”.  A monster it is — but is it… charming?  To whom?  To Brahms?  Because he happened to write it?  Whatever does he mean by charming?


How success kills the goose

July 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

How success kills the goose.  Kto słucha nie błądzi was for many months my favorite program on Polish Radio, proof that it is possible to talk intelligently about quality in art (in this case, recordings of classical music).  The format was brilliant:  three musicologists discussed recordings of a single work of music “blind” — i. e. not knowing who the performers were — and choose the best.  (Unsurprisingly, they usually chose my favorites.  The revelation of the performers at the end of the program also rarely surprised:  some performers really are predictably head-and-shoulders above the rest).

For an aesthetictist, the program was also a goldmine of observations in the matter of taste:  it illustrated that the opinions of those in the business (all participants are musicians and musicologists) are far less divergent than those of the clueless general population (whose preferences being random mean nothing), but even they face the barrier of personal taste.

The public probably just liked to hear what kinds of small details, undetectable to their untrained ears, they heard in the recordings and why they liked them (or not).  But the public liking was the program’s undoing:  the organizers decided to make it a program with live audience in the studio — and killed it.  The participants began to play to the galleries — unnecessarily showing off their erudition, making pointless jokes and, when they had nothing to say, making things up — lying — as if debates of art and music needed any more lies and fabrication.

This — the perversion of the performer is one way in which success kills a good program; the uncalled-for broadening of the audience is another.  A Japanese stand-up comedian whose program I once sponsored on Japanese TV told me he stopped producing it the moment his ratings went over 5%.  “Suddenly, he said, I discovered that my audience didn’t get my jokes”.  His jokes were intelligent and required both wit and lots of erudition to get — the qualified audience size was naturally limited.  As the show became more popular, it began to struggle to reach its new audience, dumbed down, and eventually the host asked us to take it off air.

Dear KSNB:  for your own good, today I won’t be tuning in.

The divine Alban Berg

April 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not all Lindsays’ recordings of Haydn are equally perfect.  Their Op. 33 and Op. 54 have an ugly, screechy, scratching sound. This may perhaps be due to poor sound engineering; but the tempi definitely are not.  I thought I would never hear myself say such a thing, but Kodaly play op. 54 better; and Borodin op. 33.

The undisputed masters of all string quartet repertoire which they have ever deigned to play are of course the Alban Berg:  even from the exalted heights of Borodin, Kodaly, Lindsays and Mosaiques, one can at best glimpse only their feet floating high up in the sky.  What a pity they have recorded so little Haydn — opting instead for all of Beethoven.  One is thankful of course that they have — Die Grosse Fuge had never — and will never again — sounded so good, but what a pity not to have op. 20 or op. 33 by their hand.

The fault is no doubt the producers’ –who probably think Beethoven is serious stuff, but Haydn “inconsequential” (people’s power of perception never penetrate the surface, polish is detrimental to popularity).

Kremer’s ensemble is very good — why does he not record more than the Seven Last Words?

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.

Learning the Haydn string quartets

May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

There are things — experiences — which cannot be recorded because they are not understood; and which are not understood because we lack the intellectual apparatus with which to comprehend them. If we had the apparatus, we could — the smarter among us, anyway, could — just maybe — invent the necessary words: language and cerebration are not one and the same, as anyone who has ever invented a word must surely be convinced; but I have no hope of ever inventing the words with which to express how important to me was the discovery of the Haydn string quartets: I am too ignorant of the technical aspects of the music; and the abstract nature of my emotional response to it escapes my ability to conceptualize it.

I have all the less hope of expressing — why, of grasping, even — the importance of the discovery because its impact is self-contained: i.e. it is important to itself only. That I am now familiar with several opera recorded by several different ensembles changes nothing — except that: Haydn string quartets are a thing onto themselves, learning about them does not make one a better lover, or a better day-trader, or a better man. 

In this, they are comparable to the experience of seeing the four-planet conjunction just before dawn in the eastern sky: all that can be said about it is — that I saw it. These words, as I write them, seem so inadequate to the weight of the experience, that I keep looking back at what I wrote with surprise, trying to spot the error.  But there is no error.  The words are precise and accurate: I have seen the four planets in conjunction; I have learned Haydn.

It follows that the only thing I can say about the experience of learning the Haydn string quartets is — incredibly — this:

“This is what I have been doing: learning the Haydn string quartets. Swathes of time over the last five months have been dedicated to listening. I have been moved, surprised, fascinated, and gratified.”

Somehow, all that can be said about it, all that I can say about it — can be said…  in just three simple sentences, simple, Spartan, unarmed; gaunt like a violin playing a high G.

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