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Inappropriate Ideas

Miss X is barely 20 but nevertheless a first class violinist. She’s Chinese, from a family of ambassadors, managers, doctors, politicians. I asked if any of her relatives were musicians and she said no, not a single one of them going back seven generations ever was involved in the arts. She’s the first in the family to break entirely new ground. And she intends to be a world-famous soloist, once she gets her masters and Ph.D. from a prestigious California university, and of course gets some performing experience behind her.

She sent me one of her audition CDs. I played it with just a touch of reluctance because I expected her performance would be amateurish and I would then be obliged to offer some kind and supportive comments. But her playing was utterly flawless. Especially the Paganini concerto. Hers was a precise execution informed by an emotional, nuanced interpretation beyond her years.

I took the disk to goldhands and asked him to tell me what he thought of the performance. I did not mention Miss X’s age, or background. Maestro put on the earphones and I qued up the Paganini track.

Maestro’s response was immediate and to the point: “Perfect!” he proclaimed. And he was surprised to learn she was a mere girl, just starting out.

Miss X and I carried on an IM correspondence for a while. I found it strange that she had virtually no interest in the life of the composers. For her it was just the music itself, independent of anything else. I gently suggested that if she were to become familiar with the masters’ histories, she’d likely be better able to convey the emotions that drove them.

“How so?” she asked.
“Well, all the assonance, dissonance and odd syncopation in Tchaikovski’s Pathetique might have sprung from the difficulties he was experiencing at the time he wrote that symphony.”
“I don’t know anything about that. What sort of difficulty?”
“Let’s just say that Pyotr Il’yich had a severe sexual identity problem.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“No. He was secretly gay but nevertheless married a woman. And he was profoundly traumatized by the whole thing.”

After a long, awkward silence Miss X said:

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I want to continue this conversation.”

I thought that was the end of it, but there was a little bit more.

I told Maria (my very own Immortal Beloved) about Miss X’s audition CD, and also about the discussion of my theory of the benefits of biographism. Intrigued, Maria asked me for Miss X’s screen name. Why? Well, Maria thought it would be interesting to become acquainted with a highly talented 20-year-old Chinese musician, that’s why.

A few days later Maria reported that Miss X had been deeply offended by my absurd and wholly inappropriate ideas about composers, and she feared I might be some sort of whacked-out and perverted stalker. I mean, why does he bring up all that sexual stuff anyway?

And by the way, she said. That creepy old fart doesn’t know a damned thing about music!

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i can't understand her lack of interest in the composers themselves, whether psycho-sexual background or otherwise. she's very young, though, and rude too.

It's perhaps somewhat akin to my moderate though not total lack of interest in learning about Spanish literature despite wanting to be passably fluent in speaking the language.

i'm like that about languages. i want to know how to sound out russian, greek, danish, etc., but i don't care to study their literatures (or even to be fluent, which is difficult to achieve at my advancing age). so yes, maybe it's a similar thing.

One reason I'm keeping to a Spanish minor rather than a major in my education is that I don't want to take phoenetics! ;)

I'd like to think Miss X will mellow with some age and experience. But I remember a college course I took a long time ago on the psychological problems of the elderly. Many believe getting old makes you cranky and nasty. But research suggests that age has absolutely nothing to do with it. These people were cranky and nasty when they were 20. But they learned for practical reasons (like keeping a job, for instance) how to temper it to one degree or another.

Yeah, that's me :)

excellent point! i've known some very kind and deeply sweet old people too. it's a shame about the stereotyping. i know that i'm a bit less brittle and angry now than i was in my 20s. if i make it to my 80s, i'll try to remember not to revert to type. *g*

It's probably some combination of cultural issues and the 'zOMG all people men on the Internets are pervy stalkers!' thing, which is of course another cultural issue.

I was about to say that; the cultural issues and also the (unfortunate but sometimes necessary) pervy-stalker thing. Even though WE knew that's not where you were coming from at ALL.

Nice of you to say. But how can you be SURE? Bwaw-hahahahahahah....

I was utterly fascinated by the fact that Miss X, a Chinese, could transcend any culture issues in her playing of Italian music.


that's how it is for just about all forms of art. you can take it in the context of what the artist was going through, maybe what inspired him/her, but you can also just take the art for its value alone (without the baggage).

True. But nevertheless I can't bring myself to believe that knowing little is just as "good" as knowing more. A knowledge of the history of art, for instance, enhances one's appreciation and understanding of what's hanging in the gallery. Ditto for music. And for its performance.

yeah, i definitely got that impression (no pun intended) going to the van gogh museum in amsterdam. his pieces are arranged in chronological order, grouped into themes depending on location and his stage of depression at the time.

Ah, Ah, Ah and Ah, Ah, Ah more...

she intends to be a world-famous soloist. And after the results of the conversation between you and the Miss 'X, do you thing is it possible? I think that she is going to be only a mere musical executor; to express the deep soul of the composer, when you are playing, you must synthesize the era, the life, the spirit, the psychological evolution and more. I think she must have a deep conversation with another musical executor, too, to understand what an execution is and to understand that you said right and it was a sin to no listen to you.

To play devil's advocate, perhaps you could either express the notes on the page with the touch, for lack of a better word, of your own soul, and do so with such grace that the result is sublime even though you know nothing about the circumstances of its composition. Or perhaps you could express the composer's feeling without knowing it by somehow intuitively picking up the trace from the music itself.

As John said, I esteemed Miss X and proclaimed "Perfect". I don't set bounds to the Providence, but I think that a situation you are describing is a "rara avis". If you have that aim, like Miss X said (she intends to be a world-famous soloist) you must work to realize this one, and you must not close your mind and reject the possibility to amplify your knowledge.
When I was recording a musical compilation with Tony Scott, a popular american jazz player, some years ago, I was astonished about his reasoning. He played by ear but his culture, when he spoke about a special interpretation, was unbelievable. That was an instance for me.

This raises the fascinating question as to what is more important or legitimate, conveying the intent of the composer, or conveying the intent of the performer?

It gets complicated, doesn't it?

For instance The Goldberg variations played by Glenn Gould on a modern piano (with his grunting in the background) is one thing, and the same piece played by a silent performer on a harpsichord is entirely another. The latter might be said to be more "faithful" to Bach than the other. But for me, I'll take Gould any day!

and yet, I've always felt that those people who first heard it through Gould's two versions - and there are a surprising amount of them in my generation - are missing out on what it is in itself - whereas for me the pleasure of someonelike Gould is what he's doing with the Bach, which is quite different from the baseline pleasure I have in Bach's music.

I wouldn't have brought up the subject if she were a mediocre player. It seems to me her lack of interest in the subject was a bad sign, and by that I mean she might be heading toward a terrible waste of a precious gift.

to be sure : i know of many, many prodigious violinists who can play sibelius, tchaikovsky, even paganini caprices breezy as the sea. but they know little to nothing (most! not all!) about composers, theory which extends beyond the peripheries of theory, literature, art &tc. it's pretty devastating. & the ones who do seem to give a hoot often quit, devastated. or consumed by some sort of madness.

that being said? i'm rarely moved by perfect performances. perlman & menuhin being exceptions. kennedy & cerovsek & even heifetz : man, they can come into this house any day.

I understand exactly what you mean. But "perfect" is just one among many descriptions of what is on that disc she sent me. In lengthy IM sessions I saw a huge disconnect between her music and the personality she projected. Yes, she was ambitious. Yes, she put in all the hours of practice and difficult academic training. But despite that she gave the impression that for her music was merely a means to an end. I don't believe she ever used the word love for it. Which I found baffling.

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