Monday, September 22, 2008

Listening through the Piano

From « Loving Schumann » by Roland Barthes:

Schumann is very broadly a piano composer. Now the piano, as a social instrument (and every musical instrument, from the lute to the saxophone, implies an ideology), has undergone for a century a historical evolution of which Schumann is the victim. The human subject has changed: interiority, intimacy, solitude have lost their value, the individual has become increasingly gregarious, he wants collective, massive, often paroxysmal music, the expression of us rather than of me; yet Schumann is truly the musician of solitary intimacy, of the amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to itself…

Listening to the piano has also changed. It is not merely that we have shifted from a private, at the very most a family, listening to a public listening -- each record, even when listened to at home, presenting itself as a concert event and the piano becoming a field of achievements -- it is also that virtuosity itself, which certainly existed in Schumann's time, since he wanted to become a virtuoso equal to Paganini, has suffered a mutilation; it no longer has to match the world hysteria of concerts and salons, it is no longer Lisztian; now, because of the record, it has become a somewhat chilly prowess, a perfect achievement (without flaw, without accident), in which there is nothing to find fault with, but which does not exalt, does not carry away: far from the body, in a sense. Hence, for today's pianist, enormous esteem but no fervor and, I should say, referring to the word's etymology, no sympathy. Now Schumann's piano music, which is difficult, does not give rise to the image of virtuosity (in effect, virtuosity is an image, not a technique); we can play it neither according to the old delirium nor according to the new style (which I should readily compare to the "nouvelle cuisine" -- undercooked.) This piano music is intimate (which does not mean gentle), or again, private, even individual, refractory to professional approach, since to play Schumann implies a technical innocence very few artists can attain.

Finally, what has changed, and fundamentally, is the piano's use. Throughout the nineteenth century, playing the piano was a class activity, of course, but general enough to coincide, by and large, with listening to music. I myself began listening to Beethoven's symphonies only by playing them four hands, with a close friend as enthusiastic about them as I was. But nowadays listening to music is dissociated from its practice: many virtuosos, listeners, en masse: but as for practitioners, amateurs -- very few. Now (here again) Schumann lets his music be fully heard only by someone who plays it, even badly. I have always been struck by this paradox: that a certain piece of Schumann's delighted me when I played it (approximately), and rather disappointed me when I heard it on records: then it seemed mysteriously impoverished, incomplete. This was not, I believe, an infatuation on my part. It is because Schumann's music goes much farther than the ear; it goes into the body, into the muscles by the beats of its rhythm, and somehow into the viscera by the voluptuous pleasure of its melos: as if on each occasion the piece was written only for one person, the one who plays it; the true Schumannian pianist -- c'est moi

Excuse the long quote I just hijacked from Roland Barths. That’s not very scholarly of me. I should have at least made a comment here or there in between.

I’m thinking a lot about public and private spheres of music reception lately. I’m thinking about utopic music, music that cannot really be conveyed by most tools of transmission - concert, radio, CD, LP, Ipod etc. Music that slips through the cracks of contemporary perception, because there’s no appropriate means that can enter into the sphere of its essence.

Any pianist will tell you about the gratification inherent in being able to «shake hands» (literally) with the composers that first grasped the potential in a box of strings stretched to 20 tons of tension, specifically Schumann, Chopin and Liszt (the latter being the single greatest influence on the codification of the modern piano) . I want to avoid overly-poetic and self-gratifying musings on my profession, but I’d also like to write a little bit about the tactile component of listening to a composer like Schumann, as well as the intense pleasure of music in solitude.

I agree with Barths, that there’s an undeniable and irreplaceable element in «listening» to a composer like Schumann through the fingertips. This may sound overly sensuous to a «non-tactile listener», or especially to a «non-tactile listener of puritanical descent». But it would, I imagine, be immediately understood and confirmed by any pianist, professional or amateur, who has been privileged to confront this topic first-hand (pun intended). The hands, first of all, are great transmitters of information, being among the most sensitive tools we have at our disposal. The neuroscientist Wilder Penfield showed that the hands occupy an abnormal amount of our brain activity, and if we would be designed in proportion to amount of energy used up in our brains by all of our various activities, then we would look like this little guy.

A tactile involvement brings one in closer contact all music, but for certain composers it's particularly urgent to get to know the music «hands-on». In Schumann's case, it's like building up a republic of ten fingerdoms that are encouraged to align themselves in a dynamic and ever-changing web of inter-fingeriary (I'm fond of made-up words) hierarchies. A group of fingers relegated at one moment to a subsidiary role of harmonic support can suddenly stand up and demand attention as a potential contender for the melodic main role. The social categories are continuously challenged, and musical paradigms can be instantaneously toppled, leaving the fingers the role of picking up the lost rubble and organizing it into a new system.

And on to the issue of solitary music, it’s difficult to describe the intense gratification of sitting in a small room and bringing an over-sized instrument into full swing, trying to resuscitate a fantastically and heart-breakingly beautiful edifice that seems to have been created for this one individual - the player - at this one time (like the ancient murals in Fellini's Roma that disintegrate immediately upon first been seen by modern eyes), in an experience that is perpetually recreated by thousands of solitary players in solitary practice rooms throughout the world. A composer like Schumann seems to be sustained not by his societally and musicologically perceived "greatness", but more by the undying enthusiasm of music practitioners, as Barthes calls them, who have experienced these kinds of intense personal Schumann-experiences strongly enough to weather the absence of appropriate means of transmission for this utopic music.