Last night I found myself again clutching chips with amusement in a train, some baked KC Masterpiece Lays chips. Perhaps some distant delicious barbecued pork might, if perfectly cooked and served, be declared, after a beer or five, a “masterpiece,” with genuine slavering emotion, and yet, and yet! ... after the translation of the barbecue to the sauce and of the sauce to the sauce powder and the powder into the baked, processed potato chip: in that process somewhere the “masterpiece” may have been lost. After eating several chips I ran my hands through my hair and realized now the reddish powder was part of my “do,” and thus decorated (a soldier of Sodium Benzoate) I braved the fluorescent return to the city. I held my head high as I strode through Grand Central Station, a man who is willing to enter the metropolis becrumbed. I must admit, to return, like some composers, to a recurring unimportant theme: I am truly a chip man; I perpetually feel a tension between the finite nature of life and the seemingly infinite nature of chips to be consumed. Many evenings have I succumbed to late night chip-and-salsa cravings only to wake at 3 am with a sour post-vision of chile and garlic and the oily remnants of fried corn tortillas weighing down my pores. And despite all this punishment and regret beyond measure the chip still stands, still calls... like a Siren ...
I have been peripatetic of late and obviously the to-and-fro has tolled upon my brain horrendously. When you travel you often practice in strange places and of course, like any migrating species, you have to explore your new terrain, get a feel for predators, food supply, etc. I was sitting in a beautiful studio in NEC (thanks so much Ms. Byun!) and when you are in teachers’ studios and you find yourself unable to concentrate you wander and peep. There were several xeroxes on a counter and this one caught my eye:
But precisely the most important and best thing, namely, that unnoticeable variability of the tempo, of the timbres, simply does not happen in a mechanical way and through rehearsal...
The greatest technical correctness and control one can achieve does not replace the lack of inspiration; but it does have the most fateful consequences for music making as a whole. Excessive technical control, that is, the evenly executed technical perfection of all details, which as such take on a completely different character than intended by their creators, who in their conception always proceeded from the whole. The naturally productive route by which the details are viewed and interpreted by way of the whole, is turned around. The improvisational element is essentially lost, indeed it loses its very concept--this improvisational quality, which does not represent some mere accident, something one can do with or without, but rather is, quite simply, the ultimate source of all great, creative, necessary music-making.
Wow. I was really enjoying that quote, from very near the outset, with that enticing phrase the “unnoticeable variability of the tempo, of the timbres.” It’s so very true, that the smallest shifts in tempo feeling are what often make the difference for me between redemptive and annoying performances; or as my late teacher used to say, motion is not as important as mobility. It was late in the evening; Boston lights twinkled; and I was gradually giving in (not very reluctantly) to the notion that no more practicing could be done and thinking emotionally about the softness of my bed at the delightful Bertram Inn, when I realized I was listening, without knowing it, to some student practicing the Chopin G minor Ballade. Mystery Student X assayed a plain version of the coda, which all persons affiliated with the piano must view as one of those inescapable obstacles of music education; as one of those perennial iconic misfortunes which the great genius of Chopin visited upon the planet, in order that endless multitudes of students and faculty learn to suffer and endure; a passage of brilliance, originality and virtuosity so endowed with attraction that it must paradoxically be destroyed under the steamroller of endless repetition. I’m talking about:
And after one run-through of that, X was obviously dissatisfied. Perhaps it was uneven? It all sounded clean to me, through the wall, a notoriously unreliable filter, but perhaps (and I know it well) there was some lingering fear of possible future missed notes, even in the absence of present ones. And so X began practicing “in rhythms”:
AAAAAAAHHHHHH! I stared at the Furtwangler quote, propped on the piano, and he seemed to be speaking, screaming, begging for the Chopin to stop, begging for the Details to be forgotten and the Whole once more to be glimpsed and attempted; and I envisioned the forces of Evenness and the forces of Variability locked in mortal combat, grappling for the soul of the modern Conservatory. The student could never have known how ironic his/her practicing was to me at the moment. It was all too much, I snapped up my Chausson and my quote and my bag and left NEC behind in my dust, via the agency of an insane Boston cabbie (is there any other kind?), who wanted to take lessons from me (me! the madman who fled the Conservatory at 10 pm!) and back at the Inn half-dressed I watched doctors slowly and methodically remove a 200-pound tumor from a woman, and wondered how it got to be 200 pounds, and fell into a deep but unnoticeably variable sleep.