Monday, November 2, 2009

Imagining beauty

Upstairs in the bright recital hall, the pianist sat rigidly erect, sporting an impossibly stiff matte-black bouffant above her wrinkled, pallid face. Some of her dark lipstick had missed its mark, giving one the impression of a weathered Noh mask. Perhaps she was someone's aunt, or grandmother, or perhaps she had taught generations of young musicians their scales. There was a hint of faded dignity there in her posture, in the soft folds of her long black gown and light pastel wrap, in her long pale fingers, and in the inclination of her head toward the open piano.

The audience was affluent and cultured, they would listen attentively no matter how poorly she played. They supported this room, they supported the arts, they supported the idea that somehow a program like this was necessary training for the good life. Some of them even brought their children -- it was never too early to learn how to behave in the presence of Art. You acquired culture through effort and, if you made the effort, it would help sustain you later in life, when you had precious little else. This was poignantly apparent -- wasn't it? -- as the elderly greeted each other, carefully took their seats, settled in, and began to dream.

The writer read a passage about practicing Chopin, about trying to get to the music
beyond the notes by going through the notes -- damnably hard if you haven't intensely lived and felt the full range of human emotions. That's why you practice like your life depends on it. The fingerings, the dynamics, the least variation in keeping the beat, these are nothing but means to an end. The passage tried to put it into words -- the notion of practicing so long and hard that the musician finally loses herself, falls into excited reverie, and becomes a vessel through which the music enters the sensual world. Capturing time. A passage filled with metaphors and similes, of elevated language, of prose wrenched into poetry. Trying to get at something unsayable.

When the reading ended, the pianist leaned forward, positioned her hands, and let her fingers slowly fall upon the keys. Chopin's Mazurka in C Sharp Minor. From those first small chords, she entered the piece stiffly, metronomically. You heard it at once: she would be solving a mathematical problem. That is, how do I measure those little black notes properly, so they come out even in the end? She would not look for the music inside the music, it was not part of the equation. A sixteenth note could only mean one thing, a triplet another thing. Somehow in her hands, they were not related. She kept striking the keys. Her playing became largely about the avoidance of mistakes.

Time ran away from her. It may have been four-and-a-half minutes, it may have been five. No one in the audience stirred, they were too well-behaved. They silently watched as she tried to make the notes fit and pathos filled the room like the scent of old lilacs. She tried and she tried. Perhaps at one time she may have been able to solve the mathematical puzzle, to make everything fit. Not this time. This time there were notes left over.

Finally, the pianist surrendered to Chopin and ended abruptly with the three proper staccato chords and the crowd applauded. She turned slightly toward the room and gave an almost imperceptible bow of the head. A few latecomers straggled in. The writer returned to the podium and said, "We request that you hold your applause till the end of the program." But the audience kept at it -- they were genuinely moved. The pianist nodded again. The piece had taken five minutes and ten seconds. It had been a long and fitful struggle and now we were left with its beauty in the imagination of our hearts.

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