Thursday, June 24, 2010

Back in 2000 I went down to London for a photoshoot at Interview magazine.

I had a minder. I said something euphemistic to the minder. Something about needing to talk to someone. She recommended a shrink.

I came back to London to talk to the shrink. He asked questions about my family, so the mind was mired down in things I try not to think about. He said something euphemistic. The euphemism was: Do you think you might harm yourself? What it means is, Do you think you might kill yourself? I have no idea why a shrink would be mealymouthed. I said, Do you mean, commit suicide? Well, sure. The shrink said he thought we should have an appointment the following day.

I had been thinking of moving back to London and renting a place with a piano. I thought I might have a better chance of finding such a place at one of the music schools, so I went over to London Guildhall. There was a masterclass that day with Murray Perahia!

I went to the masterclass.

Four students performed. You know they had killed themselves to prepare. A British boy played something by Schumann. Two Korean girls played pieces by Chopin - the Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor and another piece. An Argentinian boy played the Goldberg Variations.

Perahia had at one point had an injury and been unable to play for, I think, two years. Before that he had never bothered with analysis, but during the two years he immersed himself in the subject; afterwards he never worked on a piece without analysing. So his questions and comments to the students related primarily to analysis rather than to execution. In the case of the two girls - this is predictable - he said each time: Well, this is a performance. That is, it was of concert standard. He had a few minor comments. (He had more re the Schumann, but I forget.) The Argentinian was different.

You know, of course, that Perahia had himself been working on the Goldberg Variations. The boy had performed the piece in a style that is not at all fashionable - with much use of the pedal. Perahia asked him a couple of questions along the lines of what is the triad here, and the boy said What? He had no idea what Perahia was talking about.

If you know nothing about the British system of musical education this won't mean much to you.

In Britain, musical education is constructed as a progression through a series of grades, 1-8, each of which is examined. There are pieces of increasing levels of difficulty. There is sightreading of increasing difficulty. There are technical tests of increasing difficulty - scales, arpeggios and so on. And there are questions about theory. (The system was at one point exported to Canada; Glenn Gould is funny and scathing on the subject.)

It is absolutely inconceivable that a British student who had passed Grade 8 and gone on to the London Guildhall would turn up for a masterclass and be unable to answer a simple question about a triad. This WOULD NOT HAPPEN. So for a boy to sit at the piano and play the Goldberg Variations and be asked a simple question and say ¿Qué? is unbelievably humiliating. There is NO ONE in the audience who could not answer the question with aplomb.

Perahia explained what he was talking about. He said: You have to learn this. Humiliating. But this was the one who interested him. The boy's approach to the piece was quite different from his own, but this was the one who interested him.

I had been pretty crazy but sitting in the room I felt all right. Perahia said he practised 6 hours a day; practising was the best part of the day. There was something no one questioned: that you would devote 6 hours a day to a piece, that you would spend countless hours analysing a piece, trying to understand what the composer had in mind. BACH merits this level of dedication. CHOPIN merits this level of dedication. SCHUMANN merits this level of dedication. Perahia is a very great musician, and yet -- or rather not and yet, this is what it means to be a great musician -- Perahia is willing to spend hundreds of hours thinking about BACH.

Oh God.

I was thinking, you know, of the meetings I had had. About the fact that there was something no one questioned: that anyone, however ignorant, had the right to brush aside as irrelevant not only the author's express wishes but the author's contract.

Here was a place where composition was taken seriously.

I had a meeting the next day with the shrink. I had nowhere to stay in London. I took night buses. I went to Victoria and took a night bus to Walthamstow. I took the night bus back to Victoria. I took another night bus back to Walthamstow, and now it was early morning. I walked around and fell in with some boys who had been out all night. They were looking for a newsagents where they could buy cigarettes. One had a Staffordshire terrior. They were going to the Tube station. I went with them while they talked about the Staffs. I took the Tube into London and went to my meeting with the shrink and explained: I think the thing that would be good for me would be to have a musician explain a Bach fugue for an hour a week.

I was not able to line up a musician but this struck me as an insight of real genius. A shrink gets $100+ an hour. Young musicians are poor, they sometimes have to teach to make ends meet, they don't get $100+ an hour - how much better if we had a society where a young musician could get $100+ an hour explaining a Bach fugue rather than teaching recalcitrant children. If we had a society in which people were as likely to hire a young musician as a shrink, surely there would be a larger, better-educated audience for music. Whereas I could not see any larger social benefit whatsoever to channeling $100+ an hour to a shrink.

I did not, of course, share this thoughts with the unwanted shrink, but I indicated that I was unlikely to want further appointments. He told me I should send him a cheque and decide for myself what I thought was an appropriate amount.

Poor head, poor head. If a session with a shrink has been completely useless, what is an appropriate amount to send him for his time? The question can only be settled by reference to social standards which I don't know. I consulted with David, who suggested, I think, the amount of £70.

I recently told this story to Jeff Treviño, who has just talked me through Bach's Fugue in C minor, Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1. For 2 hours. I have actually played this fugue (not well). The whole thing was unbelievably amazing. Tyler Cowen! Berliners! Pay Jeff 100 euros to talk to you about a Bach fugue! Jeff is about to go to Paris. Parisians! Pay Jeff 100 euros to talk to you about a Bach fugue! Or if you don't have 100 euros, make Jeff an offer! This is unbelievably amazing. Instead of talking about your childhood, you can have access, via Jeff, to the workings of one of the greatest musical minds the world has ever known!

Jeff, btw, talked about Anton Reicha, who he hopes will be revived as the next Bach - a composer of extraordinarily interesting fugues. Get Jeff to tell you about Anton Reicher!


Andrew Gelman said...

Interesting thought, but I'd rather talk with people about literature, which I understand better. I like to listen to music but have never learned how to play music, which I think limits my understanding.

As a literary person yourself, wouldn't it be just as good to talk with someone about literature? Or is there something special about music, rather than literature or history or visual art or physics or . . .

Helen DeWitt said...

I think the point about music is that it feels like something 'outside the self', something impersonal, that one can learn about. Literature or history would feel too personal. Physics would be all right. Mathematics would be all right. Someone once talked to me at a bad time about Bernoulli equations and it was great.

SnowLeopard said...

Music is a little different thanks to the relative transparency of Western notation. There's something magical about how austere and atomistic dots on the page, so readily subject to analysis, can combine to have such extraordinary and reproducible effects. The fact that Bach's Art of the Fugue, Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor -- oh, hell, all Bach -- is actually written down on paper for all to examine is one of the perpetual wonders of my life. Most of the world's other musical traditions are primarily oral and lack precise notational schemes, so we have no idea how many Bachs, unappreciated in their own lives, they might have had. And, as an Arabic musicologist has asserted to me, this lack of notation has had the result that Western-trained musicologists reach a lot of misguided conclusions about how oral music traditions work. With Bach's work already written down -- by Bach himself! -- the element that actually requires the most expertise has already been taken care of.

But I'm always looking for another fugue or fugue theorist. Do you mean Anton Reicha (1770-1836)? His 36 Fugues for Piano are available free in PDF format online.

Andrew Gelman said...

Helen: What about sports, then? Or animal behavior. Or visual art?

No big deal, I'm just wondering where the boundary is.

Helen DeWitt said...

SnowLeopard, Oh dear, yes, I'm sure that's the man, should have checked. Spent so many years in Britain that I now mentally spell all sorts of words with silent r's without thinking about it. Fixed in post.

Andrew, I think part of the appeal for me of music was that I have never got very far in achieving musical understanding by independent study. I can imagine being distracted from thoughts of suicide by, say, Michael Lewis's Moneyball, or Deborah Gordon's book on ants, or Michael Fried's Menzel's Realism, so perhaps hearing someone talk about such things would also help. But I think there might be something therapeutic about being helped by another human being to overcome an intellectual limitation I had not been able to get past on my own.