Thursday, 15 January 2009

Impossible Things

"Playing a musical instrument is easy: all one has to do is press the right key at the right time and the instrument plays itself."
Johann Sebastian Bach

Yeah, right. The Monty Python team once worked that ironic little quote into a sketch parodying Blue Peter (a British children's TV programme, featuring low-cost and improving DIY activities):
"How to play the flute..." (presenter picks up flute) "Well here we are. You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here." (presenter throws flute aside)
It's interesting, you don't immediately associate JSB with humour, but like that other joker, Beethoven, a profound sense of amusement is definitely at work in his music. You don't find Beethoven funny? Listen to Stephen Kovacevich's acclaimed new version of the Diabelli Variations, and try not to think of Chico Marx (The Fiorello Variations? "Hey, whatsa matter for you?")

The Python joke, of course, is not simply that playing the flute may look easy, but is actually about as far from easy as it gets. It's also that -- in essence, and without going into tedious detail -- that is about all there is to it: "You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here." Sorted! There's also an undercurrent relating to the breezy "can do" spirit in the upbringing of the British aspirational classes ("You can be anything you want to be, darling").

But, let's be clear: in fact, some things are not just hard: they are actually impossible. Playing the piano, for example. You may not have realised this, but a pianist is expected to play totally different, really complicated things with each hand. At the same time! That's impossible!!

The list of allegedly possible but clearly impossible things is quite long. Running 100 metres in 10 seconds, or running a marathon; Learning to speak Chinese (my Dad's favourite joke: "How hard can it be? Even the kids can do it!"); making a watch; selling worthless debts at vast profit; oh, lots of things. Face it, even making a list of impossible things is impossible.

So where does Bach get off, mocking our inability to play, never mind compose, the Goldberg Variations? Both of which are clearly beyond impossible. If even beginning to approach the high peaks of our culture is laughably out of reach for most of us, does this matter? Or, is that the whole point? As Robert Browning has his glove-puppet Andrea del Sarto say:
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?

Well, what indeed? It's kind of a "trickle down" theory of culture but, hmm, we know how little of the economic stuff actually trickles down as advertised.

So, looked at one way, the music of Bach is a perpetual rebuke to the majority of the population: you're ignorant, you don't care enough about the right things, you have never tried to excel, you don't see the beauty I place before you, you can't even read music, you ignorant, sinful, complacent, bourgeois PIGS! (The people yawn, "Get over yourself, Fat Boy...")

But looked at in another way, it's an act of humble dedication and a hymn to the presence of divinity even in in the lives of those exact same ignorant, sinful, complacent, etc. There's not a lot of anger to be heard in Bach's music, but an awful lot of humanity. Most of us have lost touch with the particulars of Bach's religious beliefs: culturally, he now lives in that odd territory identified by Philip Larkin in his poem Church Going:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
But we can still sense that he very much feels himself to be "one of us," and we reach for Bach when we feel that "hunger to be more serious." Perhaps that old concept of sin -- which is something I think we feel we've grown out of -- was nevertheless a useful one, as it meant the likes of Bach could not let himself off the hook of his own inherent sinfulness, simply on the grounds of superior talent. He might be rather better at playing a keyboard, but was thereby in greater danger of a Sin of Pride.

In the absence of such a humbling device, it's much harder to get the more talented crew members to behave nicely on board our Ship of Fools, and you end up with all that intimidating Modernist huffing and puffing: "Don't like what you hear? I'm not surprised -- this is SERIOUS music!!" Hmm, yes, but serious music for which very few feel a hunger.

So, I like to think he is laughing with us, not at us. And I bet JSB couldn't shift his rotund arse into a trot even as far as the end of the street. "Impossible!"

"Photography is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult."
Edward Steichen

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