Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Impossible

On Tuesday night we went to see Angela Hewitt playing Bach's English Suites at the university's Turner Sims concert hall. That may mean little or nothing to you, but if you know your classical performers you'll realise what a privilege that was. I think she's been my favourite pianist since coming across her recording of Bach's Italian Suite  in Southampton Central Library (the 1985 performance that won her the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition and launched her career), back in the days when cassette tapes were the currency. There was something about the liveliness and aptness of her interpretation that was totally compelling. I copied the tape (ssshh) and played it over and over.

I could say some things about her performance on Tuesday, which was spellbinding – her complete concentration, her repertoire of facial expressions, her use of an iPad in place of sheet music (is that normal these days? How the hell do the pages get turned? Or maybe she was watching Killing Eve at the same time?) – but I'm incredibly ignorant, where music is concerned. To adapt the immortal words of Sir Thomas Beecham, I may not know much about music, but I love the noise it makes. So, given I'd been reminded of a couple of ancient posts I wrote a decade ago, I thought I might polish them up a bit and mash them together instead. Here we go:
"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 up that little tongue-in-cheek quote into a sketch which parodied Blue Peter (a venerable British children's TV programme, featuring low-budget and improving DIY activities, often presented breezily and somewhat reductively):
"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)
I don't think one immediately associates JSB with humour but, like that other joker, Beethoven, a profound sense of amusement is definitely at work in his music. What, you don't find Beethoven funny? Listen, for example, to Stephen Kovacevich's acclaimed interpretation of the Diabelli Variations, and try not to think of Chico Marx (The Fiorello Variations, maybe? "Hey, whatsa matter for you?")

The crux of the Python joke, of course, is that playing the flute may look easy, but that it is actually about as far from easy as it can get. But, at the same time – 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 mocking the breezy "can do" spirit that imbues the upbringing of the British aspirational classes: "You can be anything you want to be, darling". Oh, really?

But, let's be clear. In fact, some things are not just hard: they are 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. No, really! At the same time? That's impossible!

So where does Bach get off, mocking our inability to play, never mind compose, the Goldberg Variations? Both of which are clearly several degrees of impossibility beyond impossible. Yes, yes, very funny, Johann. You can do it, and we can't: how amusing. But this does raise an important question: if even beginning to approach the high creative and interpretive peaks of our culture is so laughably out of reach for most of us, does this affect, in a negative way, our attitude towards them? Are we being made to look like inferior beings to the extent that we will, understandably, come to resent the elitism of the whole enterprise? Or, is its out-of-reachness 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? I suppose there's a kind of "trickle down" theory of culture in there but then 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 at anything, you don't perceive the beauty I place before you, you can't even read music, you ignorant, sinful, complacent, bourgeois PIGS! [sound of harpsichord lid slamming down]. To which the people respond with a yawn, and answer: "Oh, get over yourself..."

But looked at in another way, this music is 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, after all, but an awful lot of humanity. Most of us have lost touch with the particulars of Bach's Lutheranism, or have never held any religious beliefs at all: culturally, he now resides in that curious territory, somewhere between nostalgia and envy, 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 still reach for Bach when we feel that "hunger to be more serious", and, however elevated the music, there is no sense that Bach is looking down on us, or is solipsistically exploring his own soul. Quite the contrary. This music was made for us. Perhaps that old concept of "sin" – which is something I think we mainly feel we've grown out of as a society – was nevertheless a useful one, as it meant the likes of Bach could not let himself off the hook of his own inherent human sinfulness, simply on the grounds of immensely superior talent. Yes, he might be rather better at playing on a keyboard than the local innkeeper, but was thereby in far greater danger of a sin of pride.

In the absence of such a humbling device, it has become much harder on this Ship of Fools to get the more talented members of the crew to behave nicely, and you end up with all that intimidating, self-important modernist huffing and puffing. "Don't like what you hear? I'm not surprised – this is SERIOUS music for SERIOUS people, you peasant!" Hmm, yes, but serious music for which very few feel a hunger. Twelve tone? Serialism? Who gives a crooked crotchet? We like tunes and harmonies, and always will.

Which brings me back to Bach and Angela Hewitt. As I was sitting there, completely engaged by one woman's artistry in interpreting one man's genius, it struck me: this astounding music [1] was composed somewhere around 1715, which has to make you wonder whether we're even really trying any more, and have reduced culture to the level of that Monty Python sketch. You say you're an artist? Fair enough, somebody has to do it, might as well be you. "No more heroes, No more Shakespearos..." [2]

Now, I have always loved the sound of a piano. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I never had access to a piano or lessons as a child. Who knows, perhaps by now I could have been Keith Jarrett, effortlessly spinning improvisational magic before rapt audiences, or at the very least that bloke down the pub who can vamp his way through "Roll Out The Barrel" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'". You hum it, son, I'll play it.

I did have trumpet lessons, briefly, at school. It didn't work out, as there was a monumental clash of assumptions. The peripatetic tutor who visited the school was a dry old stick, who had never heard of, never mind listened to, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. He liked scales, proper embouchure, and sight reading. We played tunes which were supposed to be helpfully familiar, but which, in turn, I had never heard in my life. "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes", for God's sake! I was an eleven-year old whose exposure to music was limited to the BBC Home Service on the radio and my father's taste in jazz. Plus my mother's cousin happened to be married to Ivan "Buzz" Trueman, a trumpeter with the Edmundo Ros orchestra, a popular Latin-American dance-band combo in the 1950s and 60s. To me the trumpet was a hot instrument, but trumpet lessons were dull, dull, dull. I gave it up.

My mistake, really. It is one of the misperceptions that a generation of self-taught popular musicians has brought about, that true music-making is a spontaneous, expressive thing, a million miles from the academy and those baffling black dots and squiggles on paper. I am a moderately competent self-taught guitarist, and capable of making a thoroughly pleasing and convincing noise on pretty much any instrument you put in my hands (it's easy: you blow there and move your fingers up and down here). But I am no musician.

As consumers of music, we tend to be obsessed with music's expressive power, and admire those musicians whose improvisatory skill and individuality of voice go beyond the bounds of "mere" musicality. But, at heart, all music is about learning complex patterns which you can repeat, again and again, reliably and accurately. The basic key to music-making is sticking to the plan.

A musician is someone who has thoroughly learned to play the patterns on their instrument, can understand and remember (or read) the precise patterns they are asked to play for a particular piece of music, and is able to stick to the plan. The plan may be very rigid (a Beethoven sonata) or it may be quite loose ("twelve bars in we shift to A flat, Miles solos until he lifts a hand, then McLaughlin does that crazy guitar thing he's been working on") but the plan is what makes music out of merely pleasant noises.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that a decent musician is a form of human computer. You feed them a program in the form of musical notation, and out comes music. Same every time. It's a marvel. One of the people who used to work in my office used to be a music teacher and could sight read. Put sheet music in front of him and away he went, "Pom pom-pom POM pom-pom POM!" It made me laugh out loud with envy and admiration every time.

Some years ago I was offered a used electric piano at a bargain price – a proper 88-key job – and snapped it up, ostensibly to give our kids the chance to figure out whether or not it might be something they'd like to learn. But my secret plan was, finally, to learn to play the piano. I would be Keith Jarrett, or more probably that guy down the pub.

What I discovered was quite disturbing. It was then that I truly realised: playing the piano is impossible. The idea of using one hand to play one set of notes and the other hand to play quite another set of notes is ludicrous. It can't be done; I know, I've tried. It doesn't help being left-handed, I'm sure, but even so... The sheer improbability of being able to split yourself into two independent halves, each performing different, complex finger-wiggling moves at the same time... It's self-evidently impossible.

This discovery led to some dark thoughts. Had some world-historical fraud been perpetuated on us, and how? Multi-track recording? Mirrors? Invisible accomplices? Surgery? Hypnotism? It seemed unlikely. Besides, I had seen (or thought I'd seen) people playing a piano. It appeared that, effortlessly, these magicians really did do one complicated thing with one hand, whilst doing something equally complicated with the other. The image of Russ Conway's habitual evil smile and wink to camera, as he tinkled away on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, haunted and mocked me. The bastard didn't even have a full complement of fingers!

No, I had to come to the humbling conclusion that – unlike, say, becoming Prime Minister – playing the piano required years of dedication, effort, and, yes, that proverbial practice, practice, practice; ideally reinforced by some degree of talent, and proper lessons given at a young age by either a saint or a sadist (opinions seem to differ). And, yes, that sometimes a dog is too old to learn new tricks.

If one wanted to derive some "thought for the day" moral out of all this, I think it would have to be something like: that the world shrinks catastrophically, from a cultural point of view, when we judge and limit others by our own capacities, and that such a lowest common denominator society would be one without the possibility of Bach or, indeed, Angela Hewitt. "Don't bother with that piano-playing thing, mate, I've tried it and it's impossible!" Perhaps that's where we already are, and why the gulf between a  rebarbative "high" culture and an analgesic entertainment industry is so vast. There may also be a useful lesson here, about not quickly passing negative judgements on the artistic productions of others, who may (whisper it) be more talented, more committed, more advanced in achievement than we are. A little humility goes a long way when confronted with the impossible.

And notice how strenuously I have avoided making my favourite dud joke, some variation on the old Ariel soap powder slogan ("Impossible? No, biological!"), despite the overwhelming temptation. Musicological? Oops.
"Photography is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult."
Edward Steichen
 1. Hewitt's interpretation, which was thrilling, is not on the Web, but try these two versions of the gigue from English Suite no. 2: a nice but routine run-through from András Schiff, and a totally bonkers version from Glenn Gould. Amazing stuff.
2. The Stranglers, of course: "No More Heroes".


Doug Plummer said...

I call myself an adult onset musician, in that I only picked up an instrument in my mid fifties, a piano of all things. I could not get over how, if I started a scale on a different key, I had a different feeling. I literally could create feelings out of thin air, and I was hooked. I taught myself to read music from Bach's Prelude in C, and I've worked my way through a few of the easier preludes in the WTC. I like the Angela Hewitt version, but she takes some liberties that I take issue with. At last count I have 6 versions of the Well Tempered Clavier; the João Carlos Martins version is my favorite.

I'm really a folk musician though, and I play accompaniment for contra dances and I go to several Irish and Quebecois sessions a week. There is nothing better than the connection and community you make through making music together --I now play guitar and bouzouki, more portable session instruments where mostly I whack chords. I'm a guy in my mid-sixties, and I'm making friends and growing a rich social life. That's unheard of, normally. It is an entirely doable enterprise to acquire music in old age. Like in any creative endeavor, it's about having no shame about sucking, until you don't.

Mike C. said...

Hi, Doug, great to hear from you! It's very pleasing to discover that some veteran readers are still finding something of value here -- I stopped enquiring after commenters who had stopped commenting since two of them turned out to be dead...

I love the idea of an "adult onset musician". If only. I gave up the guitar a couple of years ago when I started to develop arthritis in some finger joints, possibly the result of the contortions of a self-taught left-hander playing a right-hand-strung guitar. I also love the idea of a guy in his mid-sixties making friends and growing a rich social life. Unheard of, indeed. But I suspect you may also be a far more likeable guy than some of us...

But yes, "having no shame about sucking, until you don't" is the way to go. Even blog-writers and photographers get better after ten years of practice, practice, practice. I have to hope my move to the Dark Side of digital imaging hasn't lost me too many readers. Stick around, people, I can only get better!


Zouk Delors said...

'Perhaps that old concept of "sin" – which is something I think we mainly feel we've grown out of as a society'

... only to be replaced by that modern concept of 'inappropriateness'?

The TRUTH why modern music is awful:

Thomas Rink said...

I'm a big music lover, music has always been with me since my early teenage years. Unfortunately, I'm absolutely non-musical, hardly able to strike a note or keep stroke. But that certainly does not afflict my enjoyment of attending a concert or listening to a record!

Listening to Bach's music often helps me to focus my mind. I don't know which property sets it apart from most other music in this regard, though.

Best, Thomas

Martyn Cornell said...

I’ve always got enormous enjoyment out of music, but I’ve always known I don’t possess the physical dexterity to play an instrument, and others have made it clear that I can’t sing ... fortunately there’s no actual talent needed to appreciate Bach, or Miles Davis, or Planxty.

Andy Sharp said...


I once asked a colleague (a music teacher) what was the most difficult instrument he played. Having both hands doing different, but coordinated, things at the same time is tricky but when you're playing the organ both feet are joining in as well.

b.t.w I remember the harpist Osian Ellis performing in Balliol. He was doing a Welsh thing that involved singing one melody while playing a completely different one on the harp. Of course, the melodies were chosen to wind around one another, so they weren't as completely different as they might have been, but astonishing none the less.

Huw said...


The iPad is definitely becoming more common: I saw the Brodsky Quartet perform a series of concerts over a weekend in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (incredible on so many levels) and the first violinist used an iPad controlled by a foot pedal (?).

I was a very bad bass player in a very bad band in my sixth-form days (all of which should be compulsory) and wish that I had continued to a least a level of competence. I bought a nice guitar for my 40th birthday which is woefully underused.


PS And great to hear from Doug!

Mike C. said...


That's interesting about the iPad, I hadn't noticed it before!

Yes, I must admit I thought playing badly in bad bands *was* compulsory! I sang and played guitar for a bit at university, and discovered how easily the inner show-off can be released from within a natural introvert. I've never quite lost the fantasy of rapturously-received performance: maybe this blog is a pale shadow of same...