Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Loud Liszt

I recently had the privilege of serving on the piano jury for the Los Angeles International Liszt Competition. I heard some tremendous performances of individual works by Franz Liszt. I also heard more loud, percussive, and bereft-of-purpose playing than I have ever heard before. As one of my fellow colleagues on the jury aptly observed--via Shakespeare--so much of the playing we heard was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What is it that leads so many young pianists and their teachers to assume that when one plays Liszt, one must play as fast, as loud, and as "bangy" as one can play? Especially when there were a few competitors there who understood the underlying meaning and conception, not only of good music making in general, but of what goes into an artistic performance of music by Liszt. This is a puzzle for me, primarily because many of the teachers of these students in question are nationally known. In fairness, I would never wish for my teaching to be judged by the way some of my students play. Yet, there seemed to be such a consistency of unmusical noise making, albeit on a very high technical level, that it leads me to question the direction that piano playing is taking these days.

I can only speculate. Perhaps the pace at which our existence as a culture moves is so fast, so technologically driven, so impersonal, so competitive, and so oblivious to tradition and beauty that there is little time to stop, reflect, listen, and contemplate the more substantive aspects of what it means to be an artist. Liszt himself understood this, and at age 35 left the rigors of a concert career--a unique career in the annals of music that could have continued unabated for decades--and chose to settle in a provincial city in Germany that was not necessarily well known for a high level of culture. Liszt gave up all the glitter that so many young pianists today seek after, and chose instead to compose, teach, conduct, and reflect. All of this takes time and determination of purpose.

Perhaps this is what our students need: Time. Time to practice, listen, read, experience life, engage in fruitful conversation, learn about the larger issues of life, and to find their own place in sustaining a meaningful culture. Of course, what I am expecting from these young thoroughbreds is a maturity that only comes with age. Perhaps one might design a competition that was open only to those who are age 30 and above, and a competition that includes not only adjudicated performances, but also conversation about beauty, aesthetics, and the meaning of tradition and culture.

How boring and archaic...Oh well.

To everyone: Don't play Liszt unless you give his music the same care and sensitivities that you would give the music of Beethoven or Mozart.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Doom of Men

In his epic novel Lord of the Rings, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien put forward a view of history that seems out of step with the perspectives of this post-modern age. Most current thinking seems to assume that progress is not only possible, but inevitable, due in part to our advances in science, technology, education, and knowledge in general. Our faith in these advances is everywhere evident in the culture. Our politicians, social activists, and intellectual leaders all seem to embrace this faith with the fervor of the Enthusiasts from the Second Great Awakening in 19th century America.

Our assumptions about the past and the future hinge upon this faith in inevitable progress. It is common for commentators, specialized experts, and other talking heads to speak with glowing praise about how far our culture has come in terms of human rights and democratic practice, therapeutic prescriptions for personal happiness and fulfillment, and the educational solutions proffered for the continuing struggles of class and race. Our leaders assure us that we have come a long way from the injustice of the past, and that any continuing effects of that injustice exist only because some people have not yet embraced these enlightened ways of thinking. Given more time, more education, and the passing of the older generations, our culture will finally enter into a period of peace and justice that will lay to rest the titanic struggles of humankind to achieve this millenial bliss.

This view of history is not without its detractors. Some observe that this utopian paradigm is the latest version of 19th century socialist thought that began with the French Revolution and continued in the works by Engel and Marx. Others reject the notion of inevitable progress by embracing an apocalyptic vision of history based on a specific and fantastic reading of prophetic literature from the Holy Scriptures.

What Tolkien communicated in his fiction was a view of history that contained a fundamental paradox; one that stemmed from his devout Christian faith and his knowledge and experience of history. For Tolkien, history had a purpose and progressed toward an ultimate goal according the to will of God. That ulitmate goal was the eschaton, the last judgement, the affirmation of Christ's everlasting kingdom that would have no end. But due to the presence of human sin, much that was formerly good has been marred, and even the strivings of men against that sin, though commanded by God and undergirded by His grace, take on the effects of that marring, and there appears a long, slow march toward defeat. Tolkien's own experience at the Battle of the Sommes in France during WWI seemed a crucible for this paradoxical view of history. God reigns victorious through Christ; man's efforts to follow God in Christ are tainted by the continuing effects of human sin.

What Tolkien captured in his writings was that men must fight to preserve that which is good in their culture and community, but they cannot do so without being affected by that fight. Just as Frodo bore the burden of the One Ring and was changed by his quest to destroy it, so man, too, cannot avoid the lingering effects of sin in his quest to follow after God in Christ. And the paradox lies in the promise of God in Christ to destroy sin and death, while not destroying the reality that the Christian must endure sin and death on his way to God. If a man looks only upon the short-term, he may see only a defeat. But if a man stands back and appropriates the creedal promise that Christ's kingdom shall have no end, that man may task himself and set his face toward accomplishing his part in the kingdom of God.