Is there anything more boring than virtuosity?
I mean, when you're young and you first make that ill-advised decision to seriously dedicate yourself to your instrument, hearing someone with superhuman technique is thrilling beyond belief. Also daunting and depressing, for sure, but mostly thrilling. And chops envy is often the only thing keeping you going in the practice room, because honestly, why else would you voluntarily spend countless tedious hours drilling scales and patterns and those godawful Hanon and Czerny exercises if you didn't desperately want to be more impressive than your peers? Yeah, yeah, "passion for music," whatever -- we are talking about kids here. And kids whose music-making takes place within the constraints of long-established, adult-approved institutions, at that.
But at a certain point in your musical development, you come to realize that technique is a means to an end, not an end in itself. You become aware that there's no such thing as objectively, universally "good" technique -- you might need one set of skills to excel at one type of music, but other musics present completely different technical challenges. You also realize that music that requires the performer to clear large and obvious technical hurdles is not always better than music that seems easier to play. You learn that the flashiest elements of virtuosity -- like the ability to play very fast with a lot of accuracy -- are not necessarily the most important, and that subtlety and nuance are both more meaningful and more elusive. You recognize that musicians that have developed a highly idiosyncratic and individual technique (i.e., musicians that play "the wrong way") are often playing the right way for them -- their unorthodox approach might actually be perfectly suited to their individual voice as a musician.
At least, I hope you come to realize these things. Not everyone does. When you've devoted a significant portion of your formative years to the single-minded pursuit of virtuosity, it can be dispiriting to learn that better technique doesn't make you a better musician. But you can't actually become a for-real grown-up musician unless you are willing to suck it up and admit to yourself that chops aren't everything. Otherwise, you will continue to live your life believing truly perverse things -- things like "Theolnious Monk wound have sounded better if his technique had been more like Oscar Peterson's" or "Buckethead is a better guitarist than Albert King" or "Charles-Valentin Alkan's music is more meaningful than Erik Satie's."
Because the reality is, a pageant of virtuosity for its own sake is skullfuckingly tedious. For anyone who has a post-adolescent relationship with music, fearsome chops alone don't impress, not even as pure athleticism. To make an impact, the virtuoso also has take genuine risks, and all all that skill has to be in the service of real musical expression.
When John Coltrane first recorded "Giant Steps," that was thrilling because it was new and daring and original. The energy of discovery is all over that recording, and it remains vivdly etched into the tracks even if you weren't born until decades after Coltrane recorded it. But nobody cares how deftly you negotiate "Giant Steps." These days, everyone and their dog can play over "Giant Steps" changes. It doesn't mean anything anymore -- especially not when it's coming from someone who has nothing of his own to say other than, "Look, Ma, I can nail 'Giant Steps'!"
Same goes for Gaspard de la nuit, Rach 3, the Liszt Transcendental Etudes and all the other legendary finger-busters -- nobody cares. Seriously.
Look, I know this repertoire is fearsomely difficult and you have dedicated your entire life to getting to the point where you can credibly negotiate these works, but in case you hadn't realized (because you were too busy practicing) -- lots of people can and do play the shit out of this stuff. I don't care if you are even more flawless and even more polished than the currently reigning heavyweight champion of polished flawlessness, this stuff is just not impressive anymore. Even if your sole objective as a musician is to blow us away with your l33t skillz, the only way you can actually accomplish that is by doing something we haven't heard done a million times before.
The question of the perception of virtuosity and its relationship to new music was very much on my mind during two recent concerts: an all-Rzewski recital by pianist Lisa Moore last week, and an all-Meredith Monk concert by The M6 earlier tonight. Monk and Rzewski are both members of an increasingly endangered species -- the composer-virtuoso. But they are both the best kind of virtuosos -- in fact, their virtuosity is the only kind that still actually registers as such, because their respective musical languages involve techniques that only the composers themselves and a handful of others in the world have mastered. This also makes it extremely daunting for anyone to attempt a piece by Rzewski or Monk, because the composers themselves are such fearsome and authoritative performers of their own works.
I'll have more to say about those two concerts -- both of which were extraordinary, and virtuosic in non-boring ways -- in a couple of follow-up posts.